Two years after September 11, 2001, a DemocracyCorps poll asserts that majority of Americans believe that the US is headed in the wrong direction. What does “wrong direction” mean? It doesn’t say the wrong direction on Iraq, the economy, or education, or healthcare. It just says America is headed in the wrong direction.
Most politicians, indeed, all the candidates for President in 2004, interpret this polling data to mean Americans believe George Bush’s policies on any given issue represent the wrong direction. They then list all the issues of interest to the current audience and pronounce that they have different, bold ideas that together represent a new direction for America.
Except this is not true.
America’s direction is governed by a small rudder and a massive keel. The majority of the ideas we call “policies” represent adjustments to that small rudder. The keel that sets America’s overriding direction is its grand strategy. Grand strategy, strictly speaking, is the correlation of our economic engine and our strategic posture to achieve our national purpose (set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution) in the context of the current era.
If you want to change the direction of America you have to change our grand strategy.
The last time we consciously codified our grand strategy was in 1950 when President Truman lashed the Containment strategic posture to the post-war economic engine. That grand strategy concluded its mission in 1991, but neither George H. W. Bush nor William J. Clinton came up with an alternative. Instead, we left the remnants in place, tweaking here and there, and kept going. By the end of the millennium, our strategic posture was based on three imperatives: protecting essential American economic interests, specifically in the Persian Gulf; preserving strategic stability based on the pre-eminence of American power; and expanding markets for American products and services. The only thing missing was Cold War objective of confronting and transforming the Soviet Union. Our economic engine was not changed either, as it was based on suburban consumption, income tax to pay for economic subsidies, and cheap fossil fuel-derived energy. While the economic engine was not changed, it was maintained on life support by Federal and consumer debt, artificially low interest rates, military spending, and supply-side tax cuts.
September 11 did little to change this correlation of economic engine and strategic posture beyond granting it a replacement rationale—trading the Cold War against the Soviet Union with the Global War on Terror. For the most part, American grand strategy has remained constant.
And therein lays the problem that Americans, two years after 9/11, are beginning to comprehend.
America’s fifty year-old grand strategy is dysfunctional at three levels. The first level of dysfunction is within the economic engine, where suburban sprawl, income tax and corporate subsidies, and a centralized fossil-fuel energy system have mutated America away from building a progressive middle class and instead benefit the top 20% at the expense of the bottom 80%, while severely limiting our ability to change course. With expensive and inefficient infrastructure, regressive taxation paid to uncompetitive industries, and the aging baby boom generation, there is no possibility for the kind of growth needed to deal with our fiscal imbalance.
The second level of dysfunction is in the relationship between this economic engine and our strategic posture. The overseas requirements of our failing economic engine are cheap energy, stable and secure trade routes, and access to markets for our products and services. Yet our ossified economic engine prescribes a status-quo strategic posture based on thinking stuck in 1983 rather than 2003—dominance of the Persian Gulf, a dominant military with global reach, and trade deals cut with economically dominant minorities in un-democratic and less-than capitalist societies abroad. The message is that it is preferable to risk American and foreign lives in global conflict than to transform industries based on inefficient, unhealthy, but highly profitable products.
The third level of dysfunction is between our grand strategy and the state of the world. Climate change may be still deniable in the United States, but its effects are already killing tens of thousands annually and driving up insurance costs steadily. Progress in moving those in extreme poverty up have only created impossible demands for energy, clean water, housing, transportation, and raw resource consumption that cannot be met without upsetting the lucrative positions of economically dominant minorities and without new technologies that de-link energy and material consumption from economic prosperity. Instead of adapting our strategy, we have instead chosen to try to assert control, by manipulation and force, if necessary.
The problems America faces are not so much out there, but in here. Since the influence of America is so enormous, accounting for 25% of global gross product and military dominance to boot, the dysfunction of America’s grand strategy mires the rest of the world in our muck. More technically, our economic engine determines the world’s socio-economic development path which determines who wins and loses while our economic engine also determines our strategic posture, which establishes our strategic interests. When socio-economic have-nots get too organized and too close to our strategic interests, we have strategic threats—but ultimately those threats are defined by our economic engine, which is not even meeting the needs of the majority of Americans. No wonder Americans want a change.
Here’s the rough outline of a new grand strategy which is spelled out in detail in my other writings. First our new economic engine:
· Establish national land use policies that conform to the principles set forth in the New Urbanist movement, thereby stopping sprawl, increasing home ownership, while transforming our communities and our transportation patterns.
· Shift Federal taxation systematically from income to waste, putting the social and environmental cost into resource and market prices—and take Congress out of the market (and the market out of Congress) by ending perverse economic subsidies.
· In energy, we need to move towards a renewable/hydrogen/distributed generation system to end our corrupting dependence on oil and secure our economy and environment.
Here’s our new strategic posture:
· Drive the development of just, effective, and comprehensive regional and global international institutions based on responsible sovereignty and a sustainable and inclusive development consensus.
· Focus US overseas assistance on establishing universal access to essential public infrastructure—energy, water, ecosystem services, public health, and information.
· Maintain the US role as the cornerstone of global security and stability.
The economic engine will generate an amazing 20-30 year period of domestic economic prosperity by re-developing America along sustainable lines using market forces not Federal spending. That redevelopment, like the creation of Suburbia from 1950-1970, will create widely-shared an economic boom. Overseas, by de-linking energy and material consumption from rising prosperity, as well as eliminating the need for energy imports, America can get back to the business of the American experiment, creating the institutions, infrastructure, and security conditions necessary for democracy and capitalism to flourish globally. Medium and long-term threats will evaporate while short-term threats born of injustice will lose their fuel.
America will not change direction by better crisis management, better healthcare, or better marginal stimulus. America can only change direction with a new grand strategy. We’ve been waiting 12 long years since the last one expired and in four more years our options will be drastically constrained.
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 email@example.com