It may be tempting to view John Kerry’s two speeches on graduation weekends at Yale University 48 years apart as evidence of a five-decade flip-flop. As a graduating senior in 1966, Kerry delivered a Class Day speech calling on the United States to play a more circumspect role in global affairs. Last weekend, Kerry was back at Yale as secretary of state, this time warning of the dangers of being too circumspect.
A change of heart? Not really. Kerry was right on both occasions. The US domestic appetite for foreign engagement tends to wax and wane. This is in many ways a necessary corrective, a way of processing real-time experiences, but it can also swing too far in both directions. When Kerry addressed his classmates in 1966, dismay over the steady escalation of the Vietnam War was beginning to be felt. “What was an excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism,” the 22-year-old Kerry declared. Soon to be on active naval duty himself, the graduating senior warned against the “serious danger of assuming the roles of policeman, prosecutor, judge, and jury.”
This year, the nation is still absorbing the high cost of the Iraq war and an unexpectedly protracted engagement in Afghanistan. Public opinion polls show Americans’ tolerance for global engagement is at its lowest point in decades. So Kerry was wise to warn this year’s graduating seniors that America today is at risk not of being too involved in world affairs, but of being too detached. “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade,” he declared.
The Obama years have been a period of palpable retrenchment, whether because of war-weariness or out of a desire to focus on “nation-building at home.” Support for that retrenchment crosses party lines; the Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party exemplifies the “excess of isolationism” that Kerry is worried about.
Needless to say, the secretary of state is not advocating a reckless new policy of foreign intervention, and nothing in his speech at Yale on Sunday suggests that he has changed his mind about America’s decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a year and a half at the State Department seems to have intensified in his mind the consequences of US retreat from global leadership: Allies lose confidence in America’s reliability. Human rights and democracy are set back. Dictators and hostile rivals are emboldened. And ordinary men and women everywhere pay the price.
“I can tell you for certain, most of the rest of the world doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about America’s presence,” Kerry said in New Haven. “They worry about what would happen in our absence.”
It was a thoughtful and urgent message, made all the more significant by its messenger.