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Hagel in Chicago says U.S. 'must remain nation of big shoulders'

After two protracted wars, the mood of the U.S. may be increasingly isolationist. But that doesn’t mean the country should shrink away from the international stage, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a Chicago audience Tuesday morning.

“America must not succumb to the temptation to turn inward,” Hagel said during a speech at the Fairmont Hotel. “We must not look inward, but upward and outward. We must remain a nation of big shoulders.”

He framed his remarks in the context of both national and international politics.

Domestically, Hagel said, a gridlocked, anti-government Congress threatens the U.S.’s military might through isolationism and reductions in military spending.

Abroad, he said the U.S. faces a destabilized world, where there is no hegemonic rival power, as was the case during the Cold War.

“There is a diffusion of power: More players, more interests,” Hagel said.

Shrinking away from the international stage could create a power vacuum, he suggested. He pointed to the rise of Imperial Japan during the another era of American isolationism, which led to World War II – a conflict he called the “costliest conflict in world history.”

And while the country faces definite challenges, Hagel said a large part of the prosperity enjoyed over the past 60 years was fueled by U.S. involvement abroad – starting with World War II.

“We are living still in an era of unprecedented prosperity and opportunity,” Hagel said. “This era resulted from decades of American involvement.”