Seventy years ago, when Franklin Roosevelt was dictating his “four freedoms” speech about the American interest in promoting liberty “everywhere in the world,” his aide Harry Hopkins interrupted him.
“That covers an awful lot of territory, Mr. President,” Hopkins said, “I don’t know how interested Americans are going to be in the people of Java.”
FDR shot right back. “I’m afraid they’ll have to be someday, Harry. The world is getting so small that even the people in Java are getting to be our neighbors now.”
On this, as on so many other things, FDR had it right. A globalized world is by now a familiar fact of life. Building walls or moats may sound appealing, but the future belongs to those who tend to their people and then boldly engage the rest of the world, near and far. That’s why I think NAFTA, whatever its faults, is of a piece with the American tradition of engaging the universe beyond our borders. There are, as we are often told, winners and losers in the global economy, and right now too many Americans are suffering. Far too many.
The answer to their plight — which is our plight, really, if you believe a democracy is the sum of its parts — lies not in isolationism but in the obvious need for renewed and relentless domestic investment in the lives of our people. To issue trade sanctions or lament global agreements misses the larger and more enduring problem. To compete we must be strong, and to be strong we must be healthy, educated and inspired to thrive.
We have been most prosperous when we have invested heavily in education at all levels, which is why a domestic Marshall plan is way overdue. We have been most prosperous when the public and private sectors cooperated to build things from interstates to the Internet. We have been most prosperous when leaders like FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson argued that the American story is one that is forever unfolding, not one that has already unfolded.
The real way to address issues of inequality is to begin at the beginning, at home, investing in ourselves. Then we can again compete and win, as FDR might say, everywhere in the world.