In life, people inexorably move from infancy to adulthood and on to old age in a series of significant chronological milestones. Countries are obviously not people. But states also pass through stages that mark fundamental transition points and new epochs in their histories, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. And sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.
The United States is arguably at one such transformative period in its history. Few recognize the presence of this decisive and transformative stage. Fewer have speculated on what this could mean for America and Americans.
The signs are unmistakable if one looks carefully enough: a profound and unprecedented decline in American influence and relative power; a political process currently incapable of governing exacerbated by critical absence of effective leadership at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue; and a dearth of good ideas for rectifying the nation’s ills.
Given this diminishment in power and influence, paralyzed government and paucity of leadership and ideas, America seems in suspended animation, unable or unwilling to comprehend and hesitant to respond. That it remains the world’s strongest economic and military power has not been put to any real positive effect.
Chronologically, America’s first epoch dates from 1776 and lasted until civil war erupted in 1861; the second from 1865 and the end of the Civil War to American entry into World War II in late 1941; and the third from 1945 persisting until September 11th 2001 and the attacks that obliterated New York’s Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon.
The American Revolution created the United States and subsequently a constitution establishing its political foundation. That constitution was not without flaws. Ultimately, those flaws metastasized into civil war that ripped the country asunder.
After that war ended in 1865, the United States extended its reach from ocean to ocean. From the Spanish American War of 1898, America acquired colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific making it a global power. World War I strengthened American influence, at the same time sowing the seeds for a second world war. Following the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression guaranteed America’s isolation, turning the country inwards. The subsequent Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shattered that isolation and in that process would make America the world’s first nuclear superpower.
The Soviet Union emerged from that war as a budding second superpower due to geography and a huge Red Army occupying a large part of Eastern Europe. But the larger, hidden reality was that not all of the Kremlin’s vital organs were fully developed. When Mikhail Gorbachev imposed glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform), the intent was to correct the systemic ills and irrationalities. Instead, the self-correction proved self-destructive and the USSR disintegrated.
In 1990, the United States had an unprecedented opportunity to define what President George H.W. Bush termed a “new world order.” Because no one could specify what the new world order actually meant, that opportunity passed. Instead, September 11th would become the signature event marking this new transformative epoch.
That attack would manifest American vulnerability beyond terrorist acts however heinous. More dangerous were the consequences of September 11th for American ideals, values and global reputation. Ironically, September 11th and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and against global terror, however tactically successful, redounded against American interests and standing and in the process helped break the bank.
Further, the PATRIOT Act and other reactive measures grossly infringed on basic American civil liberties. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and enhanced interrogation techniques deemed vital to the war on terror irrevocably stained American values and its reputation. Drone and Special Forces attacks in targeted assassinations against suspected terrorists, however effective, have inadvertently created so-called “accidental” terrorists and exacerbated anti-American attitudes in many parts of the globe.
America has also become victim to the vast diffusion of economic power. “Globalization,” a product of this diffusion, contains economic disadvantages as well as benefits. The former have eroded American expectations about future prosperity and standards of living as jobs and markets emigrated overseas. Battered globalized economies, reeling from the financial subprime crisis of 2008 have not recovered. America still suffers from a stalled economic recovery that could be imploded into recession by the Euro crisis.
So far, American government has proven incapable of confronting these perplexing issues and then making tough choices. And, because of more diffused power, whatever advantages may have accrued to being the world’s “indispensable superpower,” most have dissipated or become meaningless.
If “leading from behind” is not to be the default position, then Americans must understand the U.S. has reached a crucial milestone that demands effective action and leadership, not partisan recriminations and sound bite solutions. Without that understanding, America will not control its destiny. Without effective leadership, the nation will remain rudderless. And without better ideas, the ship of state will founder or go aground.
Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article was syndicated by UPI.