AMERICA NEEDS AN EXCEPTIONAL PRESIDENT…
AND SO DOES THE WORLD
(Written and posted, January 2016; A post-primary paragraph is appended)
Beginning to emerge are the outlines of a new era that resembles less the twentieth century than the nineteenth. Ours is a world of constant flux, shifting alignments, numerous power centers, and states coming together and apart—all with an overlay of modern technology and globalization. The potential for disorder is considerable, and will only be ameliorated through the concerted efforts of many of the world’s most powerful countries led by the United States, the only country now and for the foreseeable future with both the capacity and the tradition of working on behalf of broader global arrangements to the benefit of others as well as itself. The question is whether the United States will continue to be that country, something that will require discipline in what America does at home and wisdom in what it does abroad.
[Richard Haass, Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order; p. 14]
THE YEAR BEHIND AND THE YEAR AHEAD
At the turn of every New Year it’s often said that the year ahead will be the most important year America has ever faced. In light of events from the past few years, particularly 2015, I’ll admit that I sense this about 2016, particularly with respect to U.S. politics, the U.S. economy, foreign policy, geopolitical tensions, and the growth and development of emerging economies in Eurasia. Alone, each of these is formidable enough. But, combined, they portend a future that continues to challenge the longstanding world order that has been defined by American ideals and will require unprecedented leadership by the only country in the world with the capacity and principles to sustain that order: America.
I’m an energy and environmental engineering professor focused on power generation systems and energy policy, and I keep myself plugged into politics and history. I have a reasonably good grasp of society’s dependence on energy and natural resources, and I understand the oftentimes conflicting challenges of utilizing those natural resources to develop and power economies while at the same time protecting and preserving those same resources. Some refer to this balancing effort as sustainability. I’ve also traveled around the world enough to see firsthand that millions of people are experiencing various levels of political awakenings in their own countries and expecting to leverage energy and natural resources to improve their own welfare as America has done for the past 200-plus years. So, I recognize how energy, natural resources, economics, politics and the social condition are inextricably woven together and no matter how much time and effort we expend trying to focus the world’s attention on our favorite sustainability cause, be it political, social, environmental, or economic, if we pull at a single thread things begin to unravel.
This past year I spent time in India and China, two countries that have held my attention for some time with regard to their respective trends in economic growth and energy consumption. I spent time in these places not as a tourist, but as someone with an abiding interest in their societies, their economies, their visions, and their aspirations. My experiences were deeply impactful and annealed in me a conviction that beforehand was only a thin academic awareness gained from reading what others had written. Also, during this past year, I finished reading four books by individuals who are experts in matters of national and foreign affairs and are highly-credentialed with respect to global reality and the role of America in that reality: (1) The World America Made, by Robert Kagan; (2) Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order, by Richard Haass; (3) Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, by Zbigniew Brzezinski; and (4) World Order, by Henry Kissinger. If you take away only one thing from reading this, let it be that if you’re interested in an enlightened, authoritative, and thoughtful evaluation of the world and America’s role and responsibility in that world, then take the time to read these books. You will come away with a clearer understanding of the state of global affairs than you will by drawing exclusively from the daily news cycle. I especially recommend these to young folks as they consider this year’s U.S. election, which could well turn out to be the most critical election of a lifetime. And by most critical, I mean that it has the potential to initiate a redefinition or reorientation of America, the idea of America, the role of America in the world, and how the world perceives America as a model of freedom, economic opportunity, and political and social inclusion.
In 2015, we witnessed mass shootings in the U.S., terrorism in Paris and San Bernardino, a nuclear treaty with Iran, Chinese construction of islands and airstrips in the South China Sea, the Pope visiting the U.S. and addressing the U.S. Congress on topics ranging from capitalism to climate change, China’s economic slowdown, restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Greece’s economic collapse that nearly took the European Union with it, a refugee crisis that continues to engulf and divide the world, unprecedented regulation of the U.S. power generation industry, multilateral agreement at the Paris climate talks, and an erosion of the founding principles of U.S. educational institutions, once the fortresses of free and open speech, as they wavered in the winds of a populist movement demanding that personal feelings be protected from any speech or mannerism that could be interpreted as offensive or insensitive. These gripped our country and played out in grand theatre style in the U.S. political system as candidates and their apologists capitalized on each event in an attempt to stir up national despair, prey on our fears, and garner our support for them as the defender of all things America and the answer to all our ills. One outcome has been a brazen and unabashed display of political bipolarity in U.S. politics; in particular, in the campaign for President of the United States.
