Anyone born after 1980 may find it difficult to imagine it now, but there was a time in the not too distant past when the United States was viewed as the conscience of the world. The moral authority America wielded on the global stage was painstakingly acquired over decades and was largely the work of four presidents. Sadly, because of the efforts of two, little of that once-abundant resource still remains.
After World War I, Woodrow Wilson made it America’s mission to fight colonialism around the world, believing that imperial powers were the source of all the world’s pain. Only by promoting democracy, Wilson argued, could the world become a place of peace and justice. He used American wealth and power to convince world leaders, who were too preoccupied by their own concerns after the war, to join the U.S. in a fight for global democracy, self-determination, and universal human rights.
Twenty years later, during the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt continued Wilson’s work. He helped establish the Atlantic Charter, which was a declaration of shared values and common goals among Western nations. Led by the United States, like-minded countries pledged to collectively promote the advancement of social welfare. Roosevelt died before the end of the war, but his legacy lived on as his followers laid the foundation for what would become the United Nations.
Recognizing that the war had destroyed Europe and left millions poor and suffering, Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, established a massive foreign aid program to rebuild the continent. Then he went one step further, pledging America’s resources to the cause of supporting the world’s persecuted peoples and promising to come to their aid whenever they were threatened by destructive political forces inside or outside of their borders.
Then, President John Kennedy stepped in to establish USAID and the Peace Corps. Sending young Americans around the world on missions of goodwill and public diplomacy, America used development and modernization projects to improve the lives of the world’s desperate. After decades of such measures, the United States became recognized the world over as a nation prepared to devote its own blood, sweat, and treasure to the task of securing and improving the lives of the needy.
These collective efforts, forged over the course of half a century, helped to establish a deep reservoir of goodwill for America that we as a nation were able to draw upon when we faced our own great crisis on Sept. 11, 2001.
After the world witnessed the Twin Towers coming down, a wave of global sympathy rose up for the U.S. unlike anything we as a nation had experienced before. The French newspaper Le Monde declared on behalf of the world that “We are all Americans.” Around the globe, people with tears in their eyes laid flowers at the gates of our embassies, held candlelight vigils, and donated millions in our name to the Red Cross. Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain ordered the playing of our national anthem in a public show of solidarity with the U.S. Even our enemies — Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran — offered their deepest sympathies and aggressive support.
Then, in the course of a decade, we squandered it all. The damage done by President George Bush’s War on Terror was never really undone despite his best efforts and the efforts of his successor. Viewing America through a suspicious new lens, countries never trusted the U.S. in the same way.
Today, our leaders do further damage to our reputation abroad with decisions to pull out of the climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, by closing our borders, and denying our friends in NATO. Calling the homes of our African allies “s---holes” certainly has not helped.
All the presidents who created the protective blanket of goodwill that Americans enjoyed for so many years recognized the strategic value of doing so. Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy knew that our good works abroad would establish tangible benefits that might someday need to be drawn upon.
When our leaders allow the British or the French or the Chinese to take the lead on critical international matters where we once led, they willingly forfeit the birthright we once all enjoyed. If, God forbid, the U.S. is once again visited by a crisis as huge as 9/11, we have to wonder whether we will have the goodwill abroad necessary to see us through.