John Kennedy and Illiberalism
May 29 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. Kennedy may be well known not only to Germans, but more widely in the democratic world for his June 26, 1963, speech where he defied Soviet communism by declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner.” But he deserves to be equally well known for his far-sighted approach to the transatlantic relationship.
The Trade Expansion Act of 1962 is a still unrivalled exercise to engage Europe—at the time, the five-year old, seven-country Common Market, now the 28-member European Union—as a partner to open global markets and create new rules for world trade. The Obama administration sought to build on Kennedy’s legacy with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) it launched with the EU in 2013, but it remained unconcluded when he left office and has not yet been revived by the Trump administration.
Not only does the Act explicitly link trade and the broader U.S. national interest, but it also couples trade liberalization with assisting workers impacted by greater economic openness. The preamble to the Act states its purpose to be “To promote the general welfare, foreign policy, and security of the United States through international trade agreements and through adjustment assistance to domestic industry, agriculture, and labor, and for other purposes.” These concerns about the proper division of labor among domestic, trade, and foreign policies to advance U.S. prosperity and security are once again front and center.
There are many other ways that Kennedy was a man ahead of his time: his understanding of the power of television and other media as tools to communicate with the public; the call in his American University commencement speech to “make the world safe for diversity,” heralding today’s multipolar world; and the nuclear test ban treaty agreed during his administration that launched a succession of arms negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Given the rise of populism in both the United States and Europe, perhaps Kennedy’s words that are of most enduring value are what he said about the idea of liberalism. Rather than seeing it as a political party orientation, in 1960 Kennedy defined it this way:
“If by a ‘Liberal,’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions…someone who believes that we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say that I’m a ‘Liberal.’”
These words capture the key economic principle that is at the heart of the rules-based, liberal international order: that prosperity comes through openness to change, a rejection of ideology, and engagement in the world.
Populism, and the illiberal values it serves, can be defeated. But it will take more of the self-confidence, forthrightness, and rhetorical verve that John Kennedy possessed to win the debate.