Van Ens: Make American neighborly again with allies |

Van Ens: Make American neighborly again with allies

During the 1952 presidential campaign, reporters asked Dwight D. Eisenhower a knotty question about how to make America-first militarily. U.S. forces faced North Korean troops that Red China supported with supplies and soldiers. The U.S. army and Communist fighters had dug in on either side of the 38th parallel. Both sides were frustrated by a long stalemate in the trenches.

Should the American army stay put, blocking further Communist aggression? Or cross the 38th parallel and attack the Red Chinese/North Korean army? What was the correct strategy to preserve America’s No. 1 military status?

President Eisenhower, who had commanded Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, responded cryptically by repeating, “The great problem in America today is to take the straight and narrow road down the middle.”

Eisenhower dodged delineating this middle road U.S. forces should travel, however. Must it lead to attacking Communist forces or digging deeper trenches at the 38th parallel?

Today, a similar question to the one Eisenhower avoided begs a clear response. How should our nation regain international status in foreign affairs? President Joe Biden travels a middle road between the status quo and nationalistic boasting. His goal is to erect bridges with foreign allies by “building back better.”

Serving in the Senate and then as vice president, Biden assured representatives at global roundtables that their country’s voice matters, even when he disagreed with allies.

Biden’s broad middle road allows for multiple foreign policy travel lanes. This expansive approach has encouraged several foreign leaders to telephone him, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Biden has even spoken with former President Donald Trump’s ally British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The president veers from hogging a lane or usurping a route that makes American-first. He offers world leaders an open hand rather than a clenched fist. He does not assert American power by unilaterally punching America’s road ahead alone.

Defining what “America-first” means goes back to the colonial era. Our nation’s second president, John Adams, feared dire consequences if the U.S. defined America-first exclusively in military-economic terms. Adams did not rank America first in the world, as today’s Christian nationalists do. Nor did the president believe the U.S. is God’s favorite, the only nation possessing a treasure chest of answers to dilemmas baffling humankind.

Adams did not sound cocky. Nor did he foreshadow Trump’s arrogance of having all the right answers and seldom apologizing when mistaken. Grabbing premier status for the U.S. by putting down other nations was like gullibly believing in legends of the Holy Grail and a fountain of youth, warned Adams.

“[Americans] may boast that we are one, the chosen people,” Adams declared, “and we may even thank God that we are not like other men [people], but, after all, it would be but flattery, delusion, the self-deceit of the Pharisee [in Jesus’ Parable]” (The Papers of John Adams, Robert J. Taylor et al., editors, Vol. 4, pp. 453-54).

Adams referred to Jesus’ story about a tax-collector and a Pharisee, who represented organized religion’s elite class, praying in the Jewish Temple. The Pharisee’s conceit was in stark contrast to the tax collector’s repentance for cheating Jews pocketing some of their contributions (Luke 18:9-14).

Similarly, Trump’s steep tariffs on imports from China, for which he congratulates himself, have not brought his competitor’s economy to its knees. “Indeed, the International Monetary Fund projects that China’s economy will be the only major world economy to [have grown in 2020.] … By contrast, the American economy is expected to shrink by 4.3% …” reported op-ed columnist Gerald F. Seib (The Wall Street Journal, “Despite U.S. Rhetoric, China’s Power Grows,” December 29, 2020, p. A-4).

When Biden speaks about our nation’s distinctive traits, he focuses on moral forces, universal ideals described in The Declaration of Independence, and moral impulses that create a more just and friendly society. Trump, on the other hand, measures America’s greatness by military strength, a rising stock market, trade surpluses achieved by selling arms to dictators, and a stand-alone dominance that makes America-first.

Biden builds relationships among allies and breaks down hostilities with adversaries. He aims to repair our national spirit that other nations regard as cranky because of Trump’s stinging criticism toward them.

Biden measures America’s greatness by its compassion toward struggling nations. His knack for coalition-building inspires participating nations to eagerly embrace common goals.

Biden wants to restore America’s status first as a good reliable neighbor.

The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonproof, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.

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