As the U.S. prepares to vote, the world watches

October 11, 2012

America’s friends around the globe are watching the presidential elections with a mixture of horror and hope. They are dismayed by the expense, the duration and the self-indulgence of an election campaign that does more to entertain and polarize Americans than to enlighten and galvanize them. Despite that, they hope the U.S. once again will confound its critics and produce the leadership and political will to confront a historic pivot point that is as crucial as World War Two’s immediate aftermath.

It is obvious to me, after recent trips to the Middle East and Europe, that despite all the talk about America’s decline, the world’s thought leaders consider the U.S. vote in November to be of great global significance – even though much of that was absent from President Obama and Governor Romney’s first debate last week.

This significance stems partly from the backlog of crucial issues that is growing too large for any U.S. President to easily manage. More important, however, the election coincides with generational shifts – geopolitical, geo-economic, technological and societal – that add up to the biggest change in political and economic influence and power since the revolutions of the 18th century, which produced America’s rise in the first place.

American debt has reached perilous proportions at a time when the ongoing euro zone crisis could turn even nastier. Meanwhile, the threat of violent conflict spreads. In the Middle East alone, America’s commander in chief must confront Iran’s nuclear proliferation, carnage in Syria and the fragility of new democracies in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Both candidates favor U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan by 2014, but both sweep this issue under the rug for now. Neither has a plan to address the inevitable power vacuum and instability that will result amid the already furious jockeying of the neighboring Iran, China, India and Pakistan.

For all the urgency of those issues, however, what gives this election its historic importance is that Americans will be electing a president who must define their nation’s place in a dramatically changing world. The landscape is driven by factors such as the rapid rise of new powers (in particular, China); individual empowerment – for everyone from terrorists to scientists – of a sort the world has never seen; a growing demand for finite resources like energy, water and food; and demographic shifts that may leave aging societies behind and create ever larger and less manageable megacities.

It was with some hope that the world watched the first presidential debate last week, a refreshing marker in an otherwise desultory campaign. The debate was unusually substantive on economic issues, but it fell far short of addressing the magnitude of the historic moment.

Governor Mitt Romney came closest to referring to such a moment in his closing statement, saying:

I know this is bigger than an election about the two of us as individuals. It’s bigger than our respective parties. It’s an election about the course of America. What kind of America do you want to have for yourself and your children.

Even more compelling had been former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, which has not received the attention it deserves. It captured the urgent need for stronger U.S. leadership and weighed it against the desire of U.S. voters to shed their global burdens following long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq:

And I too know there is a weariness…a sense that we have carried these burdens long enough. But if we are not inspired to lead again, one of two things will happen – no one will lead and that will foster chaos – or others who do not share our values will fill the vacuum.

The president who serves for the next four years will lead as the combined national products of Europe and the United States fall below that of the emerging world. This era will require a different sort of American leadership, one with a deeper and more determined engagement than has been the Obama administration’s preference, but also one that must go far beyond the nostalgia for an unrecoverable past. Governor Romney referred to these roots of history in a major foreign policy address to the Virginia Military Institute this week. In his speech, Romney understands the need for American leadership, but his thinking is rooted in the past. Recalling the period after World War Two, when America contributed to the rebuilding of Europe, Romney said:

Statesmen like [General George] Marshall rallied our nation to rise to its responsibilities as the leader of the free world. We helped our friends to build and sustain free societies and free markets. We defended our friends and ourselves from our common enemies. We led. We led.

The world still needs and wants American leadership, but of a different, less dominant and more sophisticated variety. In this post-Western world, U.S. leadership will mean not only dealing more effectively with close and trusted friends to preserve a global system shaped by the right values, but at the same time, working more effectively with countries that don’t share our values. We must strive with them to establish common interests.

If the U.S. fails to lead, the outcome is not likely to be its replacement by a similarly well-intentioned power or group of powers, but probably a dangerous power vacuum of uncertain consequences. For the foreseeable future it will be the United States acting, not unilaterally, but rather as the only possible “pivotal power” around which positive historic change can galvanize.

The question is not whether America can pass the global baton, but whether it will be dropped, because for the moment there is no one to pick it up.

Editor’s note: This column has been updated to include a sentence dropped in the original editing process.

PHOTO: Supporters cheer while U.S. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Fishersville, Virginia October 4, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

7 comments

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Very well written article. Thank you.

It is a pleasure to read (for a change) an article written by someone who understands the true position of this nation right now, as well as its challenges going into the future.

I will not vote for either candidate since I do not care to lend my support to either faction that is clearly destroying this nation.

I would vote for anyone who says what you just did and mean it, of course.

I do not put much stock in what politicians say, thus I view your quotations from Romney and Rice as nothing more than political rhetoric, which we do not need.

Your article would have been much better without the quotations from these people.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Yes, excellent article, facts, observations. Kudos!

