The Challenge of Change

A new world order is being built today by seven billion global citizens.

America’s responsibilities in this new world and to future generations are as enormous as they are humbling. The challenges and choices before us demand leadership that reaches into the future without stumbling over today. They also require challenging every past frame of reference.

Sensing the realities and subtleties of historic change are not always sudden or obvious. As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson recounted, “Only slowly did it dawn upon us that the whole world structure and order that we had inherited from the 19th century was gone and that the struggle to replace it would be directed from two bitterly opposed and ideologically irreconcilable power centers.”

Staying a step ahead of the forces of change requires an ability to foresee and appreciate the consequences of our actions, a willingness to learn the hard lessons of history and from our own experiences, and a clear realization of the limitations of great power.

Acheson and the Wise Men of that time got it right. America led the shaping of the post-Second World War world order through strong inspired leadership, a judicious (most of the time) use of its power, and working with allies through alliances and institutions. This has helped prevent a Third World War and a nuclear holocaust.

The world we face in 2012 is of a different character than even a few years ago. Many developing nations are fragile states and are under enormous pressure from terrorism, endemic poverty, environmental challenges, debt, corruption, civil unrest, and regional, tribal, and religious conflicts. The result is a climate of despair, and potential breeding grounds for radical politics and extremism.

A successful American foreign policy must include thinking through actions and policies, and how uncontrollable and unpredictable global forces may affect outcomes. Eleven years of invasions and occupations have put the U.S. in a deep hole and mired us down in terribly costly commitments in blood, treasure, and prestige. Our diplomatic and security flexibility has been seriously eroded by many of the decisions of the last eleven years. Too often we tend to confuse tactical action for strategic thinking. 

A matter of mutual understanding

American foreign policy has always required a principled realism that is true to our values as we face the world as it really is in all of its complexities. We need to accept the reality that there is not a short-term solution to every problem in the world. What we must do is manage these realities and complex problems, moving them into positions of solution possibilities and resolution.

American foreign policy has always dared to project a vision of a world where all things are possible. If we are to succeed, we must understand how the world sees us. Turn on our receivers more often and shut off our transmitters. This is a vital priority for a successful 21st century foreign policy. We must also avoid the traps of hubris, ideology and insularity, and know that there is little margin for error with the stakes so high in the world today.

America must strengthen its global alliances. Common-interest alliances will be required in a volatile world of historic diffusions of power. The great challenges facing the world today are the responsibility of all peoples of the world. They include cyber warfare, terrorism, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts, prosperity and stability, and global poverty, disease and environmental degradation. Our allies throughout the world share these same challenges and threats and will also be just as affected by the outcomes. These will be either our common successes or our common failures. America cannot be successful with any of these challenges, without sustained partnerships and deep cooperation in the economic, intelligence, diplomatic, humanitarian, military and law enforcement fields.

The centrality of alliances and multi-lateral institutions to a successful foreign policy is fundamental. Alliances and multi-lateral institutions must be understood as expansions of our influence, not as constraints on our power.  Alliances are imperfect, as are all institutions. But like “process,” they help absorb shocks.

Beyond military solutions

Alliances must be built on solid foundations to handle both routine and sudden unforeseen challenges. Crisis-driven “coalitions of the willing” by themselves are not the building blocks for a stable world. We need to think more broadly, deeply and strategically.

American military power and force structure cannot sustain its commitments without a shift to a more comprehensive strategic approach to global threats and a more flexible and agile military. Cyber warfare is a paramount example of these new threats.

The perception of American power around the world must not rest solely on a military orientation or optic. There must be an underlying commitment to engagement and humanity. Engagement is not appeasement, nor is it negotiation. It is not a guarantee of anything, but rather a smart diplomatic bridge to better understanding and possible conflict resolution.

American foreign policy must reflect the realities and demands of the global economy. The global economy cannot be shut out of foreign policy. There can be no higher priority for America than to remain economically competitive in a world undergoing a historic diffusion of economic power. A nation’s strength is anchored to and underpinned by its economic strength. The connections between America’s trade, economic, and energy policies must also be synthesized into a strategic vision for American foreign policy that not only meets the challenges of our time, but frames the completeness of long-term policies for strategic future outcomes. Trade is a major catalyst for economic strength and growth at home and abroad, as well as a critical stabilizer for world peace and prosperity. America must remain the global champion of free, fair and open trade. As the world’s strongest, largest and most dynamic economy, America must continue to lead world trade. Economic strength must be as high a priority as any other foreign policy priority.

America’s security and growth are connected to both the American and global economies. A centerpiece of this security is energy security. Energy security and energy interdependence are interconnected parts of a broad and deep foreign policy paradigm that frames the complexity of the challenges that face America and the world.

A diverse portfolio of energy that is accessible and affordable is the core of America’s energy security. Much of the world’s energy is produced in countries and regions that are consumed by civil unrest, lack of human rights, corruption, underdevelopment, and conflict. The price of oil is driven by supply and demand and the global market. We must ensure diversification of sources of supply and distribution networks to prevent undue dependence on any one country or region. Instability and violence disrupt supply and distribution and increase prices.

Shaping change

The risks that the world faces today are great, but so is the capacity to deal with them. America must not fear change, but rather embrace it and help shape it, and with our partners help lead the world to a higher purpose of peace, opportunity and dignity for all. Challenge and response are sources of strength. 

The American image in the world will require continued repair. The coin of the realm for any leadership will always be trust and confidence.  Without it, there is no leadership. 

A wise American foreign policy for the early part of the 21st century is one that realizes that we enhance our standing in the world not just through our power, but through our purpose; understands that great power has its limits, and that we must share the heavy responsibilities of world leadership with our allies; appreciates that together we can shape the interconnected realities of the world into workable and positive actions that benefit all peoples; listens to our friends and understands their interests; understands the dangerous forces that will continue to influence a complicated interconnected world; has learned the disastrous lessons of invasion and occupation; and balances our policies and actions with an honest present and future perspective.

Senator Chuck Hagel is chairman of the Atlantic Council. A former two-term senator representing Nebraska (1997-2009), Hagel was a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. He is currently co-chair of President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board and a distinguished professor at Georgetown University. This piece is taken from the Atlantic Council publication The Task Ahead: Memos for the Winner of the 2012 Presidential Election.

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