There is global malaise. The European Union is in turmoil. Russia is increasingly provocative. China is assertive and fragile. The post-WorldWar American leadership dominance is gone. America is adrift. There is a void where national strategy should be.
American has always had a streak of exceptionalism, like all major nations, a sense of being special. And with it was a sense of hubris, of always being right. The central problem is that America really was exceptional but was not always right. It was founded on basic human ideals, that all men are created equal, respect for democracy and open markets. Although many were skeptical or unconvinced, the world looked to America as the Beacon of Freedom, as the protector of high ideals that could usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. And indeed American ideals led to a peaceful Europe; a region torn by centuries of warfare became a region of peace and prosperity, an astounding achievement, a model for the world.
But unfortunately, these American ideals have proven inadequate to sustain a dynamic, thriving society. There always were gaps between American ideals and reality, epitomized by Thomas Jefferson, the author of the stirring words that "all men are created equal," who himself a slave owner. It took almost a century to resolve the slavery issue, but residual racism still plagues the nation as vividly demonstrated by the recent events in Ferguson and their continuing aftermath. A deep belief in democratic institutions fades under the influence of money; campaign financing and intense lobbying undermine the very concept of one person, one vote and have led to a bitterly partisan and dysfunctional government. The ability of open markets to be the basis for a reasonable distribution of wealth has been eroding for over a century; the Invisible Hand of the Market insures nothing. Corporations have morphed into systems to extract wealth from society for the benefit of shareholders and of an interconnected network of overpaid executives. A complex society requires complex regulation, but that also gives complex opportunities to manipulate the system. The American Dream has faded as millions of workers are permanently jobless and many millions of others subsist on barely sufficient wages. As wealth inequality steadily worsens, a sense of frustration and resentment grows. Individual freedoms have shriveled in an atmosphere of increasing surveillance, extrajudicial confiscations, and orchestrated entrapments; America has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. More and more frequently, individuals snap under the pressure and flail out at family, neighbors, and even unknown bystanders.
Internationally, the decades of Cold War promoted a policy of realism that saw the United States supporting a range of unsavory regimes and increasing its own internal controls. The end of the Cold War failed to reverse these disturbing trends; then the shock of an unexpected Global War on Terror further increased the gap between ideals and reality. The reliance on military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan displayed an absence of vision, while the highest levels of the American government sanctioned mistreatment and torture of detainees. Thanks to the internet, all of these international and domestic shortcomings are visible widely and spur rejections of the United States and its values. Globally, the situation is hardly better. Trillions of dollars of foreign aid have failed to make major improvements. Dozens of failed and failing states still have repressive regimes that bleed their own populations, leaving billions of people frustrated, dismayed and angry. Russia's opening to the West failed to result in any broad ties or economic development; now a bitter population strongly supports Putin's assertiveness and his talk of a managed democracy. Broader ties are being developed with China, where an adept leadership has based its legitimacy on economic development; it calls for developing socialist political democracy, but does its best to suppress widespread aspirations for electoral or intra-party democracy. A slowing economy could easily bring a turn to strident nationalism, as it has with Russia.
The Arab Spring vividly demonstrated the global impact of the loss of American prestige. The explosion of aroused masses was based on core American values of freedom and equality. Noticeably absent was any demand to build a U.S.-style government. The movements had no sense of direction and foundered for lack of leadership. Now Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria are all rent by savage fighting. Results in Iraq and Afghanistan showed the folly of believing U.S. approaches to supporting fundamental human values would be universally applicable, that superficial elections would transform countries into democracies, that centralized governments would protect the well being of all their citizens, and that military action could spur development of a civil economy. The focus on short term results combined with cultural insensitivity promoted sweeping skepticism in the Muslim world. After 13 years of support to Afghanistan, people are still freezing to death and starving to death even as the United States prepares to once again abandon its efforts there.
