Opinion: The debate nobody heard


Published: 07-06-2024 7:00 AM

John T. Broderick, Jr is the former Dean of UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law and the founder of the Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership and Public Policy and lives in North Andover, Mass.

Isolationism has an appeal. It always has. It seems a safe place. It requires less around-the-clock leadership, less money, less risk, less worry, and less sacrifice. Its origin is often fear, complacency, fatigue, or overindulgent self-confidence. Many times it’s an amalgam of all of those. But it’s always a mistake.

It was very prominent in the run-up to America’s involvement in World War II. The German threat, after all, was to Europe and not our continent or our way of life. Besides, we had an ocean separating us from Germany. That would guarantee enough protection, we thought.

Franklin Roosevelt’s 1940 re-election campaign steered clear of America’s direct involvement in the war and before the polls closed that fall he promised that America’s boys would not be sent to fight on foreign soil.

The depression had taken its toll and the New Deal programs were taking hold and restoring livelihoods to families, farmers, small businesses, and manufacturers alike. The country’s economy was off life-support and growth and prosperity were slowly but surely returning. Why take a chance by confronting Germany? It wasn’t our war anyway nor was it our responsibility.

We tip-toed ever so slowly and reluctantly around American involvement with our Lend-Lease program with England. But that’s where we drew the line. That’s where we stopped. Then Pearl Harbor brought the war to America. Isolationism hadn’t worked. We paid an incalculable price in the loss of life and treasure.

In the latest presidential debate, I heard the siren song of isolationism in Trump’s remarks dressed up as “America First.” He even mentioned the ocean that separated us from Europe. Their worries are theirs, not ours he implied. Putin is not after us. Let him take Ukraine if he wants. Not our problem. Stay out of the international climate accord and disband NATO if they don’t pay up. We don’t need NATO. We can go it alone.

Biden knows the complexity of a world Trump doesn’t even see and he knows how to lead to advance American interests around the globe. He does it every day. He knows that our security at home requires a strong and engaged America with a robust foreign policy. He expanded NATO with the addition of Finland and Sweden, he has steadfastly worked with Ukraine and our NATO allies to halt Russian incursion, he signed defense pacts with South Korea and Japan and strengthened our ties with the Philippines to give China and North Korea second thoughts about invading Taiwan or causing calamity on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.

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The real debate the other night was not the one everyone talked about. It was not about who scored performance points. It was far more important than that. It was the debate nobody seemed to hear. It was really about who had the character, intelligence and global experience to keep America secure by advancing our national security interests abroad in close collaboration with our indispensable allies.

It was about experience and wisdom; it was about honesty. There is no ocean expansive enough to protect an America in smug retreat from its rightful and respected role in the world. Trump doesn’t understand that. His ignorance is an existential threat to all of us.

If you doubt that, just ask the families of those beloved Americans who lost their lives on 9/11. Oceans and denial don’t work. They never have. They never will. Debate performance points don’t protect America. But wisdom born of experience might.

America’s role in the world is never easy but it is unique. It is essential to world order. We need to embrace it and not walk it back. America First should never mean America alone.