America’s second chance at global leadership

December 11, 2012

Read between the lines of the U.S. intelligence community’s quadrennial global trends report, a document released this week that has significant influence on White House thinking, and the message to President Obama is clear.

First, the United States is at a far more crucial juncture of human history than most Americans realize – reminiscent of 1815, 1918, 1945 and 1989. Second, the United States has something that is unprecedented among the world’s great powers, a second chance to shape the international economic and political system.

Read more deeply, and you’ll find a stark warning for the president within the National Intelligence Council’s 140-page “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” report.  The world may suffer severe consequences – ranging from economic slowdown and environmental catastrophe to violent conflict and global anarchy – if the U.S. fails to act, escape the fiscal cliff, restore its political effectiveness, revive its economic competitiveness, and engage China and a host of other rising actors.

The NIC lays out the stakes clearly for the U.S.:

How the U.S. evolves over the next 15-20 years – a big uncertainty – and whether the U.S. will be able to work with new partners to reinvent the international system will be among the most important variables in the future shape of the global order. Although the United States’ (and the West’s) relative decline vis-à-vis the rising states is inevitable, its future role in the international system is much harder to project: the degree to which the U.S. continues to dominate the international system could vary widely.

The challenge for U.S. leaders is that their margin of error is much smaller than it was after World War II. Then, America’s share of global GDP was 50% – more than twice what it is today. A mixture of post-war devastation and American economic and military dominance empowered the U.S. to construct, with friends and allies, a global institutional architecture that included the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a host of others.

Today, the relative decline of U.S. political and economic power, an ongoing euro zone crisis that saps key allies’ energies and confidence, and the rise of China weaken American leverage. According to the NIC report, by 2030, Asia will surpass North America and Europe “in terms of global power.” The factors are a combination of economic size, population, military spending and technological investment. The NIC says China will pass U.S. GDP in the 2020’s.

Though dampened, America’s ability to lead remains significant through 2030 due to its unique economic, social and military assets and the lack of any single or group of powers willing to supplant its global role.

Beyond that, many of the trends outlined by the NIC report may be uniquely favorable to U.S. prospects, including new energy extraction and manufacturing technologies that could in the best case help underpin average economic growth for the U.S. by as much as 2.7 percent per year through 2030.

The NIC also focuses on technology-driven “individual empowerment” as the first of four megatrends that will reduce poverty and double the size of the global middle class through 2030. The report calls it a “tectonic shift” that means “for the first time, a majority of the world’s population will not be impoverished.” This is not a guarantee of a move toward greater democracy or western values, but middle class populations make greater demands for accountable, responsible, transparent governance. Individual empowerment, however, has a darker side that means individuals and small groups will have greater access to lethal and disruptive technologies, “enabling them to perpetrate large-scale violence – a capability formerly the monopoly of states.”

The NIC, which serves as the intelligence community’s center for medium and long-term analysis, does not have a mandate to recommend policy from its findings. That is left to organizations like the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank and public policy group. (Disclosure: I am president of the council and, in its non-government capacity, it has convened many of the global workshops that contributed to the NIC report).

The Atlantic Council’s report – “Envisioning 2030: US Strategy for a Post-Western World,” proposes an approach that starts with President Obama recognizing the magnitude of the moment and the likelihood that his actions now will have consequences that will be felt for generations.

President Obama has been right to focus on “nation-building at home.” U.S. economic and innovative strength is the foundation for any global leadership role. However, even a revitalized U.S. economy won’t be enough to secure the future.

The U.S., with less absolute power, must act more creatively and collaboratively. What one already sees in the Arab Awakening in the Middle East is that national power will compete with new, multifaceted and amorphous networks – enabled by technology and instant communication.

At the same time, the U.S. must safeguard its longest standing alliance, NATO, and its most important strategic asset, Europe, by helping its allies manage the euro zone crisis while promoting a transatlantic free trade, investment and economic cooperation agreement.

The Obama administration must also deepen U.S.-Chinese cooperation, the most important single factor shaping the international system. A broad array of issues are at stake, such as multilateral institutions, the global financial system, the nuclear future, cyber security, climate change and global resource scarcity.

