One of the (very few) risks in academic life is that we develop a kind of tunnel vision: spend too long in the silos of our own research, and we can lose track of the bigger picture, neglecting to think about the major issues and debates that drew us into research in the first place. It’s a risk that exists even in a collegiate, policy-focused centre like ICSA. Our answer? The ICSA Grand Strategy Seminar Series. Since January, we’ve been getting together on a regular basis with colleagues from across the Policy Institute to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. This week’s topic was America’s future in the world. A few hundred words of blog can’t very well hope to cover everything we discussed in ninety-odd minutes of debate, but I’ve distilled a few key thoughts below. (For a more comprehensive view of our discussions through the year, check out the ICSA website).
The challenge envisaged here is that of political decay, stemming from the passage of time and the entrenchment of party, class and dynastic interests (the ‘capture by insiders’ issue). Opinion differed as to the scope and scale of the problem, but it was fairly widely agreed that gerrymandering of constituencies, resulting in swathes of solidly Republican or Democratic districts, had had a detrimental effect on the House of Representatives: most political competition now emanates from within one’s own party, and cross-party cooperation in the legislature has slumped as a result. The consequences for American foreign policy are manifold: inertia prevents initiative, domestic and isolationist impulses predominate, and the vaunted benefits of republican democracy are tarnished in the eyes of the world.
And yet… having tested the bounds of pessimism, we nevertheless found President Clinton’s great line still to ring true: ‘There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America’. The capacity still exists, within the constitution and the democratic engagement of the American people, to enact small but effective reforms. One suggestion was that the period between the presidential election and his (or her?) taking office be reduced. By such small steps could democracy be reinvigorated.
Pessimism is easy. For example, it’s often assumed that demography will be key to success in the 21stcentury, and that the world belongs to hyper-populous China and India. Yet there are other fundamentals in which the US has somewhat of an edge over its putative rivals. In practical terms the United States can be pretty well self-sufficient (or at least highly secure) in its food supply, has adequate long-term water security, and should be able to rely on shale gas and associated resources to maintain energy independence until new sources (e.g. wind, solar and nuclear) come on-stream. These are advantages that future competitor states such as India and China don’t yet have. There’s also the incumbency advantage: the United States is still the global reserve currency, and English is still the most globalized of languages. The BRICs may have plenty of grounds for optimism, but the ascent to greatness on the global stage will require the expenditure of vast amounts of political and economic capital. Reinvigoration, on the other hand, could be relatively easily achieved: perhaps America does still have an advantage. Bringing the seminar to a close, I asked for a show of hands: who here feels optimistic about America’s future in the world? Almost immediately, every hand was raised.