As many Republicans and Democrats in Congress succumb to the temptation to scale back America’s role in the world amidst the economic turmoil, freshman Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk is standing athwart Congress, yelling: Stop!
“We saw with the lessons of the 1930s what aggressive isolationism can do to the United States, and it led to Pearl Harbor,” Kirk, 51, warned last week in an extensive interview with The Daily Caller in his Washington office. “I’m worried now that we have a new isolationism.”
Kirk, who holds the seat once occupied by President Barack Obama, isn’t the only member of Congress fighting back against the current “come home America” moment. But he is among the most vocal and intellectually capable. Before being elected to the House in 2000, Kirk was general counsel for what was then the House Committee on International Relations. Since 1989, he has served as an intelligence officer in the U.S Naval Reserves, even deploying twice to Afghanistan while a member of Congress.
Kirk’s Senate office is cluttered with mementos, including portraits of Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt — all of whom he considers heroes. When I ask Kirk to explain the significance of a picture on his wall depicting the Japanese navy defeating the Chinese navy in 1894, the Cornell history major who went on to earn a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and a law degree from Georgetown comes to the fore.
“It showed what happens when you become technologically outmatched, that a shift in power can happen overnight against you,” he explains, conveying that he takes the history lesson very seriously for the United States. “And that battle — long forgotten conflict between China and Japan — was the defeat of the Chinese after, probably, 2,000 years of dominance by a new upstart Japanese navy that clearly outmatched anything the Chinese could put together. [It’s] a lesson for everyone that you want to stay on the cutting edge, or lose your freedom and ability to advance your interests overseas.”
While many Democrats and GOP members argue America can no longer afford to finance its role in the world, Kirk says that “in some ways we can no longer afford not to have a role in the world.” That is not to say that Kirk, who sees himself as a fiscal conservative but a social moderate, believes America’s budgetary problems are insignificant. Despite being a hawk’s hawk, he sees room to cut the Defense budget as part of a solution to our long-term fiscal problems.
“For example, I’m the lead Republican on the bill that provides military construction funds for the U.S.’s various services,” he explained. “We made some tough calls there. We reduced 24 separate military construction projects.”
WATCH: Kirk discusses America’s role in world, importance of office mementos
Sen. Kirk also believes America’s allies in Europe need to start pulling more weight. “I participated as part of the Navy Reserve in the Kosovo campaign and I think that Europe dramatically underperforms its potential and economic size,” he said, while noting that he sees it as a positive development that the French and British are taking more of a leading role in the Libya operation.