AMERICA AND THE WORLD THAT WAS…AND IS
If we pulled out a world map, ca. 1700, we’d see that it is generally comprised of empires, possessions, and colonies (e.g., British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Ottoman) connected by maritime trade routes that fueled the mercantilist economies of the day. Kings and emperors reigned, and the will of the realm was carried out by force under pain of imprisonment or death for disobedience. However you might choose to describe these times and their societies, a fair characterization is that they were subsistence societies where decisions were made by nobility with limited, if any, self-governance to speak of at local levels. International disputes might have been initially addressed through summits; but, when not sufficiently brokered, differences often were settled through war. The need to balance sensitive global politics and interconnected global economies was limited while such things as environmental protection, human rights, social injustices, and individual freedom and liberty were irrelevant as there was little consideration given to anything resembling a social contract between the governing and the governed. Sovereignty and national self-interests were paramount and dictated decisions and strategy.
Now, fast forward through the birth of America as a constitutional republic and an experiment in self-governance and look at a 2016 world map. We’d see the same continental land masses but parsed into 196 countries separated by borders—modern day political borders that emerged from over 300 years of war, industrialization, capitalism, economic globalization and, as characterized by Samuel Huntington, a clash of civilizations. What we wouldn’t see is the living, breathing world that these political boundaries constitute. We wouldn’t see that within each border are diverse and oftentimes incompatible assemblages of cultures, factions, tribes, politics, economics, poverty, resource scarcity, hunger, abuse, religions, military capabilities, beliefs, hopes, aspirations, historical antecedents, heritage, deprivations, isolations, freedoms, and the list goes on and on. And we wouldn’t see that each of those countries is governed by people—flawed people with varying degrees of hubris; vulnerable people; some with a strong and good character, some with a weak and bad character; some with the best of intentions for the greater good, some with self-motivated intentions only for the good of themselves and their league of followers. And it is these people who are making decisions with implications beyond anything America’s founding fathers could have imagined during their moment in history when the world map was, by comparison, less complex; when colonialism, empires, agriculture, simple industry, mercantilism and the daily struggle to live dominated the human endeavor.
Modern societies are no longer restricted to local collections of people subject to the rule of the realm. Rather, many have embraced and leveraged industrialization and capitalism within inclusive economic and political institutions (Robinson and Acemoglu) and developed into complex social structures that function as autonomous living organisms making their own decisions and determining their own destinies. And, as is common to all such systems, competition evolves as self-preservation and proliferation are paramount. And, in modern day society, this competition is generally mediated by the civilizing agents of diplomacy and economic liberty rather than by invasion, war, occupation and indentured servitude of the defeated. This transition can be rightfully attributed in large part to the ideals of America, its democratic principles, its commitment to an inclusive economic system of free markets and capitalism, and its commitment to, and support of, likeminded allies throughout the world. As such, the world we live in today is an American order with America itself serving as an ambivalent superpower (Kissinger). This transition, however, has not been without trials that tested the resolve of America and its leaders.
Consider America’s founding fathers and the patience, the thoughtfulness, the care, the tedium, the painstaking attention to detail that went into crafting the two most foundational documents written by the hand of man—the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. These were conceived and written with the deserved attention due sacred writings, and, with respect to the Declaration of Independence, written under penalty of death to anyone who honored it and ascribed to its proclamation. The consequences of the acts of America’s founders were ultimate and final.
Consider the anguish of America as our Republic stood at cliff’s edge and the experiment in self-governance was under meltdown conditions during four years of a civil war that exposed our flaws and deep divisions. Consider President Lincoln, who, in his carefully worded Gettysburg Address, held forth our nation as having been conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And, later, in his second Inaugural Address and nearing the end of the Civil War: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”.
Consider the mindset of President Roosevelt as he weighed the decision to send America’s greatest treasure into Africa, Italy, and eventually onto the beaches of Normandy in an effort to stem the tide of hatred, fascism, bigotry, and totalitarianism that threatened the world and America. And, later, Truman as he deliberated on whether to use the atomic bomb to end WWII or to sacrifice more American lives by invading the mainland of Japan.
Consider President Kennedy, a Democrat, who carefully, strategically, and with full understanding of the weight of his decisions navigated his way through the threat of Soviet deployment of nuclear warheads south of the U.S. border in Cuba while consulting at times with his Republican predecessor, President Eisenhower, on whom the gravity and consequences of that moment were not lost.
