As the US Prepares to Vote, the World Watches

Romney and Obama debate

America’s friends around the globe are watching the presidential elections with a mixture of horror and hope. They are dismayed by the expense, the duration and the self-indulgence of an election campaign that does more to entertain and polarize Americans than to enlighten and galvanize them.

Despite that, they hope the U.S. once again will confound its critics and produce the leadership and political will to confront a historic pivot point that is as crucial as World War Two’s immediate aftermath.

It is obvious to me, after recent trips to the Middle East and Europe, that despite all the talk about America’s decline, the world’s thought leaders consider the U.S. vote in November to be of great global significance – even though much of that was absent from President Obama and Governor Romney’s first debate last week.

This significance stems partly from the backlog of crucial issues that is growing too large for any U.S. President to easily manage. More important, however, the election coincides with generational shifts – geopolitical, geo-economic, technological and societal – that add up to the biggest change in political and economic influence and power since the revolutions of the 18th century, which produced America’s rise in the first place.

American debt has reached perilous proportions at a time when the ongoing euro zone crisis could turn even nastier. Meanwhile, the threat of violent conflict spreads. In the Middle East alone, America’s commander in chief must confront Iran’s nuclear proliferation, carnage in Syria and the fragility of new democracies in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Both candidates favor U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan by 2014, but both sweep this issue under the rug for now. Neither has a plan to address the inevitable power vacuum and instability that will result amid the already furious jockeying of the neighboring Iran, China, India and Pakistan.

For all the urgency of those issues, however, what gives this election its historic importance is that Americans will be electing a president who must define their nation’s place in a dramatically changing world. The landscape is driven by factors such as the rapid rise of new powers (in particular, China); individual empowerment – for everyone from terrorists to scientists – of a sort the world has never seen; a growing demand for finite resources like energy, water and food; and demographic shifts that may leave aging societies behind and create ever larger and less manageable megacities.

It was with some hope that the world watched the first presidential debate last week, a refreshing marker in an otherwise desultory campaign. The debate was unusually substantive on economic issues, but it fell far short of addressing the magnitude of the historic moment.

Governor Mitt Romney came closest to referring to such a moment in his closing statement, saying:

I know this is bigger than an election about the two of us as individuals. It’s bigger than our respective parties. It’s an election about the course of America. What kind of America do you want to have for yourself and your children.

Even more compelling had been former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, which has not received the attention it deserves. It captured the urgent need for stronger U.S. leadership and weighed it against the desire of U.S. voters to shed their global burdens following long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq:

And I too know there is a weariness…a sense that we have carried these burdens long enough. But if we are not inspired to lead again, one of two things will happen – no one will lead and that will foster chaos – or others who do not share our values will fill the vacuum.

The president who serves for the next four years will lead as the combined national products of Europe and the United States fall below that of the emerging world. This era will require a different sort of American leadership, one with a deeper and more determined engagement than has been the Obama administration’s preference, but also one that must go far beyond the nostalgia for an unrecoverable past. Governor Romney referred to these roots of history in a major foreign policy address to the Virginia Military Institute this week. In his speech, Romney recalled the period after World War Two, when America contributed to the rebuilding of Europe. He said:

Statesmen like [General George] Marshall rallied our nation to rise to its responsibilities as the leader of the free world. We helped our friends to build and sustain free societies and free markets. We defended our friends and ourselves from our common enemies. We led. We led.

The world still needs and wants American leadership, but of a different, less dominant and more sophisticated variety. In this post-Western world, U.S. leadership will mean not only dealing more effectively with close and trusted friends to preserve a global system shaped by the right values, but at the same time, working more effectively with countries that don’t share our values. We must strive with them to establish common interests.

If the U.S. fails to lead, the outcome is not likely to be its replacement by a similarly well-intentioned power or group of powers, but probably a dangerous power vacuum of uncertain consequences. For the foreseeable future it will be the United States acting, not unilaterally, but rather as the only possible “pivotal power” around which positive historic change can galvanize.

The question is not whether America can pass the global baton, but whether it will be dropped, because for the moment there is no one to pick it up.

Frederick Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. This column was originally published by Reuters.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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