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Fix the World

The world is broken and the United States needs to fix it. Well, it's actually not quite broken yet, and there are a lot of other nations involved. But avoiding global turmoil is the major strategic challenge of the XXI Century and the United States is the only nation capable of providing the necessary leadership. Food and water shortages combined with bad governance, growing populations and potential global warming effects all combine to challenge global stability.

[revised: 8 December 2009]

Almost one billion people lack access to safe water and well over two billion lack effective sanitation, resulting in millions of premature deaths from diseases. While lack of safe water is a major challenge, lack of any water is already threatening broad areas of the planet. An initial mapping of global drought patterns has identified numerous areas susceptible to severe water shortages. This year, Mexico is facing its worst drought in more than half a century. On the other side of the world, Yemen's capital is running out of water - one of the poorest countries in the Middle East and a hot bed of radicals; certainly a country that does not need any additional instability factors. This drought extends into East Africa and is the worst in the region since 2000. Yemen is among about 50 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, that are facing water shortages. By 2025, the United Nations predicts, about two-thirds of the world's population will live in areas where water is scarce. Further to the east, melting Himalayan ice has prompted conflict fear; India has publicly displayed its sensitivity over China's potential plans to build dams in Tibet on the Brahmaputra river and to finance dams in Pakistani Kashmir on the Indus river. However, India has also challenged the data on glaciers; melting does not appear to be as severe as had been feared. Nevertheless, satellite sensing of a 2000-kilometer swath running from eastern Pakistan across northern India and into Bangladesh shows rapid depletion of groundwater in the world's most intensively irrigated region, hosting 600 million people. In fact, the basins of 263 cross-border rivers hold 2/5 of the world's population. Fifteen percent of countries depend on other countries upstream for more than 50% of their water resources. The potential for conflict over water is clear.

Water underlies agriculture. Already, more than one billion people are undernourished worldwide. This number has remained above 800 million for the past 40 years, revealing the fragility of the present food system. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization assesses that a "business-as-usual" approach will not reduce hunger. In order to achieve sustainable results, governance needs to improve at national and international levels. Samuel R. Berger, a former National Security Advisor, has commented on how hunger breeds violence globally. This year, for example, both Somalia and Sudan made headlines for such turmoil. In Darfur, Sudan, one of the world's largest humanitarian crises has left nearly 4 million conflict victims looking to international relief organizations for assistance. In addition to forcing people from their homes, Darfur's conflict has destroyed the economy and prevented millions of children from completing their education, ensuring that Sudan remains one of the world's poorest and most dangerous places. In Somalia, where 3.6 million people require food aid daily, fighting keeps more than 1.5 million people homeless with no means to support themselves or their children. A crucial element to addressing conflict in poor countries is to ensure adequate food, proper nutrition and access to education. School meals promote education and nutrition. Once children start eating a healthy meal, schools report remarkable increases in enrollment, attendance and academic performance, and they are less vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture by 700 scientists and water professionals concluded that current food production and environmental trends will lead to crises in many parts of the world. In Asia, for example, the larger countries avoided famines in the 1970s and 1980s only because they built giant state-sponsored irrigation systems and introduced better seeds and fertilizers. But the extra people expected to live on the continent by 2050 will double Asia's demand for food at the same time that water resources are decreasing.

It is fully understandable that hunger breeds violence - people are desperate to stay alive. Population growth intensifies these challenges. Although lower birth rates are a prerequisite for increasing national wealth, these rates remain high in many of the poorest countries. Nevertheless, global population dynamics are shifting dramatically. Almost half the world is now below the replacement fertility rate - this applies to some 70 countries, including most of the industrialized world. By 2020, the global fertility rate will be below the replacement level; world population will level off by mid-century. But by then, world population will have increased by some two billion people, mostly in the poorest countries.