Consider President Reagan standing toe-to-toe with a succession of four Soviet General Secretaries who continued the longstanding Soviet effort to project the USSR as the model for world order and as the world’s dominant superpower. Yet Reagan remained steadfast and unflinching in his resolve to project America as “a shining city on a hill”—a steadfastness that led to the eventual end of the Cold War as well as the Soviet experiment in totalitarianism.
This list could go on with moments when the direction of America and the world hinged on decisions made by the President of the United States. And in each case it was often the President’s patience, resolve, skepticism, caution, reservation, diplomatic skill, even temperament, careful consideration of available options, consultation with political allies and opponents, and, on so many occasions, carefully crafted words delivered to America and the world that carried the moment and stood down a threat to peace and democracy. So often, the President’s personal character and constitution were fitted for a moment in America’s history. In this regard, the office of President is unique in its global influence and far-reaching international impact. Lincoln went so far as to characterize the President as being “clothed in immense power”. That power, which at one time was confined to land east of the Mississippi River, south of Canada, west of the Atlantic Ocean and north of the Gulf of Mexico, and home to about 35 million Americans, now extends to the four corners of the earth, and impacts the economic, social, political and military structure and strategies of complex, modern and technologically advanced nations comprising over 7 billion people of every nationality, race, ethnic background, culture and socioeconomic status known to mankind. It is no longer a world restricted to subsistence economies and societies subject to the will of a few; instead, it’s a world of sovereign nations, with each nation pursuing its own share of material wealth and prosperity. Yet, each is linked in a network of economic interdependency held together and carefully balanced by geopolitics, policies, agreements, accords, statesmanship, diplomacy, military might and healthy suspicion. From a time when decisions were made by only a few to a time when the slightest economic downturn, political miscalculation, natural disaster, energy disruption, social unrest or act of terrorism in any one of the world’s 196 interdependent countries could begin as a local ripple and culminate as a global tidal wave with repercussions that realign regional alliances, challenge the balance of world order, and threaten America’s interests.
The person who holds this office must have the requisite familiarity with, and respect for, a complex world that simply doesn’t always agree with America’s ideals and, in fact, may very well hate America. They must possess the wisdom to anticipate global frictions and have the competence to devise strategic responses that maintain global balance in keeping with America’s principles and interests. They must understand and abide cultural, political and ideological differences among sovereign nations without defaulting at all times to an overly simplistic Manichean worldview of good and evil, right and wrong. They must maintain diplomatic order among myriad and diverse political objectives, economic aspirations and societal hopes throughout the world, and respond with patience and a composed demeanor, yet an unflinching stability that isn’t interpreted as bullying or capitulating or blustering or bluffing. They must project American principles, beliefs, and strength in a manner that elicits respect and admiration of the American model of democracy, freedom, and human equality. And they must surround themselves with capable, intelligent individuals with extraordinary competence who share these characteristics and who can provide counsel during times of monumental duress without yielding to self-interests, political aspirations or hubris.
This, among so many other things, is what much of the world expects from the individual who occupies the office of U.S. President. And the person we elect to sit in that office is the individual we choose to clothe in immense power that can be wielded to affect world order as we know it. This person must have a special character that few of us have; and, in my very humble opinion, and being one who does not possess this special character, we have among our current presidential candidates some who, if endowed with this power and authority, would push America in the wrong direction. Of our current candidates, which of them can we imagine being capable of conferring with our founding fathers to reason through the construction of the U.S. Constitution in order to reach a compromise that would result in ratification and approval by the states? Which of them can we imagine sitting in the office of President during crucial moments as did Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Reagan, and possessing the requisite character and personal mettle to make crucial decisions in a world that becomes increasingly complex with each passing year? Moreover, who among our current candidates can we envision conferring with the leaders of China, India, Russia, Great Britain, Japan, France, Germany, South Korea, Canada, Australia, etc. during a time of global crisis and being looked to as the calm, resolute and evenhanded moderator for maintaining stability and order through diplomacy, sanctions and appropriate force when needed?
