We are barely into the Twenty-First Century and we see a world of turmoil. The United States stumbles on the world stage with no clear sense of direction, an economic recovery plodding along and beset by increasing problems with racism, economic inequality and political alienation. A medieval Islam holds center stage. The Middle East is in distress. The Arab Spring had waved a vision of democracy, but disintegrated into civil war in Libya, Syria and Yemen and a dictatorship in Egypt. Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, occupies wide areas of Syria and Iraq and inspires massacres in both Paris and California. Afghanistan is on the verge of civil war. Refugees are flooding Europe, which has no concept on how to handle them; the United States has a smaller refugee problem but is also without any strategy on how to deal with it. Further afield, China antagonizes all of East Asia with its claims to the South China Sea. Russia seizes the Crimea, rattles its nuclear forces, and adds to the convulsions in Syria. Africa stagnates under the weight of autocratic governments and continuing population increases. Global warming takes on a new urgency, while asteroids, earthquakes and supervolcanoes lurk in the background.
Nevertheless, looking further ahead one can see a century of astounding progress, an Age of Amity.
The present turmoil hides an unprecedented strategic situation. For the first time in history, no major power faces any serious threat of invasion, subjugation or destruction. There is lots of competition on the economic stage, but real threats are actually small.
The United States is seriously concerned that Daesh could provoke an attack that might kill perhaps 100 people. For a major country, this is not a threat but an annoyance. There are 100 people killed every day on the roads, another 100 by guns, and hundreds more by medical shortcomings. After previous mass shootings, as when James Holmes slaughtered 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, or when Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, no one talked about a major threat and the president did not address us from the Oval Office. Nor were Americans speaking obsessively and anxiously about their fear of being ambushed anywhere in their lives (though they were no less subject to that possibility than they are now). There were more than 1,000 mass shootings and 1,300 dead since Sandy Hook, and the 355 such incidents in which at least four people were injured or killed so far this year alone, almost none connected to Islamic terrorism and many minor indeed, did not put the national security state on high alert to protect us. In fact, since 9/11, more people in the United States have been killed by right-wing extremists than by Islamic radicals. A hundred people at a time, as in a plane crash or natural disaster, is of course distressing, but it does not represent an overwhelming danger to the American people. Just a few years ago, during the Cold War, the nation faced a threat of 100,000,000 dead in a Soviet nuclear threat, a real threat that it seems was only narrowly avoided on a couple occasions. That puts the Daesh "threat" in perspective. Even the spectacularly successful terrorist strikes of 9/11 were only a pinprick for the nation as a whole.
Global leadership is badly needed, and the United States remains the only nation capable of supplying it. Its foundational values of freedom and equality are indeed universal. The biggest challenge for the United States is how to live up to its own values, to demonstrate how they support prosperity with a peaceful and satisfied society. Its penchant to solve international problems with military force is an approach appropriate for the Twentieth Century, but not for the Twenty-first. Force has been the basis of security for nations through all of human history. The Twenty-first century offers an opportunity to shift gears to an emphasis on positive collaboration and cooperation. West Europe provides an example on a continental scale - countries that fought each other continuously for thousands of years are now a zone of peace. It has internal economic and political challenges, but there are no thoughts of raising armies to once again engage one another. This is the vision that is only now becoming possible on a global scale. Indeed the forces of globalization with modern telecommunications have shrunk the world to the point that all pieces are now interconnected. It is no longer possible for parts of the world to prosper at the expense of other parts. This is the core challenge of the Twenty-first Century, how to promote a more equitable and peaceful world.
There are some residual patterns from earlier ages that still embroil global politics, most particularly the presence of autocratic regimes, of autocrats that focus their energies on buttressing their own personal positions. Indeed, greed for wealth and power is embedded in human nature and has been a driving force in history as nations fought to dominate one another. The aftermath of World War II was the first time in history that enlightened leaders prevailed on the world stage. Yet some major nations still have autocratic leaders. Autocrats in smaller nations, nations that could otherwise be pressured by the international community to open their governments, are protected by major powers and international norms that support governments at the expense of their populations.
The world is now in a period of transition where informed populations can insist on good government. this is facilitated by the second unprecedented development, an internet which makes information available at the grass roots level and gives people the ability to demand change. the Arab Spring was the first manifestation of this new capability. It faltered due to inadequate international support, particularly a failure of the United States to champion its own ideals. But now, underneath all this turmoil, the world is ripe for an astounding transformation
The central driving force of any such transformation has to be a reinvigorated United States.- no other nation is in a position to provide the needed leadership.
The critical first step is for the United States to make its own ideals come home, for its citizens to work together to reassert the American Dream hard work brings prosperity which in turn supports prosperity and tolerance. The United States can once again become a Beacon of Freedom, not a beacon of slogans but a beacon of real harmony and prosperity.
But such prosperity cannot be limited to the United States alone. Indeed, it cannot exist in the United States alone, but has to be set in a global prosperity. So fundamental change has to be promoted not only at home but globally, supporting the power of the people to oppose corruption and autocracy.
Such global leadership can indeed lead to an Age of Amity, a global economy where every nation can develop its own culture in a framework of global respect for human rights and dignity. This is our challenge for the Twenty-first Century.