America Must Engage With the World: Column
Deputy Secretary of State
From war to trade, we're all in this together.
Americans who just went through a national election will share another common experience this week. We will gather family and friends, dish out the sweet potatoes, and reflect on our blessings and concerns, together.
We have profound disagreements at our dinner tables and in our politics about how to address complex global challenges. This division does not fall neatly along established lines — Democrat against Republican, liberal against conservative. Rather, the chasm is between those with very different ideas about how to manage the forces of change in the world today.
As an American diplomat, I have seen this debate cut powerfully across communities abroad as it has at home. The pace and scope of global change, fueled by technology and the unbridled flow of information, have fed a sense of chaos, confusion and growing vulnerability. They have led many of our fellow citizens to question the merits of being open to the world. Some worry that refugees pose a threat to their physical safety and immigrants to their identity, that free trade comes at their expense, that global engagement is more a burden than a benefit — encouraging free riders, embroiling us in other people’s problems, distracting us from investing at home. They have seen real wages stagnate; factory jobs disappear. It is little solace that in the aggregate, Americans are healthier, wealthier, better educated, and more secure than any previous generation. It is not truly progress if too many of our fellow citizens feel left out or left behind.
This argument, that we’re better off disengaging from the world, is totally understandable. But it underestimates the risks of turning inward while overstating the costs and downplaying the benefits of facing outward. It misses the reality that an increasing number of challenges are beyond the capacity of any one nation to address: epidemics that cut across frontiers, hackers that leap firewalls, terrorists that form global networks, aggressors that ignore borders, oceans that rise and a planet that warms. It denies the importance of a global order that keeps people, products, ideas and capital flowing freely with common rules, norms, and institutions.
Perhaps we can step back from the world, but it won’t step back from us — and all our citizens would be worse off.
Our companies would make less money and our people would have fewer jobs absent our global economic leadership. After all, 95% of the world’s consumers are beyond our shores. American engagement facilitates the free flow of goods and services and promotes a global business environment favorable to our products and our high standards for the protection of workers, the environment, and innovation.
Our soldiers would be dragged into more costly, unintended wars absent our alliances and partnerships. These networks allow us to share the burdens, however imperfectly, of deterring aggression, projecting our presence without permanent footprints, and increasing the capacity of our partners to provide for their own security.
Our citizens would be left more vulnerable absent our active participation in multilateral institutions like the United Nations, flawed as they may be. International cooperation stops conflicts, keeps the peace, safeguards the environment, prevents the spread of disease and the proliferation of weapons, and delivers lifesaving aid. It ensures that mail arrives across borders, cell phones work, patents are respected, and airplanes fly safely.
Our country would be denied the energy and ingenuity of new Americans absent our commitment to an open, secure immigration and refugee system. Inclusion and diversity are a source of strength, growth and renewal for our communities. More than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. As many as one of every four high-tech startups across America — and over half of U.S. startups worth at least $1 billion — were co-founded by immigrants. Imagine our country without them. No Google. No Tesla. No eBay. For that matter, no Albert Einstein or Madeleine Albright.
Now, the advocates of open societies have a lot of work to do to make their case real and relevant to the lives of our fellow citizens and responsive to their legitimate concerns.
That requires a combination of confidence and humility: defending the value of a globalized world while acknowledging the need to adapt our national and international policies so that progress is more broadly shared and creative disruption does not unravel our social and economic fabric. A practical, forward-looking agenda — a new inter-nationalism — can round off the rough edges of change and make it work for more of our citizens.
Democracy draws strength from honest, open dialogue; from our ability to listen, really listen, and learn from each other. As diplomats, this is our professional responsibility. As Americans, we must now make it our national priority. Thanksgiving is a good time to start.