On 27 July 2007 I wrote a blog entry entitled “Moral Power, Leadership, and American Strategy.” It traced the United States’ current weakness to its long neglected reserve of moral authority. Beginning with a worldview that includes moral authority as a source of international power, I used a modified version of dynamic differentials theory to foresee a course correction in American grand strategy. The data indicated the United States was in the first stage of the cycle: vague recognition of a problem. Next the American citizenry would develop a deep sense of insecurity and dissatisfaction with the leaders who allowed the problem to develop. This would culminate in the election of political leaders capable of transformational diplomacy that promises to restore this critical component of power. I offered that this moment in history is a time for such leaders, noted that history has a habit of producing them when needed, and hoped it would do so again.
All this has come to pass. What’s next?
Primary among the tempting pitfalls of electoral mandate is the ease of policy oversteer. Just as a car skidding in an icy turn will crash into one side of the road if the driver does not take corrective action, it will just as surely crash into the other side if the driver overreacts. Precipitous, poorly gauged change could be just as disastrous as no change at all. Great challenges tempt grand solutions, yet the creation of international structures and signing of international treaties must remain consistent with American interests. High-level talks must end in far-reaching accords, not petty positioning, geopolitical stalemate, and self-serving propaganda.
The choices the new administration will make in the next six months are of enormous importance to long-term national security, the preeminence of American power, and the continuation of American primacy. I laid out several prescriptions in "How to Extend American Hegemony: A Strategy Guide" on 13 July 2007. Numerous potential missteps beckon, while uncounted golden opportunities lie undiscovered. Distinguishing the paths to success from the roads to misfortune will require clear-eyed prescience and steeled resolve.
The new administration’s most pressing task in foreign relations: defining a clear vision of America in the world. As I noted previously, American grand strategy has lacked a set of unifying goals since failed efforts at creating a New World Order following the Cold War. Once regarded as a city on a hill and a shining beacon of freedom, the United States has tarnished its image in the eyes of the world with a series of policies and actions that contradict these values. American unwillingness to lead on global issues such as genocide in Darfur, climate change, and the development of international society and law have contributed significantly to this perception.
The next administration must set forth a clear and detailed plan for restoring American exceptionalism. This requires a clear articulation of the reasons the world has shown a preference for American-style democratic, republican, and free-market values. This must be followed by a series of confidence-building measures that demonstrate a renewed American commitment to the principles and policies that placed the United States atop the international system. These measures must incur a cost to short-term American power in order to be credible.
The time has come for transformational diplomacy. Concepts such as "the homeland is the planet" and "national security requires international security" can change the way Americans and their foreign brethren identify their basic interests. President Obama can take clear and concrete steps to demonstrate the United States is worthy of international trust. Closing Guantanamo Bay’s detention centers and ending the practices of warrantless wiretapping and quasi-legal detainment are good ways to start. They send a clear signal that the world’s most powerful nation remains answerable to its own laws and treaties. At the same time, the United States must decide once and for all if terrorism is an international crime, an act of war, or some third, possibly hybrid, sphere of jurisdiction. Until it does so, it cannot provide credible – or even comprehensible – international legal leadership.
Renewed international confidence in America’s respect for the rule of law can lay the basis for an American-led reform of international legal structures. Rather than wrangle over signing onto the World Court, the United States would have an opportunity to recreate international law as something tangible, effective, and in U.S. interests to have and obey.
The rebuilding of the American brand is only one part of the strategy. The U.S. military has been decimated by chronic overreach. Extended deployments and unwillingness by the successive administrations and Congress to expand its size significantly to meet them have strained and exhausted military personnel and equipment. Shortfalls in readiness strength and projection capability are coupled with a lack of international support for American military actions. The time to correct these problems is evaporating quickly. Absent major changes to the federal entitlement system, within the next several decades the Federal government will have little left to spend on improving the U.S. military. Substantial investments to repair and strengthen the U.S. military must be made now, for they will become impossible at a later date.
Finally, none of this will be possible if the United States does not invest wisely in sustainable domestic economic growth. U.S. economic output will vary significantly according to the willingness of government and corporate leaders to create the conditions for productivity. The availability of educated workforces, mid-career training, favorable tax policy and regulations, finance, and business infrastructure will dictate the level of investment and growth. American economic strength will depend on the effectiveness of its economy in developing these factors. Investment in the conditions for economic growth must be made in areas where they will take advantage of American competitiveness, while maintaining a sufficient mix of factors to prevent against single-factor vulnerability.
America has seen the projected path of decline and despondency, decided it was insufficient for so great a nation, and elected to chart a new course. The new path of American history is uncertain, but those who have chosen it believe it will take their country to new heights of prestige and security. Opportunities and pitfalls await the new administration. I can’t wait to see what happens next.