@Gordon2352,

A vote not cast still has consequences. In a choice between bad and worse, I will vote for the “bad”.

Why? BECAUSE I DON’T WANT WORSE. One thing that makes this easier…neither side will be able to claim a “mandate”.

I just wish I could put a name to “bad” and “worse”. I am still “undecided”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@ OneOfTheSheep –

Yes, I understand full well a decision not to vote still has consequences, but I find I can no longer support this government’s political system.

In my view, a vote cast for either side would be seen as an affirmation of what they are doing and I will not do that. Look at it as my own personal way of protesting this regime.

Essentially, this government has degenerated to the point where it is simply a disgraceful public display of two groups of the wealthy class fighting over the spoils of this country that BOTH parties helped destroy.

What they — and, indeed, all governments — never seem to learn is they remain in power at the pleasure of the people they are in power to serve, not just the wealthy class that has the most political clout.

The problem lies in human nature and can never be changed, only controlled. The problem arises when one group gains sufficient power over another by whatever means. When that occurs at a certain point, they will inevitably abuse that power.

The problem right now is the wealthy class, which was relatively restrained during the Great Depression — due mainly to strict trade and banking regulations — has once again manged to throw off those restraints.

What you and the American people don’t seem to realize is the that the decades after WWII were a huge anomaly in this country’s pathetic history of human rights violations. You will realize it quite soon.

The war loosened their economic and political restraints, and because they needed to poor to fight for them, the wealthy class presented their “Chinese face” to the American people, meaning everything they said and did was done with duplicity to gain their power back again. The inevitable “will to power” began to assert itself immediately after WWII.

While the US was growing in the decades after WWII, the rise of the middle class — a social and economic phenomenon which had never happened before in this country — tended to act as a brake on their rise to power.

However, by the 1970s the acceleration of free trade had already begun to take its toll on the US economy as the wealthy began to outsource jobs to the global economy, mainly Japan at that point.

Since then, especially with the rise of free trade with China in the early 1980s, the wealthy class has made tremendous progress in throwing off their remaining restraints.

For example, combining commercial banking with investment banking, which had been specifically forbidden to them since the early 1930s, mainly because it was one of the major reasons for the 1920s speculative rise in the stock markets and responsible for the market crash of 1929.

Along with that, they continually worked to remove trade restrictions that hampered their profits, until finally they managed to convince the American people that “free trade” was a good thing, and not the massive scam it really is. Yes, “real” free trade as outlined by Adam Smith is a good thing that benefits both parties, but this is not free. It is a twisted version of neo-con free trade, which benefits only the wealthy.

Finally, due to the massive profits coming in from unlimited free trade and favorable banking regulations, they accumulated enough political power to begin working on tax legislation to support their clandestine efforts to regain their power to what it was before they caused this country to crash in 1929 through their own greed and stupidity.

Now, they are nearly back at their full power.

Only the final changes in tax regulations remain — to shift the burden of taxation fully onto the middle class who they now see as a drain on the US economy, instead of an asset — to make it complete, which will drive the middle class into poverty once again, which is where the vast majority of this country’s population have been for most of the 200+ years of this nation’s proud “democracy”.

Our own history shows where we are going, and it will not be pretty if/when the wealthy succeed in going backwards in time, which is clearly their intent.

What most people don’t understand is that for most of its history this country has been no better than a third world country with a history of terrible exploitation of the poor by the wealthy class. Name a class of people — American Indians, Blacks, Europeans, Chinese, Hispanic, etc. — and this country has exploited them on a regular basis.

Why would you expect it to be any different now? If you think the wealthy class has changed, you haven’t been paying attention to what they are saying. And I don’t mean the political rhetoric, which is designed solely to placate the middle class fears. For example, the classic example is the quotations by Romney and Rice in the above article, which is clearly out of place with the overall tone if what is being said. The problem is the middle class has grown uneasy with their government, which is a good thing, but they don’t understand the reason for their unease, which is a bad thing.

There is truth in the old saying that those who don’t remember history are always forced to repeat it, or some variation of it. Even the wealthy revisionist version of it taught in schools cannot completely conceal the excesses of the wealthy class in the mistreatment of the immigrant populations coming here in the expectation of better living and working conditions.

Much of the immigration was supported by the wealthy class who desperately needed cheap labor. For example, the wealthy advertised and often paid for in advance ship passage for many European immigrants, who were then indebted to the wealthy who brought them here under false pretenses, thus creating a condition little better than slavery for most through “indentured servitude”. Solely, because the wealthy class wanted cheap labor as the country expanded westward.

Why hire existing US labor — Black slaves, for example, after the Civil War ended when you can import cheaper labor through a system that creates new slaves to be ground under for “progress” — this was the essence of the US “Manifest Destiny” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_d estiny) that has permeated the wealthy class since the country was formed, to grow at the expense of anyone or anything that got in the way of the wealthy class in their drive to power.

