The world is in an unprecedented strategic situation: no major nation faces a serious threat of invasion or subjugation. The Cold War had posed an existential threat; indeed more than once nuclear war was actually close. Russia still has the same nuclear capabilities, but even in these tense times of a Ukrainian crisis, it remains impossible to put together a credible scenario in which the Russian leadership decides that launching a nuclear war against the United States would be a good idea. Even if the military were to carry out such a decision, the probable result of US retaliation and an expected Nuclear Winter would inflict catastrophic damage on Russia itself, not to mention the rest of the world as well.
Instead, the major challenges facing the nation are economic, exacerbated by environmental challenges, including Global Warming which could inflict a trillion dollars of damage on America in the decades ahead. Globalization and the new reality of an interdependent world significantly impact the United States. Third World assertiveness and broad international competition mean that the Industrialized World in general and America in particular no longer can get agricultural products and raw materials at bargain rates. Whether we are talking about bananas or iron ore, coffee or copper, countries of origin are demanding, and getting, fairer prices. Likewise, manufacturing jobs are now dispersed globally, while the internet lets people anywhere in the world compete for many service jobs.
The core challenge for the XXI Century is maintaining global stability. America simply cannot prosper in a world of turmoil. A currently assertive Russia vividly shows the potential for turmoil even though it is not in position to mount any major military challenge. It has far too many internal problems, including demographics, infrastructure gaps, and an over reliance on energy exports. China also faces internal problems with a restive population which is demanding a better life, a leadership that has promoted economic success as its basis of legitimacy, and its own demographic and minority challenges. The Islamic World remains in disarray, destabilized by a dynamic Arab Spring as well as US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and an assertive and belligerent Iran. Behind this, the Committee to Destroy the World, Foreign Policy's tongue-in-cheek characterization of the heads of failed states, spreads misery and instability globally.
Both Putin and the Chinese leadership have increasingly grasped at what has become a tragic leadership trait of the XXI Century: strident appeals to a core constituency at the expense of the broader national interest. Mohammad Morsi had a clear opportunity to pull a new Egypt together and lead it to a prosperous and dynamic future but instead focused on his own favored group and tore the country apart; it is now in the throes of extraordinary levels of internal violence. Similarly, Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and certainly Bashir al-Assad in Syria are fragmenting their countries instead of unifying them. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine had brought a new government to power that so badly mishandled its mandate that a corrupt and autocratic Viktor Yanukovich was actually re-elected, only to once again focus his appeals on a minority element, fragmenting the country again and leading directly to the Russian intervention in the Crimea. These dramatic leadership failures only bode ill for global stability, for global prosperity, and ultimately for American prosperity.
The United States remains the only nation with a potential to lead the world toward stability. It has led the world before in addressing the Axis challenge and the the Soviet Cold War threat. It is still in a unique position of having been founded on ideals, and these ideals (equality, democracy, opportunity) are indeed universal. The world admired the United States for these ideals and for its leadership. Unfortunately, the United States has badly tarnished its own ideals and lost much of that respect, along with the leadership position it enjoyed. Support for dictatorial regimes was justified during the Cold War as a necessary policy of "realism," but continued without any serious reassessment into the post-Soviet era. In addition, an excessive faith in the righteousness of American policies led the nation into unilateral military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, widely seen as American arrogance and insensitivity to a newly assertive Islamic World. Much of the world sees American ideals as hollow.
At the same time, the domestic situation increasingly mocks America's own ideals. The classic American Dream of working hard and living a good life has been overtaken by a reality in which wealth inequality has degraded to Third World levels. More and more desperate people get involved in desperate adventures. While oligarchs elsewhere failed to unite their own countries, it is hard to fault them for basing their appeals on narrow constituencies when many American leaders are doing the same thing. A polarized government is having trouble leading itself, much less leading the world.
Nevertheless, there is no one else. America has to face its own problems at home. If America is to prosper again, indeed, if anyone is to prosper, America needs to lead the world in a new direction. It needs to return to JFK's stirring words, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." It has to reinvigorate its own ideals and promote them on a global basis. As Fred Hiatt commented just today, we don't get to choose between nation building at home and leadership abroad - we have to do both.
Early in the Afghan adventure, America flatly rejected the notion of nation building, instead relying on military efforts to stabilize a distant and poorly understood country. But in the past, America has not only done nation building, but done it extremely well - just ask Germany and Japan, or South Korea. Unfortunately, we have lost this perspective. Now we cannot even help build a nation in our own backyard, as Haiti depressingly illustrates. Further off in Afghanistan, it is disgraceful that after twelve years of "assistance," people are still starving to death and freezing to death. Now it is clear if we had put a tenth of our expenditures into positive development programs, we would have a totally different situation.
For better or worse, we have focused on Afghanistan as demonstrating our ability to help an unstable nations move into the modern world. Despite the dismal press, much has actually been achieved in Afghanistan. A failure at this point would not only be a local calamity that we could shrug off as we did the loss in Viet Nam. It would also be a recognition that we have ceased to believe in our own ideals. It would be an admission that American leadership is a thing of the past. America would still be a major power, able to throw its weight around. But that is different than leadership. It would simply be America grasping for its own parochial interests, as Russia in the Crimea, or China in the South China Sea, or Pakistan in Kashmir, or European nations squabbling over responsibilities.
Afghanistan has no intrinsic value to the United States, but American ideals do, and they have become intertwined. Afghanistan demonstrates our ability to support freedom, to stand by our friends, to assure the survival and success of liberty. Peace and prosperity are not divisible. We have to succeed in both Afghanistan and at home. We have to reinvigorate our own ideals at home and use them to lead the world into a new XXI Century. Or we can take our marbles and go home and watch the world around us descend into turmoil.