Home >Specials >2014-the Year In Review >John F. Kerry | Alliances for peace

I grew up in the shadow of World War II, and at the dawn of the Cold War.

My father’s work as a foreign service officer gave me an opportunity to see history up close in a searing way: I will never forget walking the beaches of Normandy with him and seeing the burned hulks of Higgins’ boats still on those shores, just a few years after so many young men went to their graves so the world could be free. Likewise, I will never forget the eerie feeling of riding my bike through the Brandenburg Gate from West Berlin into the East, and seeing the contrast between people who were free and those who were trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

What strikes me now, all these years later, is that a generation of leaders won not only a war, but also the peace. They did it together. The US and our partners worked to create alliances that brought prosperity and stability to Western Europe, Japan and South Korea. Old enemies became new allies, and together pioneered a new global economic system that made the world more prosperous. And even as the Cold War raged, leaders found ways to cooperate on arms control and prevent a nuclear Armageddon.

In short, by building effective and indispensable international institutions and strategic partnerships, we did not just avoid another catastrophic world war; we ultimately ended the Cold War and lifted global living standards for hundreds of millions of people.

That is the remarkable story of the 20th century. The question now is what story will emerge from the 21st century.

Today, the world order faces new challenges. Russian aggression is rattling allies. Extremists who hijack religion threaten governments and people everywhere. Technology is accelerating a shift in the balance of power between governments and governed that offers both opportunities for democratic accountability and obstacles to inclusive politics.

We have gone from a world where power resided in hierarchies to one where it inhabits networks. Statecraft has yet to adapt. The international institutions and partnerships that emerged in the post-war years demand both maintenance and modernization.

In the face of all of this turbulence, some suggest that the US should turn inward. That is nothing new. Some argued the same after World War II. They argued it again 25 years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They were wrong then—and they are wrong now.

The need for leadership has never been greater, and the US has never been more engaged with the world. Our role in Afghanistan’s first-ever peaceful, democratic transition reminds us all that, having invested so much blood and treasure in helping to give Afghans a chance to succeed in battle, the world has just as much responsibility to help its leaders succeed in governance.

We know that the destruction of 100% of Syria’s declared chemical weapons would not have happened without direct, hands-on diplomacy and perseverance, just as Syria’s immoral and horrifying civil war will not end without an equal commitment. So, too, in Asia, where President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping just announced ambitious commitments to tackle climate change, we are reminded of what countries can accomplish together with real leadership—and of how much additional leadership is required to conclude a successful climate agreement in Paris next year.

The world has changed, and we are changing with it. Lines on the map no longer contain the gravest threats, and the players are no longer divided neatly into two camps.

In the 21st century, next door is everywhere. That is why the world needs coalition diplomacy. No country can defeat terrorism on its own. No country can solve the existential threat of climate change alone. No country can eradicate extreme poverty, combat potential pandemics or improve nuclear security by itself.

None of us can live safer, richer lives by turning our back to the world. We must build on our history of working with allies by forming new coalitions—with governments, with civil society, and, yes, with everyday people.

A good example is the international effort to confront the Islamic State’s malign brutality in Iraq and Syria. Political, humanitarian and intelligence tools from more than 60 countries are being used to support unified military action. Success depends not on what one or even a handful of countries can do alone, but on what all of us are able to achieve by moving forward together against this common threat.

On an equally important front, the US is working with the United Nations to galvanize a global response to the danger posed by the Ebola virus. I have personally talked with more than 50 foreign leaders, and we all agree that only by coordinating our actions can we stop the devastation in West Africa and halt Ebola’s spread.

We are making progress on both issues, but much work remains. Bringing together countries with competing interests and varying resources is hard work. It demands intense diplomatic engagement and calls upon relationships that have been built and maintained over decades, as well as alliances with new partners. But by overcoming differences and coordinating efforts to defeat the Islamic State and conquer Ebola, we are reinforcing support for a world order grounded in collective solutions to common problems.

Cooperation is equally vital in reinforcing the bedrock economic principles on which the US and other countries built their post-war prosperity. Frustration cannot grow faster than opportunity in any country. For example, the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) reflect Obama’s determination to strike an accord with countries that represent one-third of global trade and 40% of global gross domestic product.

The benefits—for both the US and our partners—are enormous. Estimates are that the TPP could provide $77 billion a year in real income and support 650,000 new jobs in the US alone. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated with the European Union offers another major step toward increasing trade.

Whether for mutual security or shared prosperity, genuine partnerships are not built overnight. Patient diplomacy and a collective will are needed to advance common goals. The US’ objectives remain the same as they have been for decades—peace, prosperity, and stability for the US and for our partners around the world. ©2015/project syndicate

John F. Kerry, former US Senator from Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, is US secretary of state.

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