On top of all this, there is a health crisis focused on the poorest countries, particularly in Africa. Globally, some 33 million people were living with AIDS in 2007, the majority in Sub-Sahara Africa; two million died from AIDS that year. Concerted efforts to address this dramatically reduced deaths, saving more than a million lives just in the period 2003-2007. Similarly, malaria accounts for over a million deaths yearly, almost 90% in Africa and is also being addressed by focused programs. Still other diseases ravage Africa, including tuberculosis, worm diseases, and chagas disease. Some of them (such as drug-resistant tuberculosis) pose a direct threat of spreading to the United States. Programs addressing these diseases have reduced the health problem, but worsened the population problem: they increase the supply of people but not the supply of food. So they have been accompanied by some complementary agricultural programs, but the overall population challenge remains severe, especially in Africa.

The extent to which these challenges will be exacerbated by global warming remains controversial. Temperature increases can raise sea levels, melt ice sheets and glaciers, alter rainfall patterns, intensify storms, and widen the range of life-threatening diseases. The challenges are complicated by two major concerns. First, there is a double layer of uncertainties, not only what the effects of global warming will be, but how populations and countries will respond to them. Just as important, mitigation is not a task for the United States, but for the entire international community. Conflict potentials are everywhere. The melting of the Arctic ice cap, for example, is raising sovereignty disputes in the north. Sea level rises could force major population movements - 90% of Bangladesh lies in flood plains, but its largely Muslim population is not welcome in neighboring Hindu India.

All of these challenges are worsened by poor governance. Despots have wrecked a number of African countries, such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir in Sudan. In Venezuela, the authoritarian regime of Hugo Chavez is not only stifling freedoms, but severely undermining the economy. North Korea's Kim Jong Il exemplifies repression, the last of the Stalinist governments responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. Hamid Karzai's corrupt government in Afghanistan is one reason the international effort to stabilize the country is facing major difficulties, while across the border in Pakistan an inept civilian government dominated by an army still focused on its traditional enemy of India faces a determined challenge from radical extremists. But it is poor governance in the largest countries which most threatens global stability. China's communist leadership tries to maintain strict control while also promoting rapid economic development. Its insistence on non-interference in other nation's internal affairs is rooted in a desire to protect itself from criticism, but provides cover for its support of numerous repressive regimes, including in North Korea and Burma, as well as several African countries. Russia's "managed democracy" uses populist themes (included a renewed appreciation of Joseph Stalin) to build its legitimacy, while also supporting other repressive regimes, particularly in Iran. Iran's mullahs still rely on demonizing the United States to legitimize their position while supporting radical revolutionaries throughout the region, even though their recent elections well demonstrated widespread discontent with the government and brought on direct repression visible worldwide. With their veto power in the Security Council and rivalry with the United States (and each other), China and Russia greatly complicate efforts to improve governance worldwide. Some leaders or groups will go to any length to say in power regardless of the real impact on their countries.

Finally, conflicts are not just theoretical. A number of intractable conflicts have been going on for years, even decades or longer. The Balkans are quiet at the moment, but still a powder keg. War in the Congo has dragged on for years, killing and displacing millions. Worldwide there are unhappy minorities struggling for recognition and ready to draw inspiration from successful or at least highly visible minority movements elsewhere. Low level violence never disappears in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and sometimes breaks out in intense local fighting; more important, this conflict destabilizes the entire Middle East. The mutual antagonism of India and Pakistan has already resulted in three wars and insures that peace in South Asia remains elusive. The conflict also overlaps with the growth of radical Islam, thanks to the disputed area of Kashmir as well as current Indian projects in Afghanistan and Taliban radicalization of thousands of young Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Indeed, radical Islam directly threatens stability in a wide swath of the world. A disgruntled Muslim underclass in much of Europe is destabilizing governments. Just in recent days, Russian officials were beheaded in the Caucasus and some fifty people were kidnapped, possibly tortured, raped and beheaded in an unstable area of the Philippines. For the United States, the focal point at the moment is Afghanistan with a concerted effort to build the country up while thwarting efforts by the fundamentalist Taliban to regain control. Directly connected with this is the struggle by the Pakistan army against their own Taliban in the border area, and that is tied to their dispute with India. It is still unclear whether the final result will be a victory for modernization over antiquity, or a victory for radical Islam that will energize its efforts worldwide.

