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« Obama is not Bush's third term | Main | Revitalizing national labs for great challenges »
Sunday
Dec142008

World still needs America to lead

Wise men tell Americans that our nation no longer leads this world: We bankrupted ourselves first ideologically through unilateralism, then militarily through "global war," and now financially through the debt crisis. Rising great powers, we are told, now lead the way.

But where do we locate this new leadership?

In Europe's self-absorption over its rising Muslim quotient?

In Russia's self-inflicted economic penance for its smackdown of Georgia?

In India's crippling obsession with Pakistan?

In China's super-cooling economy and the social unrest it'll trigger?

In Japan's - whatever Japan is doing nowadays?

So which foreign leader has captured the world's attention with his promise of changed leadership?

Ah, that would be Barack Obama, president-elect of that has-been superpower.

Amidst the most destabilizing global economic crisis since the Great Depression, no great power has stuck its neck out to claim new authority in the international system.

Instead, our presidential interregnum has triggered an odd calm, with even last month's global economic summit effectively postponed until Obama's inauguration.

I'm not suggesting we haven't reached the end of an era because we have, just that the new boss is going to look an awful lot like the old boss.

The world remains a dangerous place. Not in terms of state-on-state war but because the previously enclaved West has exposed itself, through globalization's rapid expansion, to a host of lower-trust environments - the "wild" East and South.

So failed states rank higher than Pentagon fantasies of high-tech war with our biggest creditor, China.

So do transnational terrorists capable of temporarily sowing chaos across networks, like they recently did in Mumbai.

The deeply netted West either continues integrating globalization's wild frontiers or we increasingly fall prey to their worst exports - terror, instability, epidemics, piracy, etc. There are no Maginot Lines worth building and no "strategic" defenses that can keep us safe, only a robust resilience to be spread and enforced.

In this world, there is only one great power able to project military force distant from its shores for lengthy periods - the United States. As that force is currently tied down in two quagmires of our own making, numerous other chronic conflicts in globalization's off-grid locations are allowed to burn, baby, burn, benefiting our true enemies.

The solution is two-fold: (1) Sufficiently unwind America's military interventions so as to free up its hard-power resources for leadership likewise needed elsewhere, and (2) enlist the military cooperation of those rising great powers in globalization's defense.

That means our future president better be able to build a "team of rivals" not merely in his cabinet but likewise in this global economy of our creation.

While no competing pole will soon offer the global economy the same demand function long supplied by U.S. consumers, we'll need help here, too.

America's implicit Marshall Plan of the last three decades, by which we funded Asia's export-driven rise through our unsustainable consumption in return for Asia's financing of our debt and thus purchasing of our worldwide military Leviathan services, has run its logical course.

We can't borrow any more and thus can't police anywhere else without a dramatic renegotiation of that great power compact.

Furthermore, both aging West and rising East must come together to create and nurture markets among globalization's bottom-of-the-pyramid populations, for there will be found, in China's and India's rural interior as well as Africa's untapped labor pools, tomorrow's dramatically expanded global middle class. That's where our economic competition with China truly lies: seeing who captures the most new markets in coming years.

In the end, this unfolding drama we call globalization cannot advance without its chronically ambivalent lead - its Hamlet. For, if America does not lead the world's great powers against today's sea of troubles, there will be no fortunes preserved - much less won - and only further slings and arrows to be suffered.

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