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Elton John, Vladimir Putin and my last conversation with Colin Powell

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During one of my last conversations with my friend General Colin Powell, he told me I needed to watch one of his favorite music videos — the 1985 hit song Nikita where Elton John serenades a beautiful East German soldier on the other side of the wall from his red limousine.

Powell was reminiscing on America’s role in the world and it was clear that the singer’s words had inspired him for years to come: “Guns and gates no longer hold you in, And if you’re free to make a choice, Just look towards the west and find a friend.”

Over this past week, I have been thinking about what Powell would be saying right now about America and the state of the world. For Powell — who served as the chair of my organization for nearly 16 years — U.S. global leadership wasn’t a Republican or a Democratic issue, but instead, it was an American issue. 

As a leader who served both long before and long after the wall fell, he wrote that “many had assumed the Cold War’s end would allow us to retreat from the world.” Yet he was relentless in his belief that the interests of Americans required continued engagement “not just [with] a military that is second to none, but also well-resourced, effective and empowered diplomats and aid workers.” 

With all the turmoil on the world stage, the administration just called for a new round of urgently needed emergency resources to confront acute global threats in line with bipartisan discussions on Capitol Hill. America now faces a critical choice on whether we stand up for our values and protect the interests of American families by truly investing on the global stage at a time of great disruption. While the grave threat of Vladimir Putin is rightly front and center, we must also confront the full array of global challenges — from Ukraine to COVID to China — threatening America’s health, economic and security interests. 

I am deeply worried that if we ignore these global threats, we do so at our own peril. 

First, in Ukraine, the number of refugees fleeing is rising every day with more than 1.5 million Ukrainians fleeing to neighboring countries adding to what is already the largest refugee crisis in world history. Humanitarian, economic and security assistance for the Ukrainian people is vital to address the escalating needs and to promote stability. 

As the crisis deepens, the invasion of Ukraine is not just a moral crisis for the world, but also has a profound impact on us as Americans. Bipartisan senators like Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have been calling for increased aid and making clear what’s at stake for Americans — from protecting sovereignty and democracy to rising food and energy prices to the competition with China — particularly when Ukraine exports 15 percent of the world’s corn.  

On the COVID-19 front — which respects borders about as well as Putin — the pandemic hasn’t skipped a beat just because Russia started a war. A group of former U.S. combatant commanders recently rang alarm bells on the risks of paying now or paying more later. They write that COVID-19 is driving “growing threats from authoritarianism, conflict, hunger, and migration” and called for additional emergency global resources for the U.S. global response to the pandemic.  

From the business community, top American corporate leaders — including from UPS, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Citigroup, Google and Cargill — have also spoken out on the growing economic risks to our nation, writing to Congress that “we believe that if the U.S. does not get this right and fully step up the global response at this critical moment, the economic costs for our own nation will only increase in the coming days and months.” As the leaders point out, failure to vaccinate communities in developing countries could cost the global economy $5.3 trillion over the next five years, according to the International Monetary Fund.

While the administration has proposed an additional $4.25 billion emergency package for the global response to the pandemic, many global health experts have already said that this level of resources would barely meet a quarter of the emergency global needs identified by USAID to confront the spread of new variants, save lives and fight the growing economic and humanitarian aftershocks. The stakes are immense to get this right, particularly when World Food Program chief David Beasley has called for $6.6 billion from the world with more than 45 million people on the verge of starvation. 

Of all the U.S. emergency funding mobilized to address the pandemic, only 0.3 percent has gone to the global response. While one could argue what the exact right balance is, I am certain it is not less than one percentage point when every variant that has emerged overseas has wreaked havoc on our shores taking the lives of our fellow citizens. 

It’s not lost on most Americans or policymakers that all of these crises are playing out against the backdrop of the rapid expansion of our greatest competitor, China. Prior to COVID-19, more than half of all U.S. exports went to the developing world. Yet in just the first nine months of 2021, bilateral trade between Africa and China grew by 40 percent — widening an already escalating trade and investment gap between China and the U.S. on the continent. While we can’t and won’t match China dollar for dollar on the global stage, America certainly can’t sit on the economic sidelines. 

From Ukraine to COVID to China, we’re living in a new era in which global health, economics and security have all become kitchen table issues — impacting Americans at the gas pump and the grocery store. While I have no doubt that America has the capability and ingenuity to confront this perilous time, doing so doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  

Last week, we heard President Volodymyr Zelensky — the grandson of a Holocaust survivor — from inside a bunker reminding us of what’s at stake in the world. As policymakers make critical budget decisions ahead of a March 11 fiscal deadline, we can’t shortchange critical global emergency resources if we are going to meet this moment and protect the interests of American families. 

The words of General Powell ring true once again: “Being a great nation has always meant a commitment to building a better, safer world — not just for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren.” 

Liz Schrayer is president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 7 at 12:50 pm EST. 

Tags Amy Klobuchar Colin Powell Marco Rubio United Nations response to the COVID-19 pandemic Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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