Think back to the heady days of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the last budget surplus and the first time you heard the phrase “dot com.”
And compare it to where we are today.
Would you say that America is still the world’s pre-eminent superpower?
The fact that distinguished speakers even can entertain such a question speaks to the enormous changes that have taken place in the US and the world in the last two decades.
William Bellamy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor of international relations at Simmons College in Boston, names some of these changes and provides some ideas on how to restore some of our lost luster.
He spoke at the February meeting of the Savannah Council on World Affairs.
“We face an all together new international security environment, one where the conventional military superiority we have enjoyed for so long is less relevant than before,” Bellamy says.
The former US ambassador to Kenya and longtime African diplomat says three shifts, completely outside the realm of American control, are largely responsible for the global challenges that we now confront. They are:
1. The rise of Asia as a global economic force;
2. The economic, demographic and political unraveling of Europe; and,
3. Fragmentation and disorder in the developing world, including terrorist outposts.
He says no amount of military strength can address these issues alone.
“The days of going anywhere, bearing any burden, paying any price to uphold freedom or extend the blessings of liberty or achieve other abstract goals are definitely over,” Bellamy says. “We no longer have the resources, much less the moral authority, to undertake such crusades.”
What’s more, he says the United States is now much weaker in its ability to confront these challenges because of three “wounds” that we inflicted on ourselves. These were:
1. Launching a war on terror without understanding its long term impact;
2. Hollowing out our greatest economic asset, the American middle class; and,
3. Politicians that can’t lead domestically, much less internationally.
He is particularly scathing in his view of our elected officials.
“Both Republican and Democratic Congressmen like to talk about the importance of American global leadership,” he says. “But in truth it has been a very long time since Congress made a constructive contribution to the conduct of our foreign policy.”
So what would counties like Russia or China do with this set of facts?
Bellamy imagines what he would say if he were a foreign diplomat for one of those countries nipping at our heels.
“I would recommend that aspiring rivals, rival powers, bide their time and wait for the US to engineer its own retreat from global primacy,” he says.
Bellamy’s assessment provides a blueprint for his own take on how the US can regain its place in the world – starting at home.
He suggests a grassroots political movement to strengthen the nation’s resilience to future shocks, which he calls “inevitable.”
“No nation, not even the United States, can aspire to international leadership when it cannot discharge the most basic responsibilities of government, such as passing a budget on time, or guaranteeing its international financial obligations, or even managing to stay open for business,” he says.
He concludes with a hope that this grassroots political moment will arise out of reason and not unpleasant events.
“We remain a wealthy and geographically favored country,” Bellamy says. “Our history and culture have hard-wired us to be a pragmatic, resourceful, innovative and problem-solving people.”
His speech lasts for 25 minutes.
It was recorded at the Coastal Georgia Center in Savannah.