Regarding the battle waged to determine which economic model would dominate the world in the 20th century, Yergin and Stanislaw characterize it as the battle for the commanding heights where America has, since the end of WWI, occupied the position of leadership in global economics and geopolitical influence—a position that has had broad and unique ideological and material appeal to much of the world (Brzezinski). America’s position, however, has shifted over the years and it regularly is confronted with internal and external forces that challenge its leadership, its influence and, oftentimes, its hegemony in world affairs. Consequently, what made America great in years past seems at times to be poorly suited for addressing today’s complexities. Internally, some core issues are particularly acute in their impact on America’s capacity to sustain what it has wrought in the world, not the least of which is a ballooning national debt from an addiction to overspending. This is the 800-lb gorilla that political leaders promise to cage but, once elected, continue to feed. Other internal issues revolve around America’s energy resources, an aging infrastructure, a struggling education system, a complex, burdensome tax code that incentivizes industry to outsource jobs to other countries, weak economic growth, and America’s capacity to continue as the world’s melting pot where people of diverse ethnic origins assimilate into the American culture of equality, individual freedoms, property rights, and rule of law while maintaining individual ethnic identities. The friction from these internal issues is creating a chasm among Americans and being manifest as political gridlock as political positions become more sharply aligned with social agendas and increasingly narrow special interests. Externally, we are being challenged economically by China (soon to include India), our foreign policy seems to be cultivating hatred of American ideals rather than projecting America as a model to be emulated, the Middle East festers as a boil that cannot be salved, and rogue states such as North Korea and Iran continue to threaten world peace. Moreover, geopolitical tensions are tightening as Eurasia’s economic growth and development expand and emerging powers position themselves as a competitor to, and possible future replacement for, American global influence should America falter in its global responsibilities or voluntarily relinquish its leadership role.
These challenges to America and the American world order as we know it will require exceptional leadership from future U.S. presidents. And rarely have we been presented with such polarity in left- and right-wing choices as we have in the current 2016 candidates. On the far left we have Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Democratic-Socialist who, by promising free college education and guaranteed health care for everyone, as well as a doubling of the minimum wage, demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of fundamental economics, an inability to comprehend that there never is any such thing as “free stuff” and that every time the federal government manipulates the market to behave in a preferred manner, the market resists and in fact pushes back yielding outcomes that are opposite of those desired. Sanders’ domestic spending policies would increase U.S. debt beyond the point of return and ultimately conclude America’s role as the trusted, fiscally responsible global economic leader it has been. On the far right we have Donald Trump who has mastered the use of clichés, platitudes, generalities, vagaries and insults, and hides behind the well-worn mantra of “I’m just speaking my mind and telling it like it is” in order to excuse his belittling and degrading dismissal of anyone who doesn’t comply with his decrees. Trump operates under the flawed delusion that board room bullying tactics, where the word of the chairman and CEO may be law, will transfer to the global stage where sit the serious and stern leaders of sovereign nations who take no guff from outsiders and who will not abide histrionic behavior that demeans or threatens their own national objectives. The outcome of the Sanders-Trump phenomenon has been the mobilization of a victimized left and victimized right, both of which feel disenfranchised from America as they perceive it. And, populist as they may be, these polar-opposite candidates are revealing much to us about the political and social divides in America. It is sobering to imagine a populist such as Sanders or Trump, during a time of global distress in today’s complex world, serving as the voice of reason or providing the necessary steady hand of statesmanship at the helm of the world’s greatest economic and military superpower.
ADVICE TO YOUNG FOLKS WHO WILL OUTLIVE ME
We live in an immediate and impatient world where much is available at the click of a mouse. And we know that much of that information is neither objective nor truthful, but is intended to persuade us to behave in a particular way as a consumer, as a member of the electorate, or as a potential supporter of a favored cause or movement; to gain market share and shape our political appetite to consume a particular brand of politics. We have developed a habit of informing ourselves with quick blurbs, memes, clichés, promotions, quick pitches, elevator speeches, and poorly vetted or unedited writings. Anyone can publish their ideas for the world to see, including this very article you’re reading right now. And when one of these blurbs strikes a chord with our worst nature on our worst day we often latch on to it and pass it along as incontrovertible truth that supports what we want to believe. Such appeal is oftentimes superficial, merely scratching an itch, and there is no penetration into issues that are bone marrow deep and no examination of the long-term condition that calls for thoughtful evaluation. The outcome is short-term political populism at both ends: the far left (read in, Bernie Sanders) and the far right (read in, Donald Trump). Consequently, the world is no longer reading America like it would a great novel—with patience and deliberation, trying to understand the plot and storyline. Rather, it’s reading America like it would a stock market ticker tape—evaluating it minute by minute, day by day. Tweets, posts, 250-word blogs and video clips drive the world’s daily news cycle in an effort to influence and shape what the world thinks of America. And, unfortunately, that view is being reflected poorly by some of our current presidential candidates who do not project to the world or to Americans the principles, patience, temperament and statesmanlike demeanor of a strong, deliberate and determined America.