Against this distressing background, it is easy to construct scenarios of war, devastation, and total turmoil. In fact, it is hard not to. Clearly, almost all the trends are running in the wrong direction. We can hope that somehow this will change, but wishful thinking is not a good basis for policy. We can sit back and watch it all fall apart, or we can take a leadership role in promoting development instead of anarchy.

Just a few short years ago, in 1996, John Kenneth Galbraith in his call for a humane agenda, The Good Society, made a case that we have a moral obligation to support global development. That case has been overtaken by events. The moral obligation is still there, but it has been overshadowed by a much stronger inducement: self-preservation.

The United States is no longer protected by two great oceans. Globalization has dried them up and the nation is now part of an increasingly integrated and competitive world. For many years, some US companies have chosen to move production overseas, but in the last decade this tendency has intensified, along with the rise of major non-US corporations which directly compete with US corporations as well as transnational corporations which locate facilities where ever it seems most appropriate to them. One result has been the further decline of major US industries, particularly the auto industry. And it is not only production jobs that have leaked out of the country, but intellectual jobs as the internet has allowed technical specialists worldwide to compete with US workers. On top of all that, the current global recession has been due largely to overreaching by major US financial corporations, greatly weakening their preeminent place in the the global financial structure. This has happened at the same time that economic growth has ground to a halt. The nation now faces a largely unrecognized challenge, not how to re-ignite growth, but of how to maintain a high standard of living without it.

A standard answer to the key question of how the United States will remain competitive in a globalized world is that our capacity for innovation, versatility, and practical creativity will see us through. But this also seems to be more wishful thinking than reality when we look at the problems with our own education system; the intensity with which China, India and other countries are promoting education; and the long list of our internal problems (e.g., the largest per capita prison population in the world, a disillusioned underclass spawning gangs and petty criminals, widespread ignorance of science). The fact that our national government is stuck in a partisan anti-cooperative mode does not help. Nor does it help that a significant portion of assets available to the national government is used for nonproductive military efforts.

The bottom line is that US prosperity is already facing daunting challenges. Maintaining prosperity would simply be out of the question if the world descends into turmoil. So it is not just some general moral obligation which requires us to fix the world, but an urgent economic interest. Yet, the United States alone obviously does not have the assets needed to fix every one else in the world. But the United States does have the one critical element - leadership - that is needed above all. No other nation is in a position to supply this. Global stability requires first of all good governance, that governments be responsive to their citizens.

The United States has been promoting this since its very formation. In the words of our Founding Fathers: "all men are created equal, ...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..... governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." From the earliest days of the Republic, the United States saw itself as having a unique mission of bringing democracy to the world. Through more than 200 years of foreign policy, the United States has championed universal values, self-determination of nations, and international cooperation. After World War II, it played a key role in the decolonization effort. It was also the driving force behind the formation of the United Nations, whose Charter echoes the US Constitution. And it was the United States that insisted the United Nations not just address security issues, but the broader range of challenges facing humanity.1 JFK's Inaugural Address continued this tradition, "Let every nation know...that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Even George W. Bush's 2006National Security Strategy echoed this sentiment, "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world...The goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states."

Yet, asserting global leadership is a real challenge for the United States as it has just spent a decade undermining its global credibility. Dating from the Monroe Doctrine in the earliest days of the nation, the United States had exercised hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, gaining a reputation as the Colossus of the North. More recently it is gaining a reputation as the Colossus of the World. In contrast to the painstaking efforts to build global support for the war in Kuwait, it bulled ahead with an ill-considered invasion of Iraq and promoted a doctrine of preemptive self-defense. Now it is bogged down in a struggle in Afghanistan that its closest allies and its own general public see as misguided. At the same time, the nation refuses to join in a wide range of international efforts, including the Kyoto protocol, the International Criminal Court, and the Law of the Sea convention. Just this week, a State Department spokesman acknowledged that the United States has declined to join in an international treaty banning cluster munitions. Unfortunately, the United States is now seen more as a global meddler than a world leader.

