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“Americans in large numbers want to pull back from the world stage,” ran the top headline in The Wall Street Journal this week. The story reported on a new national opinion poll finding that nearly half of those surveyed want the United States to be less active in the world, while just one in five say they 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, it’s proof we’ve got to do much more to communicate the realities of our global economy.
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 all of the 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 shed their provincial image to become savvy international exporters.
It’s the same for goods and services of all types. Outside our borders are markets that represent 80% of the world’s purchasing power, 92% of its economic growth, and 95% of its consumers, and those markets will continue to grow.
This new poll suggests Americans may be 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, but instead choose to 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 impact of growth through trade will resonate if our leaders, in government and out, bring home to us a story on 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 bound, and always will be.
So read these 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—as the pollsters say, in large numbers.