The effects of this loss of prestige are visible globally. Not only is America no longer a Beacon of Freedom, but its idealistic pretensions are seen as hollow shells, used to provide a sheen of legitimacy for a country that does not believe in its own ideals, but uses them only to rally support. Supporting dictators was bad enough, but the loss of a sense of purpose was worse. And now there is a rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is hard to believe that such a brutal, medieval, superficial ideology could attract any one, especially in developed countries. But it has attracted thousands of Westerners to Syria and given rise to widespread concerns in the developed world on lone wolf attackers. Why? That is unfortunately easy to understand. It is not the attraction of ISIS ideology, but the repulsion of alternative failed ideals. Failed not because they are not truly universal, but because America and the West has used them as slogans, as election sound bites, and not as guideposts to action. And so a skillfully managed ISIS internet recruitment system pays dividends. For over a century America has systematically undermined its own ideals, and this has now come back to haunt the nation, leaving the world without a beacon, at exactly the same time that globalization underlines the need for global leadership. Global turmoil is a threat not only to the outside world, but domestically to America as well. If America cannot promote a stable world, it will steadily deteriorate itself. This is the underlying reason why Afghanistan remains important.
Strong voices speak out with persuasive arguments that the United States is in decline. It is obvious that it no longer enjoys the unchallenged position it had immediately after the Cold War and its economy no longer dominates the world as it once did. Nevertheless other strong voices persuasively argue that the situation is not so much a decline of the United States as the rise of the rest, the appearance of more influential players on the world scene. Despite shortcomings, it is still described as the only nation capable of global leadership. China is a regional power and operates on a global scale but has no pretense of global hegemony as the Soviet Union once did. It looks to exploit the global system but not to run it. With the Soviet Union gone, Russia's ambitions are clearly diminished. As with China, it focuses on regional domination. Both China and Russia face significant internal challenges, particularly since leadership legitimacy for both is heavily based on economic development and this is becoming increasingly difficult. The European Union is hobbled. Other large nations, such as India, Indonesia and Brazil, have enough challenges in their own regions and no pretense of global leadership. Nevertheless many nations are disinclined to follow the American lead, and strong currents in American politics stress domestic needs and question the wisdom and feasibility of a major global presence.
Yet, the newly shrunken world makes global leadership critical for the United States, in particular for the economy. The nation simply cannot prosper in a world of turmoil. This will be all the more so if economic pressures push the Chinese and/or the Russian leadership to increase repression and turn to strident nationalism and confrontational policies to bolster government legitimacy. Russia is already moving in this direction.
Traditional American leadership was ultimately based on its fundamental ideals of freedom and equality. But this sense of exceptionalism was often seen as arrogance. Democracy promotion was rejected as an effort to promote parochial and self-serving American values. Many nations have a strong sense of their own uniqueness. China's lengthy history gives it a sense of superiority, while Russians have long spoken of a unique role for Mother Russia. Major Western countries, including Great Britain, France and Germany, have also promoted unique cultural values. What set the United States apart was that its values and ideals were not based on its own socio-economic or cultural history but on universal human aspirations. This led it to become the destination of choice for millions fleeing hunger and repression, welcomed by the words chiseled into the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free... Not only did the United States welcome these huddled masses, but it integrated them, it made them Americans. Those who denigrated freedom and equality as parochial American values were often repressive leaders concerned that these ideals would resonate with their own populations.
Although these values have been tarnished both domestically and internationally, they still serve, however imperfectly, as the glue keeping America together and providing a compass to the world at large. To revive its international standing, to exercise the leadership it is uniquely capable of, the United States has to show that its ideals can indeed be the basis for a thriving society. The core challenge is domestic, and there is no simplistic solution. It requires a broad realignment of basic systems, orchestrated by an overall concept of what kind of America does the nation want, and how to get there.
Now its compass is gone, the United States has no sense of direction. Even as it withdraws from global leadership that is so badly needed, it works hard to maintain preeminence in an unprecedented strategic situation: perhaps for the first time in history no major nation faces any credible threat of invasion and subjugation a situation full of new challenges and new opportunities. The United States is now the only nation capable of global intervention, a capability seen as a bedrock of national strategy, but a capability increasingly without direction.
The central challenge is to provide that direction, to specify the core national objectives and outline a concept of how to get there. That is the missing National Strategy. Without that, the nation will continue to drift.