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To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace (Part Three)

09/12/2013 10:30 am ET | Updated Nov 12, 2013

2013-09-09-TMTWUSCover.jpgThe following is the third excerpt from "To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace" by Jeffrey Sachs (You can read the first and second excerpt here). Released in June, the book remembers the last year of President Kennedy's life and the remarkable speeches he made which helped convince the world there could be peace between the U.S. and Soviet Union. On Thursday, Sept. 12 the United Nations will hold a special event commemorating his last address there 50 years ago (You can watch it here at 3PM). For more on the book check here.

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The most important lesson that we learn from John Kennedy is to fashion the future out of our rational hopes, not our fears. He was the first to deny the baseless hopes of idle dreamers:

I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.

But he was also for seeing things as they might be, and asking, "Why not?"

What other lessons do we learn from his leadership that we can apply in our own time? We are inspired by Kennedy's repeated urging that each generation must take up the great challenges of its time. Kennedy relished the causes of his day, especially the defense of liberty: "I do not believe," he declared, "that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation." Through all of his speeches, the challenge is always specifically drawn. "Let us take our stand here ... in our own time." When we behold Kennedy's energy and confidence in problem solving, we are stirred to bring the same daring commitment to problem solving in our own time...

Kennedy knew that vision was not enough, and that a general call to peace and well-being would accomplish little. Kennedy spoke "in this time and place" about specific challenges, whether they be peace, race relations, the race to the moon, or other causes. As a politician and statesman, he looked relentlessly for a practical path, a next step toward the goal. He gave us the best single piece of management advice that I know, one that I admire so much that I'll quote it again:

By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly towards it.

Clear goals are vital for many reasons: they create shared objectives, help to specify the means, and unite the public in action. Defining goals is indeed the most important single job of leadership, since without them there can be nothing but cacophony...

We define our generation's goal more clearly by placing it in the context of sustainable development. The dominant political priority in nearly every society in the world today is economic advancement. Every government in the world puts the strength of the economy at the top of its agenda. Its political survival, and its ability to compete with adversaries, depends on economic success. Yet sustainable development as a doctrine contends that the pursuit of economic gain alone cannot suffice for human well-being and security. There should be three objectives, not one. The economy should advance. The economic gains should be broad-based or "inclusive," cutting across different parts of society, different ethnic and minority groups, different classes, and benefiting women as well as men. And the gains should be sustainable in terms of resource use and the conservation of ecosystems. In short, we should aim not for economic growth alone, but for inclusive and environmentally sustainable growth ...

The first task we face is to reconceive the challenge of peace itself. Making peace is a political and social process, but the ability to sustain peace depends on economic development. Impoverished countries fall into violence, conflict, and civil war with far greater frequency and predictability than do stable, prosperous societies. For this reason the United States launched the Marshall Plan in 1947, which provided economic assistance to postwar Europe, as a way to forestall Soviet political advances and consolidate democracies in Western Europe in the context of extreme economic duress. As Secretary of State George Marshall explained, "Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist." U.S. leaders were fully aware that the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 in the context of Russian economic chaos, and Hitler came to power in 1933 in the context of 25 percent German unemployment.

This most basic lesson has been lost on recent policymakers. Today's conflicts are found mostly in impoverished or economically destabilized countries. Consider Mali, Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, four of the world's poorest countries. The United States is now engaged in covert or overt military action in all four. Many thousands of civilians die each year. And violent extremists are taking advantage of this instability to make bases for regional operations. Poverty opens the way for conflict, while conflict leads to a further downward spiral of impoverishment. The result is a poverty-violence trap, in which poverty and violence become chronic and mutually reinforcing.

Western intervention in these places has tended to be almost entirely military in character, though the problems they face can rarely be solved by military means, and almost never by military means alone. I know this bias firsthand, as I've tried for years to encourage some measure of development assistance from the United States, which would ultimately be cheaper than military spending. It's almost always been a losing cause. Poor places are treated as foreign policy irrelevancies until they succumb to violence and terror; then they are treated as military and security threats. There seems to be little Western policy in between these two extremes: complete neglect followed by panic and drones.

Looking at a map of the world's conflict zones, one is struck by the extent to which they are currently concentrated in the African and Asian drylands, a ten-thousand-mile swath that runs west to east from Senegal to Afghanistan, including the African Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Western Asia, and Central Asia. The violence in this region is most commonly attributed to what Samuel Huntington famously called the "clash of civilizations," the alleged front line in an ongoing struggle between Islam and Christianity. Yet there are many peaceful Muslim places in the world, and many of them border Christian places. I suggest that Islamic extremism in the dryland belt is more symptom than cause. One of the deep causes is poverty against a backdrop of severe ecological stress, rising populations, falling rainfall, and a growing frequency of droughts and famines.

Recognizing that economic development is a key to peace and democratization, Kennedy launched the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and similar development programs in other parts of the developing world. In his inaugural address, he addressed the people in the "huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery":

We pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich...

To reestablish aid as a pillar of foreign policy -- thus saving money, lives, and future grief -- would therefore require a change in the American mindset. Americans need to understand that impoverished foreign nations, even those that are ostensibly "foes," respond positively to practical aid -- for health, education, and infrastructure -- that is given openly and generously. In addition to providing practical and sometimes lifesaving help, aid signals human respect and a recognition of the commonality of human interests. Aid guided by the precepts of sustainable development would lead America back to true problem solving, the kind that a policy based on drone missiles can never accomplish. If we use our science, technology, and development experience to take on the challenge of basic economic development in the bereft places of the world -- from Mali to Somalia, from Yemen to Afghanistan -- our country itself would also be a huge beneficiary. We would win diplomatic allies, trading partners, and friends and supporters in the villages and cities of Africa and Asia, and for the right reasons...

We know that our tasks are large, but so too are the acts of past leadership that inspire us and encourage us on our way. We have been granted the lessons of John Kennedy's peace initiative, and the gift of his and Ted Sorensen's words for our age and beyond. We are not gripped by forces beyond our control. We too can be as big as we want. We too can take our stand and move the world.