What FDR Can Teach Obama About American Leadership

The poll numbers are undeniable. Disillusioned by Afghanistan and Iraq, focused on domestic concerns, Americans increasingly want their nation to reduce its global footprint and stop trying to solve the problems of others. A cautious, poll-driven President Obama responds predictably, defining America’s global interests more narrowly and eschewing calls to address humanitarian horror, protect human rights and advance freedom far from home.

History, however, provides a useful alternative to a self-perpetuating cycle of public isolationism and global retrenchment. In the late 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt faced much the same public sentiment amid mounting dangers in Europe and Asia and responded in a markedly different way. Rather than echo public opinion, FDR launched a long-term effort to educate Americans about the international dangers, making clear that the United States could not remain untouched by them. Obama would be well-advised to revisit that history in light of today’s global chaos.

To be sure, Obama would face no easy challenge. “Currently,” Pew’s Center for the People and the Press wrote in December, “52% [of Americans] say the United States ‘should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.’ Just 38% disagree with the statement. This is the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. ‘minding its own business’ in the nearly 50-year history of the measure.” Americans, Pew continued, believe America’s power and prestige are declining, it’s losing respect around the world, and it plays a less important and powerful role as global leader than a decade ago.

Moreover, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found in 2012, “Americans are now less likely to support the use of force in many circumstances and are more likely to endorse spending cutbacks, including on defense.” Most ominously, “Millennials (those age eighteen to twenty-nine) are at the front edge of these evolving attitudes toward certain key aspects of foreign policy.”

U.S. retrenchment, however, is helping to make the world a more dangerous place for America. With America’s withdrawal, Iraq is descending into chaos as the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as ISIL or ISIS) overtakes one city after another in its march to Baghdad – enough that even Obama has been mulling a military response. With America on the sidelines, Iran and its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, continue to assist Syria’s Bashar Assad as he slaughters his own people in a desperate effort to retain power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, after laughing off Obama’s efforts to “re-set” U.S.-Russia relations, is growing increasingly aggressive in his region and reckless toward the United States, using his military to buzz our warships and fly near our coast. China flexes its muscles across the Pacific, threatening U.S. allies.

Facing an increasingly threatening global scene and isolationist public, what’s a U.S. president to do?

It was 1937 and Germany, Italy, and Japan had signed treaties with one another and telegraphed their aspirations. By then, Hitler had withdrawn from the League of Nations, ordered military conscription, re-entered the Rhineland and rearmed dramatically, violating the Versailles Treaty and other post-war global agreements. Mussolini had annexed Ethiopia, and Japan had invaded Manchuria and China.

In October, FDR traveled to Chicago, where Tribune publisher Robert McCormick was fanning Midwestern isolationism. FDR had, he told his audience, deliberately chosen Chicago to speak on a subject of “definite national importance.”

In an increasingly interdependent world, he began, no nation could wall itself off from global upheavals. As president, he was “compelled” to look ahead, as were all Americans: “The peace, the freedom and the security of 90 percent of the population of the world is being jeopardized by the remaining 10 percent, who are threatening a breakdown of all international order and law.”

What was true of medicine, FDR concluded, was true of global affairs: “When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.” As FDR explained, the United States must prepare for war and, if war came overseas, recognize that America would have to act rather than merely hope for the best.”

FDR’s “quarantine speech” proved predictably controversial, so much so that he later mused to speechwriter Sam Rosenman, “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead, and to find no one there.”

But FDR soldiered on for the next few years, confronting the isolationists and preparing America for what he considered inevitable – U.S. involvement in a global conflagration that would determine freedom’s fate.

We’ve reached a similar point. U.S. retrenchment is not a viable option in the face of today’s mounting chaos. President Obama needs to recognize reality – and then make his case to a wary America.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.


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