I am a Zero Generation American. Born abroad, I became a citizen at the age of 14. For me, America has always been first, both before and after coming to our country. For a young boy from Austria, America was a magical place, vast and full of people who live great lives and do great things. My mother used to remind me that during her childhood, as the Third Reich was being defeated, Austrians rushed to the western part of the country expected to be occupied by the American forces rather than by Soviet soldiers streaming across the border from the east.
Once a citizen, I became more eloquent but no less emotional in my love for our country. Ultimately, as an American diplomat for more than three decades and as a U.S. Ambassador, I consistently articulated both abroad and here at home the true meaning of America first. America is first when it comes to building a nation of strong, successful, self-reliant, and community-minded men and women. America is first in building strong and lasting alliances and acting at home and abroad in defense of freedom and justice. And America is first in seizing no-nonsense initiatives to change the world for the better and to push the boundaries of human achievement, no matter the obstacles or the cost. America and Americans are not perfect by any means but we are also first in facing our imperfections and correcting our mistakes.
Despite our historic weariness of foreign entanglements as we have grown to be a superpower, we have found that the world is a better place when we are fully engaged in it – diplomatically, economically, and militarily. We do great things and we right great wrongs, both at home and abroad — as Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
In our current electoral battle two individuals are competing for our vote in leading this country in a violent, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. One candidate defines an America locked in conflict with not just our adversaries but also with our friends, allies, and neighbors. I am a former U.S. Ambassador to Estonia, a country that fully meets the NATO defense spending guideline of 2% of GDP. It does serious and lasting damage to our credibility — our global currency as a superpower — when a candidate for our highest public office suggests that the security of an ally, whose soldiers have fought and died alongside our own brave men and women, is not worth defending. The same candidate also paints America as an apocalyptic cartoon landscape and treats our global challenges as a game, forgetting that the characters in this game are real American men, women and children, not action figures. Sadly, some of our countrymen and women are allowing themselves to be seduced by the perversely entertaining nature of this deadly serious — anything but — game.
I had the opportunity to get to know the other candidate personally in my role as a professional diplomat. Hillary Clinton was my boss as Secretary of State. I did my best to live up to her high expectations and the seriousness of her approach to protecting our country’s interests abroad. I used to sit across from her in staff meetings at the State Department when she consistently demonstrated that she was the best prepared person in the room. She gave clear leadership guidance. She allowed opinions other than her own to be heard and to be considered. And she demonstrated the temperament, humanity, and class of a true leader. In settings with foreign counterparts she tenaciously represented the interests of our country and used her constructive personal relationships with friends as well as adversaries on our people’s behalf. She took her job most seriously, always putting America, not herself, first. As a foreign policy professional, I am with her.
Since I cast my first electoral vote in 1972, I have seen our nation lose a hot war, a President resign from office, and our country landing on the moon and winning the Cold War. We have emerged stronger from these experiences, both good and bad, because of the courage and basic goodness and decency of the American people. This November will be my most important vote so far. It may well be the most important vote for all of us in our lifetime. The choice is not simply between two candidates. It is a choice of how we define America first: A wounded country that defensively sees itself as weak globally, short-hanged by its allies and trading partners, beset by terrorists, and ready to build a wall around Fortress America? Or are we a confident nation that has never met a challenge it could not overcome, that stands as a rock of strength for its allies and against its enemies, and as a people who treat each other and the world with decency, respect and humility becoming of Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City Upon a Hill.”
Our choice this fall is not simply “binary,” as some have argued. It is fundamental.