For many years there was at least grudging admiration for the United States as the "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave." It was the United States that led the defeat of German facism and Japanese militarism, and then led the highly successful effort to turn these two countries into democracies. Unfortunately, US championing of democracy has had a rough time in the ensuing decades. During the Cold War, the United States supported various autocratic regimes in the eventually successful struggle against totalitarian Communism. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States continued to support various autocratic regimes, particularly with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the Arab World.

The attack on the World Trade Center ushered in an era of intense interaction between the United States and the Muslim world. When the original justification for the Iraq invasion (the threat of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction) fell apart, building democracy became the new, after-the-fact rationale. But a growing insurgency rapidly demonstrated how unrealistic that objective was. Then came the abuses at Abu Ghraib, public disclosures of secret CIA prisons and international abductions, and controversy over CIA interrogation techniques. Waterboarding was antiseptically presented as an "enhanced interrogation technique," even though after World War II the Allies executed Japanese officers for waterboarding British prisoners. Now, the United States is described in what Thomas Friedman calls The Narrative: a cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world. Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books -- and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes -- this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand "American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy" to keep Muslims down. Against this background, US support for democratic movements in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Middle Eastern states has waned. A close US association with the visibly corrupt Afghan government of Hamid Karzai is greatly complicating operations there. US moral authority has hit a new low and democracy promotion has gotten a bad name. Much of the world sees US promotion of democratic ideals as simply a manipulation of symbols, designed to foster US preeminence and lacking any real substance. Russia's autocratic "managed democracy" and China's "socialist political democracy" are challenging the US concept of a democracy built on human rights and free elections.

Nevertheless, it has been true that democracies are inherently peaceful, that they do not attack neighbors, but rather seek cooperation among nations. But peaceful democracies are not countries that simply incorporate "Democratic" into their names or use such trappings as manipulated elections to buttress their claim to legitimacy. Peaceful democracies are mature democracies in which the rule of law is clear, elections are truly free, and groups compromise on common challenges. The development of democratic governments in Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran would be a huge step forward and needs to be a basic objective of US foreign policy. But this cannot be achieved by insisting that these nations simply copy our institutions, or by complaining about the shortcomings of their systems. And as Iraq has vividly demonstrated, democracy cannot be imposed, particularly on fragmented societies with no tradition of productive cooperation.

Our Founding Fathers recognized that bringing democracy to the world could not be done by force of arms, but rather had to be done by the appeal of democracy itself. Setting the example was central to this effort. That is why Abu Ghraib and waterboarding were so destructive to the US reputation, they provided a vivid example of how the United States fails to live up to its own ideals. The effort to impose democracy on a fragmented Iraq within the space of a few short years ran directly counter to two centuries of promoting the ideal that nations should develop their own institutions.

But these efforts are aided by the fact that American ideals truly are universal, even if every individual does not agree with all of them. Now, the skeptics are most notably radicals who cling to a medieval form of Islam and reject modernity. Although a small minority of Muslims, they are destabilizing much of the Muslim world as The Narrative undermines the innate appeal of US ideals and induces sympathy if not solidarity with radical views. To promote good governance globally, the United States must re-energize the nation, champion the ideals that made the nation great. Championing ideals means first of all living them. If the United States is going to encourage the growth of real democracy in other nations, it is clear that it must first do a better job of demonstrating these ideals at home and promoting positive developments in the world. In this effort, South Asia has become a central area of confrontation, to move beyond military efforts and demonstrate real development to the global community in general and the Muslim world in particular.

Despite the facts that democracy promotion is under a cloud and that there is widespread skepticism of the United States, the core challenge of the XXI Century remains the need to develop a stable world and the United States remains the only nation capable of providing the leadership to make this happen.


1. Strobe Talbott [The Great Experiment (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2008) Section Two] provides detailed commentary on US efforts to promote universal values.

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