The Message from Cancun: The World Needs a New American Grand Strategy
Published on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 by
The Message from Cancun: The World Needs a New American Grand Strategy
by Patrick C. Doherty

In my last article ( I wrote that a) Americans want a change of direction, b) the only way to change direction is to change our grand strategy, and c) there is a viable, progressive grand strategy just ready to be adopted.

And if you were watching the happenings in and aftermath of the WTO Ministerial meeting in Cancun, you know that a new fundamental force in global politics—that also wants a change in direction—just asserted itself. It’s called the G21; the Group of 21 Developing Nations that represents more than half the world’s population. The events in Cancun were made possible by the G21 but the G21’s main achievement was to challenge both the process and the assumptions of the global development agenda, loosely codified in the Washington Consensus. The message from Cancun is not that the Washington Consensus represents the wrong set of policy prescriptions, but that policy-level interventions are no longer sufficient to transform the global economy. The changes require a new economic engine that bridges the developed and developing worlds and that is capable of including the 5 billion people outside of the global economy. US, EU, and Japanese agricultural subsidies at the heart of the impasse cut through that policy level mirage and point straight to the dysfunction of the underlying economic engine.

If this indeed is the case, and I believe it is, it is obvious why our ministers of trade could not find agreement: trade is dependent on the underlying economic engine, and trade ministers do not have the mandate to negotiate the nature of our economic engines. Indeed, only Presidents and Prime Ministers have such a portfolio, but most, if not all, are unaware that it is possible to change the world’s economic engine. Indeed most would think that finding an alternative would mean something other than democracy and capitalism. In this they are mistaken.

But before we get to alternatives, we need to recognize that the kind of failure seen in Cancun is the rule more than the exception; indeed this is not an isolated event. It is happening all over the spectrum, most spectacularly for the United States. If we look at the flagship initiatives of the various American departments and agencies, we see this unbelievably consistent string of failure: the CIA’s global war on terror is doing little to make America safer and is motivating a new generation of frustrated militants. The State Department’s efforts to build consensus on Iraq in the UN Security Council has instead deepened the distrust of American intentions. The Department of Defense’s Operation Iraqi Freedom has produced Iraqi chaos, eliminated the possibility of Iraq becoming a swing oil producer before the 2004 elections, and constrains American freedom of action rather than increasing it. The Treasury Department’s efforts to get China to change its currency were rejected out of hand. The Office of Management and Budget’s tax cuts have hurt the economy, increased unemployment, and accelerated our short, medium, and long-term fiscal imbalance. And now we have the US Trade Representative’s failure in Cancun.

The common theme in each of these failed initiatives is that the Bush Administration acted as if any given issue was independent of the other issues and that American influence (whether political, military, or economic) backing neo-conservative ideology would be sufficient to achieve the given objective. If our system was healthy, this might have been the case, but our global political and economic system is not healthy, indeed it is deeply dysfunctional. When the system is this dysfunctional—80% of Americans are no longer benefiting from the American economic engine and the global economy, based on that same American engine, is incapable of improving the lives of 5 billion people—issues become inextricably interdependent and the only solution is to generate a new system. Since we produce 25% of global gross product, America has to lead that change if it is to be peaceful.

So, the signs are all there: recent polls attest that Americans recognize the need for a new direction at home and in our foreign relations. The rise of the G21 offers a new global partner also interested in new directions globally. American foreign policy failures attest to systemic dysfunction (rather than simple technical incompetence, as the Democratic Presidential candidates prefer to argue, although that is present also). Together, these signs point to the rare window of opportunity inherent in the 2004 Presidential elections, the opportunity to win the election on and successfully implement a new grand strategy for the United States, a grand strategy that delivers a new, sustainable, secure, and prosperous American economic engine and that leads to a new global development consensus that delivers progress, prosperity, and lasting security.

The outline of the new American economic engine is clear. It requires a change in our land use patterns—away from suburban sprawl towards the sustainable and prosperous concepts of New Urbanism. It requires a change in our taxation and subsidy system—away from the distortions and corrupting power of income tax and economic subsidies towards the employment-, market-, and innovation-friendly waste taxes, such as cap-and-trade systems. It requires a change in our energy system from fossil fuels and centralized generation to renewables, hydrogen, and distributed generation. The impact of that new economic engine will be the re-development of America, transforming the dysfunctional relationship between urban, suburban, and rural America. That re-development, like the suburb-based boom of the post-war period from 1950-1970, will create a profound and widespread period of economic prosperity.

Changing America’s land-use, tax & subsidy, and energy systems also changes the conversation around global development. Where the implicit message of the Washington Consensus was “follow these prescriptions and someday you will be just like us,” this new American grand strategy sends the message: “we both must transform our economies to something better.” The third world may be under-developed, but America is wrongly-developed—we did not know this in 1950 and we could not have known until the existential Soviet threat was removed, but now we do. We each have different paths, but we now share a sustainable destination. The major challenge will be in reducing the energy and material intensity of GDP, while raising living standards. It will not be easy, but it is not physically impossible like the current strategy of perpetuating and imitating the post-war American economic engine of suburban sprawl, income taxes and corporate subsidies, and an energy system based on centralized generation and fossil fuel consumption.

Politically, this domestic and global convergence of interest means that the Democratic Party has an historic moment in which it can seize the meta-message of grand strategy to revive the American Experiment. With the meta-message of grand strategy, Democrats can offer Americans a new direction, resolving the major issues of our day and in the process put the lie to the irrational Republican reliance on the old dysfunctional grand strategy. The subsequent Democratic shift from tactics to grand strategy would disrupt and defeat existing Republican campaign strategies, and force them to either compete on the level of grand strategy or to crawl in the mud of negative attacks. Either way, Americans hungry for a new direction and sick of tactical and negative campaigns will know how to vote. And the world will be waiting, in the last week of January 2005, to help make that new direction real.

Patrick Doherty spent a decade in the field of international conflict resolution, working in the Middle East, Africa, Southeastern Europe, and the Caucasus. He now resides in Washington, DC and may be reached at