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Sunday
Feb172008

Re-aligning America's grand strategy  

I'm writing a book right now that tackles the question, "What really constitutes grand strategy in the age of globalization?" By that I mean a vision of a desirable future world and your country's favorable position therein, plus a plan to get there that logically employs your nation's available resources. I ask that proximate question to explore the one that's ultimately on everybody's mind today: Where do we go from here?

America's current definition of grand strategy seems to be working the shoulders of globalization's Bell curve: obsessing over terrorists on one end and democracy on the other.

Global terrorism constitutes a tiny slice of reality, while democracy, sitting atop Maslow's hierarchy of needs, is hardly the historical show-stopper right now that America thinks it is. Even without any additional wave of democratization, our world is transforming thanks to a tsunami of unleashed market activity, commodity demand and investment flows.

Today America sees a very different world than the rest of the planet does: We want it instantly tidied up with no terrorists and no autocrats and no environmental damage - a "getting it right at all costs" grand strategy. Meanwhile, that young, ambitious non-Western chunk of humanity focuses on an entirely different agenda - a "getting ahead at all costs" grand strategy. As a result, when our leaders speak to the world, they are not heard.

That's a big problem, not so much because America's the only nation capable of leading but because it's a more uncertain world when we're perceived as losing our way. Our "go-go" economic philosophy has long been countered, as it should be, by Europe's "go slow" focus on successfully integrating its poorer neighbors. The world is a better place for having that debate, so long as both sides admit there's something to learn from one another.

But, today, too much of the world seems to view our "go-go" as having got up and gone off the deep end of seemingly extreme, self-serving goals. Looking ahead, most emerging markets are emulating the Chinese model of development at all costs and no responsibility - a sort of "don't start thinking about tomorrow" mindset.

That's not to condemn emerging markets for wanting all the same things we enjoy. Heck, we talked them into going down this path in the first place! Rather, it's just to point out how much all that non-Western economic activity is reshaping our world because that's where we find the truly inescapable challenges of our age.

The world's population grows by roughly 50 percent between now and 2050, at which point it levels off at between 9 billion to 10 billion people. If we made that journey at current consumption rates, that alone would trigger huge planet-wide changes. But the reality is that worldwide income will rise dramatically over time, thanks to globalization, and thus consumption will skyrocket.

Global energy use will increase by more than 50 percent by 2030, but that number is deceiving. In the West it will grow by only a quarter while in the non-West it will roughly double. With incomes growing twice as fast in the non-West, that's where we'll see the most growth in disposable income, meaning far more demand for oil to fuel transportation, coal to generate electricity, food to meet higher rates of caloric intake, and water to grow food and lubricate industrial production.

Add that all up, and it's no surprise that the non-West now generates - for the first time in recorded history - more carbon emissions than the West, and yes, that gap will grow dramatically in coming decades.

When I look across this century, I see two global challenges: (1) how to get to 2050 without overheating the planet and (2) how to realign the international system for looming hyper-interdependency among states on resources. Frankly, all notions of clashing civilizations or global insurgencies pale before inescapable reality, which is why it's so essential that America redefine its currently narrow grand strategy of defending the homeland to something far broader like securing the future.

If we don't re-calibrate this dialogue, America will continue to lose relevance in the world as a model for the way ahead. That would be an abdication of responsibility, given our historical status as source code for this era's globalization.

After having joined this party, the world simply deserves better from its host.

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