Anders Fogh Rasmussen served as Denmark’s prime minister from 2001, until he was elected secretary general of NATO from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of the book, “The Will to Lead—America’s Indispensable Role in the Global Fight For Freedom.”
We all have heroes. Personal heroes, like our parents, or inspirational figures whose words and actions lead us through dark times as a guiding flame. Three of my heroes are Presidents Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan — to whose wisdom I’m truly indebted. My father was a farmer who benefited immensely from Truman’s Marshall Plan. The dynamic Kennedy brothers ignited my personal interest in politics as a teenager. And Reagan provided me with an economic awakening that changed my belief system, as I experienced the power of Reaganomics during a stay at the University of Chicago in 1982.
Now, in light of the upcoming presidential election, the legacies of Truman, Kennedy and Reagan are more relevant than ever. These three giants who steered the world through times as challenging as our own. Three brave leaders who exemplified the power of U.S. engagement. Three pioneers of peace whom we have everything to thank for.
Today we need heroes of that capacity. The 45th president will, of course, be no superhero. But she or he must be ready to lead the world’s only desirable superpower, and make decisions that will define the future world order. A world in which the global village is on fire and the rules-based liberal order, which has served the cause of freedom so well for decades, is under attack.
That is why the world needs more American leadership. And yet, calls for isolationism are growing louder every day. Isolationism is a terrible philosophy, as history has proved time and again. When the United States shows the slightest reluctance to use hard power, autocrats and oppressors ruthlessly exploit the ensuing power vacuum. Just look at the spread of Islamic terror or the current catastrophe in Syria, where children are facing death and despair and millions of innocents are on the run from the chaos created by their cruel dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
That is why, to avoid similar disasters, the next president should look to my heroes, Truman, Kennedy and Reagan, for inspiration.
More than any other, Truman deserves credit for shaping the post-World War II world. He did so through his mastery of effective conduct. A true internationalist, he, besides launching the Marshall Plan, took the lead in establishing the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and NATO — institutions that have greatly enhanced the Euro-Atlantic dialogue and boosted economic growth and international security. In Truman’s eyes, the United States neither could nor should pull back and hide from the world: “If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world — and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation,” he famously said in his 1947 speech, announcing what would become known as the Truman Doctrine.
Kennedy embodied Truman’s doctrine and came to stand as a beacon for the free world with his energetic and eloquent communication, through which he overcame the greatest danger ever to threaten the West: the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Kennedy’s lesson for our generation is simple and powerful. The United States must clearly communicate its will to lead to the rest of the world. And he was very clear in his inaugural speech in 1961: “. . . we shall bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” You have rarely seen such a strong commitment to U.S. global leadership, acknowledging that weakness from the United States brings the danger of adversaries escalating otherwise controllable security situations.
More than two decades later, and on the foundation laid by Truman and Kennedy, Reagan brought the Cold War to a bloodless end through his conviction in the American Way. At my stay in Chicago I witnessed firsthand Reagan’s infectious optimism and firm belief in the global supremacy of freedom and capitalism. While lifting the U.S. spirit significantly at home, Reagan reached outstanding achievements with nuclear disarmament abroad, and with words sharper than bullets addressed Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin, 1987: “This wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.” Reagan was right, and soon after the wall turned to dust.
Truman, Kennedy and Reagan all showed a much-needed belief in U.S. exceptionalism. They believed that the United States has a special role to play and a responsibility to exercise global leadership in defense of freedom and democracy; that “America First” should mean the United States will be more engaged as the World’s First Defender, not less.
These are quintessential ideas to bring into the White House and communicate to the world. We, the freedom-loving peoples of the world, need genuine U.S. leadership. We need the next president to stand on the shoulders of giants and become our mutual hero of the future.