Forget the Polls: It's the Wrong Time for a World-Weary America

By Myron Brilliant

A recent survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News found that nearly half of people polled want the United States to be less active in the world, while just 1 in 5 want to see a more active America.

It's the foreign policy equivalent of that old country song by the late, great Hank Cochran: "Make the World Go Away."

But that's the last thing Americans should want -- that is, if we want to see the U.S. economy regain the growth rates that marked the last half of the 20th Century, and the emergence of the United States as the world's largest economy.

In 2013, one-third of U.S. GDP came from trade -- the largest percentage ever. No doubt that percentage will rise in the years ahead. Take away rising trade revenue and the jobs associated with it, and the U.S. would slump back into recession.

Today, 38 million American jobs depend on trade. If that number comes as news to many of our fellow citizens, it's proof we've got to do much more to communicate the realities of our global economy.

And the reality is that trade will be a key driver of growth. Call it the flip side of our historic increase in productivity: There is simply no way for U.S. consumers to soak up the cornucopia of goods and services American workers and entrepreneurs can provide.

We know that's true in agriculture. American farmers have long since applied cutting edge agricultural science to achieve crop yields far in excess of what's needed for the American dinner table. We now feed the world -- and along the way American farmers have long since shed their provincial image to become savvy international exporters.

Substitute innovation for fertilizer, and it's the same for goods and services of all types. Outside our borders are markets that represent 80 percent of the world's purchasing power, 92 percent of its economic growth and 95 percent of its consumers -- and those markets will continue to grow.

In the next 20 years, more than two and a half billion people will move from subsistence living toward some semblance of a middle class lifestyle -- the largest improvement in living conditions in world history. The U.S. must be at the very center of this world-shaping development -- and we will be, if we understand the importance of trade and the public policies that make freer trade possible.

Russia and Ukraine; Iran's quest for the bomb; North Korea's nuclear missile rattling; ever-elusive peace in the Middle East; China and Japan jockeying for control of disputed territory: It's understandable why the American people would look at the world out our window today and have an overwhelming desire to pull down the blinds.

But we can't, not if we want to protect ourselves from all of the negative forces unleashed in the world that will ultimately harm us. A strong economy goes hand in hand with a strong foreign policy. They are not delinked concepts.

This latest poll suggests Americans may be signaling that they are war weary and fretful about the country being pulled into new conflicts. But the world is changing around us rapidly. If we don't engage, if we withdraw, others with different core values and economic agendas will fill the vacuum -- and our economy and position in the world will suffer.

But the case for international engagement is more than just a "bear any burden" message. The positive effect of growth through trade will resonate if our leaders, in government and out, bring home to us the benefits of involving ourselves even more deeply in the commercial life of international markets.

Right now, that hopeful message just doesn't mesh well with our dour national mood. We have to turn this around, out of necessity. And by temperament, too: Americans were never meant to be an inward looking people. We're outward facing, and always will be.

So read today's polls with a healthy grain of salt (of which the U.S. exports more than 500,000 metric tons per year). Yes, we may be world-weary today, but if someone takes the lead in explaining the imperative of international trade, Americans will follow in large numbers.

Myron Brilliant is Executive Vice President and Head of International Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

(AP Photo)

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