Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Next President Will Have to Position the U.S. in a New World Order

Today is Super Duper Tuesday, with contests in 24 different states that will go a long way toward determining the Democratic and Republican nominees for president. Numerous issues will drive the decision-making processes of voters as they step into the booth (or in front of a computer terminal of questionable reliability, built by a large Republican donor and lacking a paper trail, but I digress ...). As they pull their levers, punch their cards, or tap fitfully on their computer screens, I suspect that few Americans, if any, will be thinking about what I have come to view as the most important issue facing the next administration.

Am I talking about the war in Iraq? The sagging economy? Global warming? Steroids in baseball? Actually, all of them, because the concern I have would affect how we handle all of these problems (except steroids, I'm afraid). I believe that the next president's most important task will be to determine how to position the country in light of the new world order created in the last seven years, mostly, but not entirely, as a result of the incompetency, arrogance and hostility of the George W. Bush presidency.

Whether you like Bush's job performance or not (and judging by polls, the overwhelming odds are that you fall into the "not" category), it is virtually impossible to argue with the assertion that the United States has far less sway and influence in the world today than it did on September 12, 2001. As Bush perpetuated crime upon crime on the world, from the Iraq invasion itself, to the use of torture, to the public spectacle of Abu Ghraib, to the embarrassment of Guantanamo Bay, nations recoiled, and my feeling deepened that the U.S. had lost its moral authority on the world stage. After all, how can we protest human rights abuses abroad when we perpetuate them ourselves?

But my feeling that the loss of U.S. influence in the world is the paramount issue facing the next president was solidified when I read a detailed, in-depth, fascinating article written by Parag Khanna that appeared in the January 27 New York Times Magazine.

Khanna argues that while the U.S. was mired in Iraq and pursuing a combative foreign policy, the world was changing, and the administration failed to notice. His thesis is that U.S. dominance has been replaced by a three-way international competition between three powers: The U.S., Europe and China. (If you are wondering about Russia, Khanna argues that it is now "an increasingly depopulated expanse run by Gazprom.gov" that is beholden to, and slowly being absorbed by, Europe.)

The article goes through a number of areas in which the Europeans and Chinese have successfully played the game to expand their influence, and how countries navigating the new world order are strategically pitting the influences of all three powers against one another, making sure that none can assert full control, while maximizing the benefits from all.

Khanna, who has spent years traveling and living in so-called "second-world" nations, makes it clear that the U.S. has not adjusted to this new state of affairs, and, as a result, has lost ground to the Europeans and Chinese, who are manipulating the American missteps to gain power and influence with other nations, even if they are going about it in different ways.

I urge you to read the article in its entirety, since, at the end, Khanna lays out several steps the next president should take to position the U.S. more competitively in the world. While there is too much in the piece to relay every detail in this space, suffice to say that the whole article is loaded with very specific observations about what the U.S. has done wrong, and what the U.S. can do better, around the world.

It is clearly not coincidental that Khanna's long article begins by noting that the Republican and Democratic presidential contenders are debating foreign policy in a way that completely misunderstands the current global situation. He notes that Republicans are feverishly advocating what he calls a "muscular moralism," while Democrats want to "hit a reset button" to return the U.S. to its pre-Bush position of influence. Neither of these approaches, he explains, will work. The U.S. has expended too much of its military resources in Iraq, and even if it didn't, you can't bludgeon countries into doing what you want, so the Republicans are essentially offering a more-of-the-same policy that will continue to fail. And, as much as Democrats would like to turn the clock back to 2000, the world has moved on, and the fact that a Democrat is in office won't change that.

As Americans vote today, they should ask themselves, "Who is most likely to lead the United States in this new world order? Who is forward-thinking enough to expand his/her mind beyond traditional notions of Cold War alliances and us-versus-them mentalities to recognize the issues that are driving the decisions of fellow nations?"

Sure, as much as any other Democrat, I want a president who will pull the U.S. military out of Iraq, reinforce the troops in Afghanistan, institute policies to make the country economically competitive, and take action to stop the ravages of human-induced climate change. But to address these issues properly, we need a leader who recognizes how the world has developed, and how the U.S. can successfully take a leading role in this new global economic and political order.

And yes, of course, my blind item approach to the question is a load of crap. I clearly think that Barack Obama, the only candidate part of a new generation that views the country and the world through a more modern prism, is the remaining candidate best suited to expanding his mind and his ideas on what it means to be a world power.

If the next president can show the vision necessary to navigate the realities of the 21st Century, then smart decisions on Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy and global warming will fall into place. Alas, baseball will have to figure out its issues on its own.