50 years on, why JFK’s legacy still matters internationally

Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of JFK, began her role on November 18 as US Ambassador to Japan. Kennedy starts her high profile job just days before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of her father.

Despite holding office for less than three years, JFK has long been perceived by the US public as one of the best occupants of the White House. Yet his presidency is inspiring not just to Americans, but also to many internationally too.

His brief Presidency also offers enduring implications for international relations today.

This ranges from policy issues such how best to engage a ‘rising’ China, through to US policy in the Middle East post-9/11.

Through JFK’s skilful rebalancing of hard and soft power, he powerfully renewed US global leadership in the early 1960s, helping thaw the permafrost of the Cold War.

At a time when US-Soviet rivalry was becoming heavily militarised, JFK’s political genius was to appreciate that the superpower contest was as much a battle for ideas as strength of force.

Here his projection of hope and optimism, and stirring rhetoric appealed to US and international audiences alike, including those behind the Iron Curtain. Landmark speeches included in Berlin in 1963 when he offered US solidarity with West Germany.

And his desire to re-set US-Soviet relations was expressed eloquently too, including a compelling speech at American University after the Cuban missile crisis. This was described even by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as the “the greatest speech by any US president since [Franklin] Roosevelt”.

Renewal of US international policy was not, however, just rhetorical as initiatives like the Peace Corps, and the South America- focused Alliance for Progress, underline. And, through landmark achievements such as the International Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, JFK gave substance to his ambition of moving toward international peace.

To be sure, an objective appraisal of JFK’s period in the White House must highlight lows as well as the highs. In addition to successes such as his management of the Cuban missile crisis, there was also the Bay of Pigs invasion debacle.

And JFK had a much more limited record of legislative success than his successor Lyndon Johnson. Professional historians therefore tend to rate JFK’s presidency as ‘good’, rather than ‘great’, with reason.

Of course, the circumstances of today are transformed from those of the early 1960s. As well as the end of the Cold War, the United States has experienced relative decline: for instance, its economy now accounts for less than a quarter of global GDP compared to around a third then.

Yet, the relevance of JFK’s insights about international cooperation and peace endure. As does the wisdom of much of the way in which he harnessed US leadership and power to try to achieve these ends.

Indeed, at a time of US military cutbacks, and given the ongoing information revolution, the importance of achieving better balance between — often expensive — hard power assets and soft power resources is perhaps even more important today for Washington.

And this is true right across the world from Asia-Pacific through the Middle East and South America.

On China policy, for instance, some US hawks advocate a much tougher stance toward Beijing. However, as JFK would have recognised, Washington has much to gain from cooperation with Beijing too, and it would be a mistake to view the relationship solely through a lens of threat and suspicion.

To be sure, there remains a legitimate remaining need for maintaining significant US military power in Asia, not least to re-assure key allies.

However, on issues ranging from North Korea, terrorism, through to the future stability of the global economy, China has a potentially key role to play in concert with the United States.

Here the role of soft power is key as Washington seeks to better integrate Beijing into a network of regional and global institutions and alliances. In so doing, this will help incentivise China even more strongly toward a path of constructive partnership.

In the Middle East meanwhile, US standing in numerous countries has unfortunately been at a low ebb now for at least a decade. Only 11% of the population in Pakistan, 14% in Jordan, 16% in Egypt and the Palestinian territories, and 21% in Turkey, currently have favourable views toward the United States according to Pew Global.

Despite some US overtures, the challenge remains monumental.

This is such a critical issue given the wide-range of US priorities in Middle Eastern and other Muslim-majority countries, including the ‘campaign against terrorism’.

As JFK would surely have appreciated, there is a compelling need for redoubling efforts to win the battle for moderate ‘hearts and minds’.

This can be best achieved through a vigorous re-assertion of US soft power, combined with prudent use of hard power.

Such an agenda would require much greater resourcing for activities such as public diplomacy, broadcasting, development assistance and exchange programmes. US public diplomacy is in particularly strong need of revitalisation, with a clearer long-term strategy essential.

Taken overall, it is clear that JFK’s key insights about international relations retain much relevance and appeal. And for this reason alone, his presidency will continue to hold not just enduring value, but also inspiration, right across the world for many years to come.

* Andrew Hammond was formerly a US Analyst at Oxford Analytica, and a Special Adviser in the UK Government of Tony Blair

Read the Irish Examiner's special report on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK in full here

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