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12 November 2013updated 07 Sep 2021 9:58am

Why JFK would warn against US isolationism

JFK would be shocked that while there are fewer wars than ever before, there are also more refugees fleeing conflict than ever before; astonished that in a world where the average person is three times richer than 50 years ago, absolute poverty remains a

By David Miliband

I first encountered the memory of President John F Kennedy in 1978. I was a teenager spending a year with my parents in a suburb of Boston. The November of that year was marked by moving remembrance of the terrible day 15 years earlier, when Boston’s most famous 20th-century son had been gunned down in Dallas. It was also only ten years since the assassination of Robert Kennedy, so the wounds were especially raw.

Now, 50 years on, the half-century since JFK’s death gives us an opportunity for another reassessment: neither hagiography nor jealous backbiting. JFK’s life and presidency are a testament to two of the greatest causes known to progressive politics: the promise of democratic government at home and the optimism of international engagement abroad.

Go back to January 1957. A re-elected Dwight Eisenhower administration has settled into office just long enough for JFK to accuse it, in an article written for Foreign Affairs, of lassitude and timidity in the face of the great changes in the global environment. JFK named and defined this pivotal moment of change when he pointed to a “double pull” in international affairs.

On one side was the pull of political identity in new states and in newly decolonised states around the world. Kennedy saw that nationalism in its positive guise was a search for political freedom and self-development. On the other side of the double pull was the search for unity and co-operation among established states, which at the time – as it is today, for all its problems – was most noticeable in Europe.

“The task,” wrote Kennedy in his piece, “is to strike a realistic balance between the legitimate appeals to national self-determination which pulsate through the uncommitted world and the gravitational pulls towards unity which grow from the technological and economic interdependence of modern states.”

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The words are prophetic and profound. Fifty-six years on, the “double pull” deserves examination as a way of looking at the world. Kennedy talked as if identity and integration were two poles around which different parts of the world – developing and developed – would spin on separate axes. Yet today they are spinning around the same axis. Local identity on the one hand, global engagement on the other – and the relationship between them – is the issue of our time.

One response to these challenges is to try to protect our own interests and identity by rejecting global engagement and integration, be it economic, social or political.The left is fearful of the economics of globalisation; the right fears immigration and the social impact.

But where the isolationist spirit is fearful, JFK’s spirit was fearless. JFK recognised the economic pain associated with globalisation; he did not minimise the challenges of large-scale movement of people; he spoke himself of how the American people were tired of war and leery of foreign entanglement; but the logical and emotional pull of international co-operation was, for him, overwhelming.

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JFK would be shocked that while there are fewer wars than ever before, there are also more refugees fleeing conflict than ever before; astonished that in a world where the average person is three times richer than 50 years ago, absolute poverty remains a scar on the lives of 1.2 billion people, living on less than $1 a day; appalled that UN funding calls for humanitarian aid for the Syria crisis have only been 40 per cent funded.

Parts of the developing world are gripped by a cycle of civil conflict, poverty, corruption and resource stress; meanwhile, the industrialised world is hesitant about global engagement. If we are not careful, this will be the dangerous double pull of our times. Not a virtuous circle but a vicious one.

The alternative is contained in JFK’s own speeches. He glimpsed a future in which interdependence was the overwhelming fact of international affairs; and international engagement, respectful of the weak but led by the strong, was the only answer.

JFK did not live to see what he called “not just peace in our time but peace for all time”. But I think we can say with confidence that he would view the end of the cold war not as the end of the business of peace-making but the start. He would see that it creates new possibilities and requirements for international engagement, rather than diluting the need for it.

The 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination will evoke sadness, admiration and nostalgia. But the insights he developed for the 1960s remain relevant in the 21st century. They are a gift for our times.

This is an edited version of David Miliband’s Kennedy Memorial Trust lecture