Just months after he was vanquished in the 1940 election by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie became his emissary, traveling the world on his behalf in a show of American unity during World War II. At Teheran, he gave the Shah of Iran his first airplane ride. At a fete on his behalf, Willkie complimented the Shah on a beautiful Persian rug. The Shah had his men roll up the rug, putting it on Willkie’s plane as a gift. It ended up at Indiana University’s Lilly Library and, eventually, Bryan House.
I tell this story because Willkie built on the world travels of U.S. Sen. Albert Beveridge a century ago to form what I call the “internationalist” wing of Indiana politics. These are the public servants who understood global complexities and worked them to the Hoosier advantage. Willkie would author the book “One World,” which became a template of the emerging post-World War II new order. He would be followed by U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, U.S. Reps. Lee Hamilton, Tim Roemer and Frank McCloskey, and Gov. Robert Orr.
Orr would open up Asian investment in Indiana and become ambassador to Singapore. Lugar forged monumental nuclear safeguards and pushed for global food security. McCloskey intervened in the Balkan genocide. Hamilton and Roemer served on the 9/11 Commission, with the latter becoming ambassador to India.
There is now a new member of the internationalist wing: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who gave a compelling and analytical viewpoint into American foreign policy at Indiana University this past week. It was prefaced during an MSNBC Town Hall when he was pressed to name a “living” Republican he admired. Coming just after the death of Sen. Lugar, Buttigieg responded, “I had such a great answer if it wasn’t living,” Buttigieg said, then naming Willkie. “He was from Indiana. He put country before party.”
From the book “The Improbable Wendell Willkie” by David Levering Lewis, we find several historic parallels to Buttigieg. Willkie won the 1940 Republican presidential nomination on the sixth ballot, while Buttigieg is still considered a long-shot for the 2020 Democratic nomination, though he trails only the septuagenarian wing (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren) in recent national polls.
Beyond politics, Willkie, the Rushville Republican, acknowledged the polarization of America in his time. “Our way of living together in America is a strong but delicate fabric,” he observed. “For God’s sake, let us not tear it asunder. For no man knows, once it is destroyed, where or when man will find its protective warmth again.”
Buttigieg did not present his foreign policy foray as a “doctrine,” but it would be easy to describe it in such terms. It was a tight weave, packed with an array of poignant observations. Buttigieg presented a five-point strategy, contrasting with President Trump, who he said, governs in a “pattern” made “impulsively, erratically, emotionally, and politically — often delivered by means of early-morning Tweet — with little regard for strategy and no preparation for their long-term consequences.”
“The tasks before the next president are clear,” Buttigieg said. “First, we must put an end to endless war and refocus on future threats. Second, we must promote American values by working to reverse the rise of authoritarianism abroad. Third, we must treat climate change as the existential security challenge it is. Fourth, we must update the institutions through which we engage the world to address 21st-century challenges and opportunities. And fifth, we must do all this while involving citizens across America in a meaningful conversation about how foreign policy and national security concern their communities, and do more to include their voices and values in formulating our policies.
“Not only must America do this in order to prosper, but the world also needs America to do these things,” Buttigieg said. “To cope with enormous change, American foreign policy for the future must be securely grounded in American values, American interests, and American relationships.”
The obstacles facing America are the “models that fly in the face of our values — from Chinese techno-authoritarianism to Russian oligarchic capitalism to anti-modern theocratic regimes in the Middle East — all present a major challenge to us,” Buttigieg explained. “And it is no accident that their hostility to shared values comes as they also present a greater threat to our interests. Ironically, at the very moment when American prestige and respect is collapsing, it has never been more needed that America live up to the values we profess.”
The origins of Buttigieg’s assessments and goals came at Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. He describes in his book “Shortest Way Home” the rigorous PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) program where “any sloppy argument or imprecise claim would get picked apart politely by a skeptical professor or fellow student. I learned more rigorous ways to explain the moral intuitions I already had about politics and society.”
These were on conspicuous display at the IU Auditorium last Tuesday. With this address, Mayor Pete passed presidential muster.
Buttigieg was introduced by Hamilton, and he paid brief homage to Sen. Lugar, saying his “leadership from a principled stand against apartheid to a far-sighted approach to nuclear security was the stuff of true statescraft.”
Buttigieg added, “What’s not to like from a one-time mayor from Indiana who cut his teeth as a Rhodes Scholar and a Navy intelligence officer?”
Brian A. Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.