The truth about this much-vaunted “immigrant society” is that those who came for the promise of a better life were the victims of a massive scam that destroyed their way of life and forced them into ghettos by the wealthy class, all for the sake of profits.

That is the ugly truth that lies beneath what is happening now — the wealthy want that kind of Social Darwinism power once again.

Why would I vote for system that intends to do that to this country as soon as it can?

I know nothing I can say will change anyone’s mind, hence my frustration, but I am compelled to say it nevertheless. I do not understand why.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

I just noticed there is a broken link in my comment above. It is vital you understand what I mean so I am resending the link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_de stiny

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

By the way, in another Reuters article, which has since been pulled, someone disputed my claim that this country is “fatally flawed”, and cannot continue as it is.

Manifest Destiny is that “fatal flaw”.

It underlies everything this country does as a nation, even today, as the article points out.

If you want to understand the real truth about what is going on in this country, you MUST read Manifest Destiny in its entirety.

It details and explains the American psyche as it really is — the dark underbelly of what we really are as a nation and a people.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_de stiny

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

@Gordon2352,

I went to your link and found much intrigue, dishonesty, claims to divine purpose, racism, virtually all of the dark side of humanity. What I did NOT find was any logical support for your obvious hatred of this country.

You say that “…poverty…is where the vast majority of this country’s population have been for most of the 200+ years of this nation’s proud “democracy”. I’m sorry, but that is just plain silly.

The “average American” by any reasonable metric has lived a life of relative luxury when compared to anywhere else at a given point of time. For many, many years, America was the only country in which the “poor” drove!

And, by the way, in every country and society in every time there has been a “wealthy class”. From them have traditionally come the vision, organization, management and funds for necessary development.

In America we don’t envy them, pursue them and chop their heads off. Quite the contrary. We aspire to succeed and join them. We genuinely believe we can. We work, in general, harder, longer and smarter than our peers in other countries. Our productivity, both individual and collectively is very high.

That means, in most years, our economic “pie” is bigger than the year before. Whenn that bigger pie is divided, each seated around “our” table gets more; proof positive that our “system” not only works, but works WELL! It has long been the better, by far, of genuinely available choices. Is it perfect? No.

But some would say perfection is for God, and you and I are but mere humans; as are those around us. It is enough that we can do our personal best.

In Europe and elsewhere one’s upward path was through family lineage and connections, intrigue, betrayal, war…absolutely nothing predictable or admirable. The “best and brightest” did not wind up “running things”. Each “new order” was merely a different hand on the knife carving up the same, unchanged economic “pie”.

You don’t look at the life we live today and arbitrarily dismiss the path of history. The lives and individual productivity of Americans have so consistently outperformed every other contemporary society that nations have sent their “best and brightest” to try and divine what America’s “secret” was.

You ask: “Why hire existing US labor — Black slaves, for example, after the Civil War ended when you can import cheaper labor through a system that creates new slaves to be ground under for “progress”.

Before there was the term” Manifest destiny”, Americans were bringing “cheap labor…black slaves” here from Africa. But ultimately more and more of those slaves
would find freedom in these United States at least for their descendants.

Immigrants from China were brought in, yes, as “cheap labor”, but stayed and have done quite well in their adopted society. So have the Italians and the Irish.

You seem to dismiss the reality that before the arrival of Europeans in America, American Indians made war on each other and took horses, blankets, slaves and brides. In Africa it was blacks who captured and sold blacks into slavery. Europeans have fought and enslaved one another since the Roman Empire and classical Greece, as have the Chinese. It is not America that is thus indicted, but a “fatal flaw” in humanity itself forever awaiting opportunity.

So if the initial price were high, conditions harsh and success elusive or long delayed, in each case these people’s descendants work alongside other Americans, go to the same schools, fight in the same wars, compete for the same jobs, drive the same cars, and shop in the same malls. Their hopes and dreams are the same any American. It is THIS which has been the reality of the American psyche.

I’ll agree that it is time to restore constraints on individual excess; whether it be on “too big to fail” companies, whole industries whose contracts require Americans to forfeit their right to a jury in case of dispute. It should be someone’s :job” to reign in medical monopolies, a privileged political class who give themselves indefensible raises, the union bureaucrat class, as well as union teachers, firefighters, postmen, etc. that have no genuine advocate of “we, the people” across from them at the negotiating tables.

But nobody’s stepping up to “the plate”. I’m not sure how to fix that. But I’m sure it’s possible. Since, in the end, the greatest recurring threat is human nature itself, we can’t “fix” that merely by changing governments.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

A good post by Frederick Kempe and some thought provoking reader comments. This sort of dialogue is why I continue to rate Reuters as one of my major news sources.

Although Reuters hews the liberal line in many of its headline stories, if you dig a little deeper, as in the present case, the news service is definitely a cut above the so-called main stream media.

Keep up the good work Reuters! (Even though a bit liberal.)

Posted by nikacat | Report as abusive