- 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.
As I sailed aboard the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis from Honolulu to San Diego with my Navy pilot son, I could not help but be haunted by the concern that America’s foreign policy has lost its mooring and will require all hands on deck to bring it back to its rightful berth.
On the first evening of my journey, we were treated to a beautiful sunset from the vantage point of “vulture’s row,” atop the aircraft carrier’s tower. As sailors, each with his or her function on the ship signified by a brightly colored jersey, scurried around preparing for flight operations, we alternately observed the orchestra on deck and the sun slowly descending, first into the clouds and then below the horizon.
The sun going down caused me to wonder whether its passage was emblematic of the sun setting on the era of American leadership in the world. The week at sea, without communication with the outside world, provided relief from the fractious presidential campaigns, filled with equal amounts of scorn for both past American attempts to promote security and our more recent negligence to do so. Since the campaign season seemed to reflect a race over who would detach the United States most from world on immigration, trade, and global leadership, I wondered whether our ability and willingness to lead would survive.
Then the winds came up, and the waves along with them. I have never felt more wind in my face than I did while observing the F/A-18 Hornet combat jets neatly arranged in a V-shape on the bow of the ship. I had to pull off my glasses and put them in my pocket for fear they would blow off my face. That evening we were treated to a gentle rocking. Even though the ship was big enough to hold over 5,000 sailors and aviators, along with lethal weapons of war, it still nodded to the impact of tropical storm Ivette, with gusts up to 60 miles per hour.
As we awoke at “zero dark thirty,” in the middle of the night, to the excessively cheery voice of the executive officer, it was clear that the mighty craft had taken little notice of the storm’s gales and proceeded apace to its destination. My question, prompted by the sunset the night before, came back into my mind, mingled with the hope that just as the Stennis sailed through the tempest to reach San Diego, so too would America’s ability and will to lead cruise through today’s caustic, isolationist, protectionist windstorms.
The first task for a carrier preparing to launch aircraft off its catapult is a Foreign Object Debris walkdown, during which the ship’s crew walks the entire deck, shoulder to shoulder, searching for any loose bolts or screws that could get sucked into a turbine and cause significant damage. One errant fragment could render a mighty jet, however powerful in action, inoperable. For the United States to regain its mojo, it must pick up and discard a few foreign objects that, if allowed to entrench themselves in our political discourse, could disable our ability to deliver peace and prosperity for Americans and our friends.
We passed the USS Theodore Roosevelt as we arrived in San Diego. The ship’s namesake pulled the United States out of its isolationist past and onto the world stage by launching the Great White Fleet, counseling that the path to peace was to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appears to have missed the part about speaking softly. Today’s global unrest suggests that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton lost the stick during her time as Secretary of State. Both of them represent “foreign objects” to America’s leadership tradition.
With the emergence of the Islamic State, tensions in the South China Sea on the rise after China’s rejection of an international tribunal’s ruling, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Russia continues to occupy Crimea, risks to global harmony are on the rise. World events are likely to force the United States to remove its foreign objects in order to attract better allies and find its “big stick” again.
Those leaders for whom the Navy has named aircraft carriers serve as examples to be followed. Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush are all guides to whom Republicans should look for instruction on how to lead in a way that attracts others to America’s side. Harry Truman, John Stennis, and Carl Vinson serve as guides to Democrats looking to rebuild America’s stick.
As the mighty Stennis pulled into the narrow San Diego harbor channel, it needed tugboats to guide it to the dock for a joyous “welcome home” from family members and friends. No matter who prevails in November, pushing America out of its inward tailspin will require a lot of tugging. We must all stand shoulder to shoulder to throw foreign objects overboard and get America’s ship of state back on course.
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