Crafting An American Response to the Rise of the Rest

Salon Magazine asked me and a few others to offer their thoughts on the first year of the Obama Presidency.  My short essay is below.  A version of the essay can be found on the Salon site here. 

Crafting an American Response to the Rise of the Rest

The first year of the Obama Administration was largely reactive to an agenda left by the previous Administration.   The new President and his team have spent their time cleaning up the extraordinary messes left for them – financial crisis, the Great Recession, Guantanamo, exploding deficits, Iraq, deteriorating Afghanistan and Pakistan – and attempting to tackle problems left unaddressed for far too long – climate change and energy policy, health care reform and immigration reform.  

In that regard the agenda of President Obama’s first year was determined to a great degree by the Bush Administration’s strategic reaction to a global political and economic environment which no longer exists.  While President Obama cannot escape the governing inheritance left to him, he can do more to discard the outdated vision and rhetorical framework which came along with it, and begin to offer a much more compelling, modern and Obama-driven take on the challenges ahead and how we must meet them. 

At the core of this 2nd generation Obama narrative must be a strategic response to the most significant transformation taking place in the world today, what Fareed Zakaria has called the “rise of the rest.”  The twenty years of American-led economic liberalization and globalization which followed the collapse of communism has brought – with extraordinary rapidity - dozens of countries and billions of people into the modern economy.  Their growing geopolitical and economic might is creating a radically different global environment than America faced in the 20th century, and arguably even 5-10 years ago when the Bush Administration made the strategic choices Obama is wrestling with today.  

The true scope of this transformation is only really becoming apparent now, and it leaves our new President with the historic opportunity, and tremendous responsibility, to craft a comprehensive strategic response to this global “new politics” of the 21st century.  It will also allow him to extricate himself from the anachronistic rhetorical framework suited for another day and another President. 

This new strategy might have three main elements:

Challenge America To Raise Its Game
– The global economy of the 21st century will be much more competitive for our companies, workers and capital than the century just past.  In the decade since China entered the WTO, for example, median income in the US has actually declined, an unprecedented event we believe is directly tied to more virulent global competition characteristic of this new age.  If America is to have rising standard of livings in the face of what will be extraordinary competition coming from China, India, Brazil, Mexico and many other countries, we will have to raise our game, try harder, invest smarter, accelerate innovation, lessen our exposure to foreign energy sources, over time bring our government's spending and income more in line, modernize our health care system, continuously upgrade our skills and radically improve our public schools.   This agenda is not about enabling the “recovery" of an economic age which will never return, but about building a 21st century American economy and workforce that can successfully compete in a much more competitive world.   

Reimagine the Architecture of Global Governance – The rising powers and their people will want – and deserve – a seat at the global rulemaking table.   We’ve seen the early stages of this new era with the recent discussions about updating the IMF, the swapping of the G20 for the G8 and the assertiveness of India, China and other nations at the recent Copenhagen conference.   The day in which the “Western powers” can call the global shots has come to an end, new arrangements will have to made, and a new and different role for America will have to be crafted.   Existing foreign commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our global counter-terrorism efforts, will need to be explained in this new geopolitical context. 

But at the same time America will have to become a much more spirited advocate for ensuring that this new global political table is one where the traditional American formula of free markets, political liberty, democracy and the rule of law is not watered down or worse replaced by a much less liberal global formula.  At this time when so many people across the world are working to improve their own societies is the most important time for America to recommit itself to the values which have done so much to improve the human condition in recent decades. 

Modernize Government So It Can Do More With Less
– With a huge percentage of the federal workforce hitting retirement age soon, it is an opportune time to start thinking creatively about we can reinvent America’s government for the digital age.  Can we replace large bureaucracies with more entrepreneurial, problem-solving oriented, leaner work forces using the extraordinarily powerful set of new digital tools available to them to deliver better outcomes for less money?  Getting more for less will not only help deal with the growing federal debt, but also help free money up to make the investments needed for America to build a 21st century economy. 

By reorienting his government around meeting the challenge of the rise of the rest and a much more competitive age, President Obama can extricate himself from a faded strategic orientation of a bygone era; give the nation a powerful national mission to rally around in the years ahead; and help ensure continued American prosperity and pre-eminence in a vastly changed world outside our shores.

Update: See this related essay about the role of the ever tougher struggle of every day people in recent American elections, The Great Volatility in the American Electorate Today.

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