The nation’s halting and unsure response to the novel coronavirus and its disease, covid-19, brings this conundrum to a head. The crisis has made clear that the United States has welcomed the benefits of planetary interconnection but avoided the responsibilities that would help us weather the disasters that spread across the same global networks.
So how should the United States see its place in the world? Unfortunately, our presumptive leaders offer worn out positions in a familiar debate that pits the xenophobic nationalism of the Trump administration against the globalizers of the modern Democratic Party, keen to restore the “liberal postwar order” led by the United States.
But, there is a largely forgotten leader who might suggest a different path forward: Wendell Willkie. At another time of world crisis, during the first age of “America First” in the 1940s, this former Republican presidential candidate challenged Americans to confront a discomfiting idea: Our lives depend on the well-being of many millions across the world. How Americans reacted to that fact shaped postwar history. We are now returning to that dilemma. How we react will shape the human future.
“There are no distant points in the world any longer,” Willkie, the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, announced in his 1943 bestseller, “One World.” Air travel and a global war had shrank the planet and pushed Americans to see that they were inescapably enmeshed in the world. “Our thinking in the future,” he declared, “must be worldwide.”
The fastest-selling book in American history, according to some publishing experts, “One World” was the story of a globe-spanning trip Willkie made in the late summer and fall of 1942 with the cooperation of his former rival, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Forced to avoid occupied Europe, Willkie charted a path that began in Cairo, stopped in Ankara, Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Tehran, flew on to the Soviet Union and ended in Chongqing, China’s wartime capital. His journey took him to the battlefronts in Egypt, Russia and China and brought him face to face with Charles de Gaulle, Joseph Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek and countless ordinary people from Egypt to China.
Willkie flew during the darkest and most uncertain months of the war. The Nazis held Europe and much of North Africa. German armies had surged east into the Soviet Union and thousands of Americans were dying in the Pacific. Roosevelt viewed the trip as a public relations effort, designed to boost Allied morale. He wanted Willkie to give “some pep talks” to the leaders of neutral nations and unsure Allies. The gregarious and iconoclastic Willkie made the trip that and much more.
As he traveled, and as the fierce and urgent spectacle of a world at war unfurled around him, Willkie discovered that many saw the war as akin to a global American Revolution: a chance for peoples to free themselves once and for all from European colonial rule. Anti-imperialists in the Middle East and Asia demanded that Willkie hear their demands for self-determination.
If Americans could forgo the lures of “narrow nationalism” and “international imperialism,” he argued, they could support “equality of opportunity for every race and every nation.” He knew this would be a tough ask — many Americans said they wanted to avoid “foreign entanglements” (even though they had also largely accepted imperial dominion over Latin America and the Pacific). But Willkie gambled that the demands of fighting a world war against fascism would encourage Americans to see the rest of the globe as united. Shared sacrifice during war could then pave the way for a postwar sense of fraternity and cooperation.
In a connected world, Willkie argued, freedom and independence no longer meant going it alone. To safeguard their independence Americans had to embrace interdependence with the world at large. Freedom to act in a global society required a system of global rules and responsibilities. He argued that the United States should add a “declaration of interdependence” to its own founding documents to pledge itself to a world system fueled by cooperation and peace between peoples, not competition and war between nation states.
Critics then and since have scorned Willkie’s “one world” ideals as naive. He offered few specifics, policies or concrete plans, they have said, and his vision seemed to rest on the inevitability of technological unity. But Willkie wanted to change the way people thought about one another. Plans and policy were necessary, but true interdependence could only be won if people believed that their lives were enmeshed with others.
With his magnetic personality and his jaunty tales of garrulous comings and goings across the globe, Willkie tried to show his fellow citizens what it would feel like to assume equal, neighborly relations with the rest of the world. He wanted to build a popular constituency for capacious postwar plans. His goal, he said, was “to create a state of mind in this country. That’s what I’ve been working toward.”
Willkie eventually advocated for a more democratic version of what would become the United Nations — one that would require the United States to compromise some of its own sovereignty and power for the good of global society. Just before his life was cut short by a heart attack at 52 in October 1944, he demanded that the Allies convene a “Council of the United Nations” that would give equal representation to smaller nations and make it possible to dissolve imperial domination — rather than Roosevelt’s plan, which called for the United States and the other great powers to have ultimate control.
Smaller nations and anti-imperial nationalists, Willkie argued, were determined not to let “three or four great powers to continue to dictate their destiny.” And he was right. In time, anti-imperialists would use the UN to help throw off the yoke of colonialism, but as the Cold War turned most Americans away from Willkie-style idealism, the United States treated the world body as something of an afterthought. Valuable when it might help win consent for foreign policy goals, ignored or scorned when its treaties, agreements and conventions seemed likely to impinge on U.S. interests, the UN has often appeared to many Americans as little more than a glorified debating society.
But perhaps more significantly, Americans never really embraced the vision of “one world.” It’s become a bumper sticker cliche: little more than a call to “coexist” or “think globally.”
“Social distancing” is a strange and unfortunate term. A perfect paradox, it actually forces us to think about how we are all inevitably interdependent in just the way Willkie imagined. The very stuff of convivial life — handshakes and kisses on the cheek, dancing together or talking over a drink — now forbidden, reverberates through the many around us, not just in our families, neighborhoods and workplaces, but across our cities, nations and our one planet.
In the long run, maybe this contagion will have a sliver lining. It might unleash something Willkie’s journey and one world vision could not: a fresh bout of “worldwide” thinking. Who knows where that might lead? Seeing universal health care or taxes as an investment in all of us, maybe, or a reinvigoration of international law to protect labor rights and environmental standards? How about getting Americans to view the United Nations or the World Health Organization as institutions that are as valuable to our lives as the U.S. Marine Corps?
All this would require transformations in our state of mind, changes that have, all of sudden, become frightfully necessary. Willkie’s challenge to Americans three-quarters of a century ago remains alive for us today. The United States tried leading the world. We’ve spent the past few years trying to wall ourselves off from it. When will we choose to live in it, not only on our own terms, but on terms equal to its interdependent and perilous global reality?