- By Mark R. KennedyMark R. Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
Although his own flame was extinguished far too soon, President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to freedom and his belief in America’s central role in carrying the torch for liberty should shine as brightly as ever before in today’s increasingly multipolar world. However, factions in both political parties have attempted to shy away from this great responsibility, to the detriment of the nation’s and the world’s security.
In his landmark book, Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger outlined the two main competing visions for American foreign policy: Theodore Roosevelt’s view that America should pursue its national interest and Woodrow Wilson’s belief that America has an obligation to help others, but only in unison with the international community.
Kennedy’s political gift was in reconciling these seemingly opposing views. To adherents of Roosevelt, he emphasized that it is in America’s national interest to support freedom, noting, "If men and women are in chains, anywhere in the world, then freedom is endangered everywhere."
While clearly conscious of the role of the United Nations, Kennedy worried aloud in his inaugural address of it morphing into "merely a forum for invective" and reassured Wilsonian foreign-policy adherents that their concerns would not be neglected, saying, "We stand for freedom. That is our conviction for ourselves. That is our only commitment to others."
Yet as clear as this statement appears, there is no doubt that JFK understood that even though Americans were "the watchmen on the walls of world freedom," it remained essential to "exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint." The promotion of peace, as well as making clear the willingness to use force to do so, was a hallmark of Kennedy’s foreign policy.
One can only speculate as to whether America’s role in Vietnam would have escalated had Kennedy lived to serve the rest of his term. Yet there should be little doubt that Kennedy would not recognize an America that looks to Russia to solve unrest in Syria and counts on France to reject a proposed agreement with Iran as being too permissive to the totalitarian regime.
It was never lost on JFK that America is freedom’s home and defender. Nor had the men and women who wear the cloth of our country forgotten that when America was attacked on 9/11. They serve as an example of what America can achieve when motivated by a common purpose and ideal.
As we transition to a more multipolar world we must recognize that this does not lessen America’s obligation to lead — powers jockeying for position have historically sparked more conflict, not less. Rather, it only makes forming global consensus more difficult just as it becomes more important.
With that in mind, Kennedy’s inaugural address provides a twofold prescription for today. America must remain strong in the face of its enemies: "We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed." Yet this military strength must not interfere with the need to forge "a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind."
As we remember his life, ask yourself the same question JFK asked a half-century ago: "Will you join in that historic effort?" I believe Americans will continue to say yes for decades to come.
(Editor’s note: The author, Mark R. Kennedy, is not related to John F. Kennedy.)