The Obama administration also has an immediate need to address  instability in the greater Middle East, from North Africa to Pakistan, where potential threats include nuclear-armed regional powers, failed nuclear states and terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps the most powerful message to President Obama from the NIC report is the following: Getting re-elected was the easy part. How he manages this juncture in human history, a much more difficult task, will determine his legacy.

U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he delivers remarks on the economy to employees at the Daimler Detroit Diesel plant in Redford, Michigan, December 10, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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I’m sure glad the neocons aren’t calling the shots at this critical juncture.

Posted by PCScipio | Report as abusive

Not the neocons maybe – only the delusional.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I think this should be titled “America’s possibly last chance at global leadership”.

America tremendous gains with wars and capitalized on pushing it’s ware internationally – with good media blitzes and sometime with political strong arming.

The internet has made a joined world where there are all eyes on everyone with a Western moralistic view – so old tactics will not work as well as in the past.

Also – America sold itself short with quick gain by endorsing free trade. Free trade is really unfair trade when 2 countries trade freely with different standards of living and regulations. It has helped multi-nationals and weakened America.

Free trade also encouraged a massive drain of Intellectual IP to be transferred to countries willing to setup manufacturing to make multi-nationals make more money.

We are pretty well at the cross roads. Will America continue to lead or are they being pushed aside and the world will more and more be led by multi-nationals who dominate finance and can strong arm any government around the world very easily. We will know a lot more clearly in a decade.

Based on Obama’s lack of leadership with dealing with multi-nationals increasing global powers – I suspect America will continue to weaken over the next 4 years.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

I am sorry but the whole concept is wrong.
“Global leadership” is an oxymoron. A global interconnected network humanity evolved into means a net of cogwheels, where independent of the size each cogwheel is equally important for the optimal work of the system.
Thus “leadership” as we understand it at the moment does not exist. Mutual cooperation, mutual service to the global system is a more appropriate expression.
Up to this point no leading power has applied any global thinking at all, any planning or action has been and is still based on very subjective self-calculations, many times ruthlessly instigating, perpetuating faraway conflicts just to keep their own boat floating happily.
Moreover the “American Dream” still stubbornly pushed on with its excessive overproduction and over consumption has become self destructive, leading to the deepening economical and financial crisis which has no solution using the present attitude and paradigm.
Thus the Americans have a lot of thinking and readjusting to do, they could become a positive example for others to follow, but it seems unlikely they would provide it soon.

Posted by ZGHerm | Report as abusive

This is really an excellent piece. Thank you, Frederick Kempe.

My first thought after reading this was what PCScipio, and what I think paintcan, stated. George Bush and the Republicans severely hurt US credibility abroad, giving us a jump start in our waning influence around the globe. The Republicans are constantly playing these high stakes political games here at home and on the international stage that are doing more damage with each passing year. The Iraq War was a travesty we have yet to fully realize. There was the game of chicken they played with the debt ceiling that hurt our credit rating. There’s the refusal to work with the global community to devise a plan to come to grips with climate change when we should actually be playing a leadership role. Recently the GOP nixed a UN treaty that would have helped establish universal protections for the disabled, this party that likes to remind their constituents of their “Christian” values. They signed into law a ban prohibiting Medicare from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices, and now complain about the cost of Medicare, insisting that Obama make cuts in Medicare (just don’t insist on lower drug prices). And currently they’re engaged in a clown act refusing to raise taxes on America’s wealthiest 2% even after Obama was reelected promising that the wealthiest would have to pay their fair share, a position endorsed by voters. Republicans would see taxes rise on 98% of American tax payers in order to protect the current rates for the richest 2%. Now that’s crazy.

I could go on and on, but that’s more than sufficient. And I’m not arguing that the Democrats are perfect, as no political system and its actors are. The Democrats are also too beholden to special interests due to the way our election system has evolved and the reliance on campaign donations, and that is a very serious problem. But this is not a case of he said/she said with equal wrongs being committed on both sides. The Republicans have spun out of control beyond what our system can contain and still function properly.

