In his closing remarks at the New American Strategies for Security and Peace conference hosted by the new Center for American Progress, The American Prospect, and The Century Foundation, Richard Leone, President of the Century Foundation, summed up the progressive challenge: “The truth is, we need to find a new course and we need to be open to it.”
From the start, the conference had to overcome a very fundamental catch-22. The mission of the Center for American Progress is at once to develop a long-term progressive vision, to generate new progressive ideas, to respond to and critique conservative proposals and rhetoric, and to communicate progressive messages to Americans. At the tables and in the breaks, participants often remarked that while the Heritage foundation started with a vision and then developed its communications machine, CAP is leading with the communication machine before it has, self-admittedly, identified the larger, integrated progressive vision. By design, this conference was heavy on critique and sensible policy-level alternatives, but that critique came deliberately from a diverse set of perspectives.
And it was because of that diversity of opinion that, peeking through the layers of concerted criticism of the Bush Administration—criticism which itself was newsworthy after a two-year period of Democratic apoplexy—the building blocks for that new course were clearly visible.
In a brilliant dinner speech, Zbigniew Brzezinski opened the conceptual door, stating that the Bush Administration’s war on terrorism and their assertion that the “greatest danger to our nation lies at the intersection of radicalism and technology” greatly oversimplifies the challenges that face us at home and abroad. Releasing progressive thinkers from the tyranny of the Bush Administration’s worldview grants progressives the latitude to think bigger, to move away from the fear-driven focus on short-term threats and encouraging Americans to understand the larger dynamics and challenges facing our country and the world.
Other building blocks were scattered throughout the two day event. On the first day, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin made the critical connection between our national security and our economic engine, noting that the Bush Administration has moved far beyond short-term stimulatory deficits to long-term structural deficits which will raise interest rates as Federal borrowing sucks up global capital—and those higher interest rates will in turn choke off global economic growth. In doing so, Rubin underlines Brzezinski’s assertion that America’s challenges lie much deeper than the acute, short-term threat of terrorism. Controlling 25% of the world’s gross global product and holding the reins of the international financial and trade institutions, the United States defines the global economy. If the American economy tanks due to structural deficits, the global impact will be devastating.
On the second day, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel acknowledged the central role of energy security, recognizing another core linkage between today’s economic engine and our strategic posture. Setting Iraq aside, energy security is a daunting challenge. Last week, the International Energy Agency previewed a report that the world must invest $10 trillion in the coming decades to ensure the infrastructure requirements to meet their relatively conservative growth estimates of global energy demand, $2.5 trillion of which will have to be invested by the United States in the midst of our escalating fiscal imbalance. Furthermore, upstream investment in oil and gas production capacity is already lagging well behind the curve, threatening the ability to meet the demand projections of the IEA and the Department of Energy. The reason is simple: the political instability in production areas, such as the Persian Gulf, the Caspian, Indonesia, West Africa, Venezuela, Colombia, not to mention the battle between President Putin and the Oligarchs—has slowed infrastructure investment, shrinking excess production capacity and keeping oil prices high. While analysts expect 2004 to be temporarily awash in oil, extremely low and high prices both pinch producer revenues, restricting investment and compounding long-term capacity gaps, gaps which disproportionately threaten the growing economies of India and China. Either way, America’s economic dependence on oil and gas is both unaffordable and contains the seed of our long-term strategic threats.
Jessica Stern concluded in no uncertain terms that the arrogant use of force and global economic exclusion creates the enabling conditions terrorist organizations need to operate, since “terrorists require the support of the local population.” Local populations, she notes, whether in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Indonesia, Malaysia, are increasingly humiliated by the arrogant and unilateral use of force to protect American interests, especially energy security in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. That humiliation is stacked on top of the pervasive injustice created by a global economy that structurally excludes 5 billion people. The exclusion is driven by an unaffordable Western economic model that requires impossible levels of energy and material intensity and that tolerates developing-world economic elites who maintain their status by limiting popular access to the rule of law and the property rights that are fundamental to a working capitalist economy. Capitalism has not failed these 5 billion people—it has not even been tried yet. As a result the world’s “poor” are unable to use their estimated $9 trillion in privately held assets leaving them stuck in an extremely vulnerable cash economy.
Donald Rumsfeld, in his now-famous memo, asked if we need a “broad, integrated plan” for dealing with terrorism. The answer is an unqualified yes, but as Brezinski noted, focusing on terrorism oversimplifies the problem. The terrorist threat is a dependent, symptomatic threat, unlike the independent Soviet threat of the Cold War. Terrorism is resilient and spreading because the global economic and political structures are impoverishing and humiliating entire populations, giving extremists the resources they need to thrive.
If the United States controls that dysfunctional economic and political system and yet that American economic engine is also failing the majority of Americans, showing nothing but marginal domestic growth while racking up debt and insecurity, it follows that it is time to re-think the overall correlation of our economic engine and strategic posture to the challenges of the coming era. In other words, is time to re-think American grand strategy.
As progressives discover their voice in national security it is essential that we recognize that the Bush Administration is failing on two levels—incompetent policy management wrapped around a dysfunctional grand strategic concept. Simply fixing the incompetence and managing short-term symptomatic threats will not address the medium and long-term systemic threats to the United States. Instead, Progressives need to generate a broad, integrated grand strategy that transforms our economic engine and strategic posture in concert.
When we do, solutions based on responsibility, prosperity, security, and peace will garner the support of progressives on both sides of the aisle and around the world. Closing the conference, Senator Hagel set just such a tone: “Americans must not fear change, Americans must shape change.”
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
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