At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. and the world experienced the highs and lows of the industrial revolution. Innovations such as the automobile and electrification, accompanied by societal advancements such as women’s suffrage and public education, were creating a better quality of life for a growing middle class.
The U.S. was stepping onto the world stage and exhibiting its newfound prosperity by exerting its newfound influence. It is no coincidence that America’s rise as a world superpower coincided with its willingness to engage in world affairs. While isolationist tendencies dominated the early 1900s, two world wars forced a reluctant country to heed the call of duty. And whether or not by desire or design, at the end of World War II, the U.S. stood as an undisputed world power.
Within this context, Winston Churchill, an avid student of history and astute observer of the rise of America, forewarned a crowd at Harvard that “the price of greatness is responsibility.” After the war, the U.S. took up that mantle of responsibility by redirecting its fighting power to rebuilding power. Between the Marshall Plan and the creation of international institutions like NATO, the U.S. did more than just win a war and save the world from totalitarianism, it created a bulwark for democracy and human rights that has shaped history for the next half century.
Today, that bulwark seems to be eroding. International institutions appear outdated. Alliances seem frayed. Friendships feel strained. The international order the U.S. helped create after World War II seems unable or unwilling to deal with current problems. ISIS, the current iteration of a growing existential threat of radical Islamic terrorism, is only one example of the challenges of our day.
On a recent overseas trip, President Trump made waves by stating that NATO members need to live up to their fiscal obligations. Beyond the histrionic headlines, the truth is these institutions need to be updated, reformed and financially supported. But they should not be abandoned. NATO has unquestionably benefited European countries. NATO has unquestionable benefited U.S. interests. European allies should pay their share and U.S. taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize an unwillingness to do so. What’s the controversy?
Through international engagement during the 20th century, the U.S. became not only a superpower, it became an economic powerhouse. By defending our interests abroad, we have been able to protect and grow our economy at home. Our nation’s economy is the largest in the world because we wrote the rules for the 20th century. If the U.S. steps back now, other countries will eagerly step forward and they will write the rules of the global economy for the 21st century. The U.S. must not allow that to happen or we will be left out and then left behind.
Standing before the crowd at Harvard Yard, Churchill concluded his remarks with words that ring as true today as they did in 1943: “Here let me say how proud we ought to be, young and old alike, to live in this tremendous, thrilling, formative epoch in the human story, and how fortunate it was for the world that when these great trials came upon it there was a generation that terror could not conquer and brutal violence could not enslave.”
Derek B. Miller is the president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah. Previously he was chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert (R-Utah) and managing director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Follow him @DerekMillerUtah or on Facebook at DerekMillerUtah.