So when I read about this NIC report I worry. The potential is still with us to do much of what the NIC is recommending, and in the process, get this country back on a track that could serve our nation well for a long time to come. But that can’t happen as long as the GOP is willing to sacrifice our best interests to further their partisan goals, goals that are often muddled, unrealistic, and detrimental to our country and the world. They have the power to sink us, and they’re doing a pretty good job. Obama will probably never fully realize his potential because most of his energy is absorbed trying to keep the Republicans from destroying his Presidency, and that’s a real shame. They don’t want our President to succeed primarily because he’s not a Republican. This new unwritten Republican doctrine of trying to prevent the Democrats from succeeding at anything they try to do as a governing party leaves us with the choice between a stalled, obstructed government or with an authoritarian-style government that is mistrusting of science, has little respect for competing ideas, and hasn’t demonstrated good governing judgement for too long now. So unless that dynamic changes, we will fail to live up to the opportunities and the responsibilities presented in the NIC report.

I see one possible glimmer of hope on the horizon, revealed in our recent election. Somewhat ironically, it looks like the country’s hopes could ultimately rest on a coalition of minorities and progressives, and other Caucasians disillusioned with the GOP. Such a coalition is less likely to be persuaded by the constant flood of misinformation that’s disseminated throughout our media, the kind of propaganda that keeps many Americans believing things like global warming is a myth; ours is the best healthcare system in the world and anything else would be socialism, which is evil; Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks and if we don’t invade Iraq we could be waking up to a mushroom cloud; and the more we lower taxes on the rich, the more jobs they’ll create. GOP backers will scoff at such a notion because their perception of those who would make up this coalition is that they’re a bunch of dumb, lazy moochers, as evidenced by Romney’s 47% comments. But that’s patently absurd. These people, and I count myself among them, want the Great Experiment to work as much as each successive American generation from the time of our Founding Fathers to the present, and apparently more so than the current GOP.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

If this is America’s last chance, it is too bad that their leadership is so inept. Doesn’t matter which extreme wing of the political spectrum you look at. They are all self serving a and inept.

Posted by Grog415 | Report as abusive

@flashrooster — what a great encapsulation of our current political dilemma. The only thing I’d add is that we won’t emerge from this sorry state until the voters get smarter. The number of people who supported Romney only because they thought that Obama hadn’t done enough so it was time for a switch is astonishing. I wholeheartedly agree that Obama didn’t succeed, but the only realistic alternative was going to be a disaster, a return to the very policies that had created the crisis in the first place. We need to demand more of our politicians, and voting for “change for the sake of change” is just plain stupid, and we can’t afford such luxuries anymore. Sometimes I despair of mass democracy as a viable political system.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

Sanity-Monger: Thanks, and I couldn’t agree more with your addendum. The responsibility ultimately rests with the voters. We have to get better informed and do a better job of participating.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

No there is not more chance. The ‘world’ doesn’t want this so called leading (really pushing, arm twisting & cohersion). We already have our own governments and don’t need any additional ones.

Posted by StigTW | Report as abusive

We have been living on the victor’s spoils of World War II and Cold War hysteria for 60 years and rightly so. Along the way we provided the resources for the rebuilding of Europe (The Marshal Plan)and Japan. We provided the seed money for globalization and provided a standing army for keeping the peace around the world. We built NATO with the intent of stopping Communism.
As witnessed by our providing troops and air support in the Balkans (under Clinton)and other conflicts we became democracies policemen because the same European countries that we rebuilt crippled their military to fund socialism.
Whenever there is a problem requiring force they depend completely on us. Witness the conflict in Libya. We paid the bill for all of the weaponry expended even though we led from behind. Europe’s oil was at stake!
After 75 years on this planet I don’t recognize my country any more. There really was such a thing as American Exceptionalism. Now we have become a nation of entitlements, huge ineffective government, class warfare and “fairness”. Life isn’t fair!
We’ve dumbed down our educational system and gone broke doing it. It’s time to wake up to the fact that our political polarization is killing us.

Posted by Pilgrim1620 | Report as abusive

@Pilgrim1620- If political polarization doesn’t do it – economic polarization will.

Be happy you’re an old man and won’t have to live with it too much longer. I’m about 15 years younger than you and I tell myself that.

Life may not be fair but law – even international law – is expected to be. International law doesn’t recognize “super power” anymore than the Constitution of this country recognizes “super citizens”. The UN is another matter and recognizes five “super powers”; for now, anyway.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive