Sunday, June 26, 2011


In its report on the Congressional vote on the Libyan aerial war, the Washington Post asks how should the national debt affect a foreign policy built on the idea of America “bearing any burden” for freedom? In 1961 John Kennedy could make this commitment with confidence. Not only was the United States the richest and most prosperous nation in history but the American people were convinced that a totalitarian foe was about to overcome us. The rhetoric of freedom unified Americans in the face of our most existential fears.

For all its soaring elegance, Kennedy’s rhetoric was hardly new; the nation had already borne a number of burdens for freedom. World War II, the Berlin Airlift, the Marshall Plan were all part of most Americans’ living memory. In the decade prior to Kennedy’s election, the US took on other burdens in the name of freedom. At least, freedom was what we were told was the reason even as US policy and operations became more about economic influence and control than actual democracy, freedom, or economic and social justice.

America’s infatuation with foreign freedom has existed since the nation’s birth. As the world’s first mass (in the context of its time) democracy, many Americans thought the US should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the revolutionary France (also our Revolutionary War ally), Central and South American independence movements of the early 19th century, and the European revolutions of 1848 but nothing came of any of that rhetoric. In the anti-Communist 1950’s, we talked of rolling back Communism in the name of freedom but never acted on those words. We knew our limits.

In 1961 Kennedy could plausibly commit to any burden. Given the perceived Soviet threat, he could do nothing less. His gift was to present that commitment in soaring rhetoric that appealed to Americans’ sense of history and purpose. But that rhetoric has locked his successors into a policy straitjacket, one that demands bearing burdens for freedom. No president can be perceived as weakening America’s freedom in the face of a foreign threat. That straitjacket constrains any president who might question the value of permanent war and military expenditure (Obama maybe, someday) and offers great license to those who believe in the eternal American Century (Cheney/Bush). Combined with an actual attack such as 9-11, the “bear any burden” rhetoric is highly appealing. That’s the genesis and about the last remaining support (along with “support our troops”) for America’s continuing wars.

Fifty years after Kennedy’s fine words, we are beginning to look at the military tab and wonder if the costs are worth it. Much of it has gone for dubious purposes, from supporting authoritarian regimes to failed weapons systems, little of it actually supporting anything that I would call freedom, which for most Americans means personal liberty and autonomy. The need for an overarching military power to counter the Soviet Union no longer exists (actually, the need was never as great as presented; see “missile gap”). These days the greatest threats to America arise from the rise of real economic competition, economic disparity and resource scarcity compounded by climate change. A worldwide military presence will not protect America from these threats.

When I hear the words “bear any burden” these days, I think of America realistically supporting economic and social justice, domestically and internationally. America is no longer the economic superpower it was when Kennedy spoke but, even diminished, America is a very, very rich nation. That wealth comes with the obligation to share, to assist others in attaining a secure life blessed by personal liberty and autonomy. That same thinking also leads me to look to America’s (and the world’s) wealthiest to share as well.

Today’s world offers plenty of burdens to be borne in the name of freedom. As one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, America has an important role to play in the name of freedom. Unlike 1961that role is neither exclusively American nor is it exclusively military.

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