With all of this said, 2015 exposed some deep divides in America and the 2016 election has the potential to redefine America within its own borders and within the hearts and minds of a world that’s watching American democracy play out minute-by-minute in real time. To some of us, we may not care what the world thinks, because, by-God we’re America and the world can take a hike if it doesn’t like us. To those I mentioned previously, those such as Kagan, Haass, Brzezinski, Kissinger, and others who have deep and privileged insight into the critical issues of this world, they know better and they know that what the world thinks of America does indeed matter—it matters more than we can imagine or care to imagine or, perhaps, care to admit. While these authors have different political pedigrees, their evaluations are measured and generally unbiased, and they’re emphatic that the world’s best and only real chance for comprehensively and effectively responding to the global challenges of today is an economically strong, politically functional, militarily superior, and socially stable America. They also agree that in the event America abdicates its current position by defaulting in these key areas, the resulting vacuum would spawn a tenuous rearrangement of the global order with no precedent for anticipating the outcome—we can only speculate.
The United States is a country, but America is something quite different. America is an idea, an experiment, a belief founded in part on the understanding that we would always endeavor to form a more perfect union. And the Constitution on which it is based has been described by Edward Samuel Corwin as “an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy” (Peterson). That struggle is no longer limited to a few national and international actors—it includes practically every living soul in every country as well as every natural resource on Earth that underpins and drives the world’s economic and military powers. And the President of the United States must approach this as a struggle and not with a cavalier attitude of take-it-or-leave-it because it’s my-way-or-the-highway.
Some unsolicited advice for young folks. Educate yourself through the thoughtful writings of individuals who have been immersed in the issues of their time. Daily op-eds serve a good purpose, but you should take these with a grain of salt and follow up with your own research into what you’re reading. Listen to TV and talk radio hosts as the entertainers and pitchmen that they actually are. While they have political objectives, they also must keep the pot stirred and create division in order to increase their market share of viewers and listeners, and they don’t necessarily represent the heart and soul of mainstream America making decisions at the kitchen table. Lastly, talk with and listen to someone who isn’t singing in your choir—not in order to change your principles, but to challenge your positions, identify shortcomings, and, ultimately, sharpen your arguments. We need more capable defenders of principled political positions, not more sideshow carnies barking nonsense to a passing crowd.
My political position (link here) is conservatism as reflected in the presidency and politics of Ronald Reagan; a middle-class conservatism that I believe is in the heart of mainstream America and understands the flaws of the socialist model promoted by the victimized left. It’s also a conservatism that currently is being denigrated as “establishment” and is being muffled by the noise of the victimized right that now sees itself as America’s disenfranchised. It remains to be seen who among the Republican candidates can assume this mantle of Reagan conservatism and breathe life back into it. Or, if Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism simply has no place among today’s Republican politicians. Again, I’m an energy and environmental engineering professor and my global experience has given me a realistic perspective of what’s going on in the world. And much of what’s going on is millions of people working to escape poverty and improve their own opportunities for peace and prosperity—and this will require a stable and peaceful world. While the academic worldview of sustainability is generally fixated on a narrowly-defined environmental perspective, I’ll contend that our paramount objective as a nation should be to sustain America’s position of economic strength, military superiority, and global leadership so as to ensure a stable world for societies to develop economically, which will in turn afford them the latitude to allocate time and resources to long-term considerations of environmental sustainability. To that end, it’s an understatement to say that we must discipline ourselves to get our own house in order and elect leaders who project America as the preferred model of freedom, democracy and opportunity on which it was founded.
With all this said, the next person we elect to serve as President of the United States could take our country in a direction that eventually either reorients, strengthens or concludes America’s role as we have known it. As such, this election is not only about which candidate is best-suited for the office of President, it is about which candidate is fitted for this moment in America’s history?
Post Primary Follow-up: It’s Trump and Clinton, so now it’s time to push hard to elect conservative leadership up and down the ballot and then demonstrate that conservatism is for all Americans who love and value the liberty and freedom America affords us.
~ david gattie
1. Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A. 2012. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.
2. Brzezinski, Zbigniew. 2012. Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.
3. Haass, Richard. 2013. Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order.
4. Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
5. Kagan, Robert. 2012. The World America Made.
6. Kissinger, Henry. 2014. World Order.
7. Peterson, M. A. 1993. Legislating Together: The White House and Capitol Hill from Eisenhower to Reagan. Page 4. Harvard University Press.
8. Yergin Daniel and Stanislaw, Joseph. 2002. The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy.