Ask Not What the World Can Do for America…

The build-up to Super Tuesday has provided a forum both for criticism of the Bush Administration and for discussion of the domestic challenges the next President will face. However, analysis of the US’s wider global responsibilities and opportunities has been somewhat neglected. Certainly the war in Iraq and the ill-defined sense of how candidates would approach “foreign policy” have claimed their share of airtime, but there is a broader – arguably more important debate – to be had. How should the US define its place within the globalizing world?

Globalization has re-defined the scale of our problems. In response, the US needs to re-define the context of her politics. A sustainable solution for the persistent antagonisms within the Middle East, addressing the poverty of Africa, the global ramifications of climate change, the US’s place within a globalizing economy. These four challenges must be amongst those most likely to keep the next President up at night, yet they are not those that are most often being heard about by the electorate.

Of course defining the way in which the US plays a constructive and committed part in global issues is more a political bear trap than gold mine, but it is a moral imperative and – perhaps more influentially – is becoming a geo-political necessity.


In a time of some, though perhaps not enough, soul-searching and analysis it is useful to remember the more successful of America’s foreign interventions: America’s leadership in rebuilding Europe during the post-war period, her spear-heading of the NATO campaign to end the Kosovo War and the support given to the development of the governments and economies of Russia, China and India over the last decade that has helped bring about reform and buoyed the emergence of a global market, setting 3 billion people on the road to some degree of financial stability. However, these positive moves can all be balanced by less successful ventures.

In the Middle East we see a long history of inconsistency; whether in Iran with the Shah, in Iraq with Saddam, or in Afghanistan where the US withdrew all support from indigenous Afghanis after defeating the Soviet army (support that Osama Bin-Laden and the Taliban were glad to provide). This “love me, love me not” policy set the historical backdrop to the Iraq war which further stimulates anti-US feeling in the region.

At the heart of this issue, the great challenge for the next President will be to meet the popular demand for resolution to the war in Iraq with a policy that does more than just satisfy a domestic need, but acts in the global interest. This should include equitable power sharing between Sunnis and Shia within the Iraqi parliament in order to stabilize the country in the long-run. It will also require that the US commit to a presence in Iraq to support rebuilding the nation and a strong and durable infrastructure. While a troop reduction and withdrawal are perhaps inevitable, they must not mean disengagement. There is a crucial need that the US invests to support the economy and trade, education and cultural understanding.

Looking at Israel we not only see a fractured landscape that still experiences the pain and displacement from the British Colonial era, but the deadlock over Palestinian borders, in particular the division of Jerusalem, that have been carried over from the 67’ war. While the Palestinians and Israelis have made many mistakes over the years, through violence and failed peace negotiations, we have to acknowledge that the landscape of the Middle East has changed. Iran has emerged as a major power broker, fueling anti-American sentiment amongst Shiites and Sunni alike, funding Hamas (allegedly) and Hezbollah, and extending their reach by building civil infrastructure in North Africa and Afghanistan. This means that injustices such as the continued confinement of the Palestinians in Gaza, deprived not only of economy and hope but basic necessities, will work not only to create greater radicalism amongst Palestinians themselves, but invite other actors within the region to operate on the their behalf. The chance for greater conflict throughout the world as a result of this perceived injustice is immense. Walls and violence are not solutions, trade and education are.

The US must also renew and maintain a dialogue with Iran in order to advance its cause against Iranian nuclear armament and Iran’s involvement in Iraq and Lebanon. This can be done only by working extensively at the international level, with a new level of equitable collaboration that both maximizes the impact of the UN, and brings Russia and China onside to pressure Iran. War must be avoided at all costs. The anti-US sentiment in the region drives the strength of those fringe groups that are the greatest threats to regional, indeed global, stability. A proper dialogue with Iran is in everyone’s best interest, including Iran’s whose own provocations cannot be ignored.

In Africa, while the Bush Administration deserves credit for the $9 billion invested in development and humanitarian aid allocated to the continent until 2010, the needs of Africa are long-term and structural. For Africa to become a true partner with the global community, it must be supported in its efforts to create strong independent economies and establish the rule of law. This is the only way to ensure sustained involvement from developed nations. Right now we are witnessing not only an unevenness in African development, but renewed competition for Africa’s natural resources with little return to Africans themselves.

The establishment of rule of law as well as economic growth would provide not only greater protections for Africans, but for those willing to invest there. This is a pre-requisite of convincing insurance companies to provide the support to allow companies to fully develop these economies. We also need to look to ensure that those who take the greatest benefit from investment in Africa are making contribution to ensure a solid infrastructure for the future. If – say – 5% of profits of those companies investing in Africa went back into developing the continent, we could make a significant change. The opportunity to commit to this challenge is one that would allow the US a chance to bolster its international brand, as well as cultivating new and valuable markets.

As the world’s second largest polluter – recently surpassed by China – there is a need for US leadership to ratify the successor agreement to Kyoto which is due for renegotiation in 2012. The US must commit to this process and in doing so provide a signal to businesses, communities and individuals that greater responsibility on emissions is required. It should also invest in substitutions and fuel alternatives that decrease a dependence on foreign energy. American leadership should provide incentive to the developing world, in particular India, China and Brazil, to become more pro-active in curbing greenhouse gases. This point is doubly important since the growth in the developing world has not only resulted in gains in industry and economy, but places 6.5 million new cars on the roads of China and India each year. Again, on this issue there is the opportunity for the US to offer the moral leadership appropriate to its contribution to the problem, as well as its potential to solve it. As just one example, a projected increase to 140 million cars in China by 2020 makes it even more pressing that the US sets the example.

In economic terms, it is undeniably global issues that will define the US future. The crises at Citigroup and UBS and the way that in both cases foreign investors steadied (even saved?) the ship points towards the true power shifts within the global economy. It is essential that the US diversifies to survive: investing in developing services and tourism, as well as adding new value to domestic products. Beyond this, the emergence of China and India, the booming economies of the Middle East, and the predictions of both population experts and economists all demand that the US develops new approaches to the realities of a new geo-economy. A geo-economy that no longer takes the pre-eminence of the US for granted but recognizes a greater truth: the hand that rocks the markets rules the world.


Addressing these issues will require not just a change in outlook, but a shift in management style. The US needs to be not only forthright and well intentioned, but multi-dimensional and able to work more flexibly with world leaders and global agencies. It needs to develop new means to create dialogue with other countries and to be empathetic and humble. Cultural understanding provides the greatest security of all.

This new style must also draw from advances in science and technology, in particular the communities of the internet and media, technological developments, and neuroscience, to provide a more informed and consistent appraisal of the political situation. It must encourage economic development rather than insisting on exportation of democracy, which for many is now a trademark of US imperialism. The careful and committed promotion of economy and trade, as we have seen, has lead to the most substantial gains in stability worldwide over the last decades. The conclusion of the current Doha round could not be more important in this regard.

It is delicate and incremental change, not insistent and seismic demand, which will define 21st century international relations. What is more, this is in America’s best interest. America must avoid the scenario in which it is required to divert huge funding into its military while the other major players invest in their economies.

A new geo-political approach in the US must makes good on its promises and offer long-term partnership. Whether in rebuilding Iraq or in developing the economy in Palestine, the US needs to be seen as a nation that stays the course. More broadly this requires the US to reconnect with old allies and create new ones. The threat from bio-weapons, combined with the profound possibility of connection and alliance provided by internet technologies, means collaboration should not be seen as a luxury, but a necessity.

Perhaps most of all, the new President must chart a new foreign policy path that works to provide hope and stability for generations to come. He or she needs to cultivate an understanding that properly dealing with global issues is at the heart of long-term national interest.

With both a vested interest, and a clear conscience, the new President must ask not what the world can do for America, but what America can do for the world.

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