After teaching behavioral economics at the historic United States Military Academy at West Point, I find myself far from my "rock-bound Highland home," trying out morning runs along sandy beaches, over volcanic rock and through the Japanese Gardens of the University of Hawaii's East-West Center. Discovering Honolulu to be an Asian city within America, where ramen isn't merely a trend amongst Brooklyn hipsters or cash-strapped college students, this East Coast policy wonk is the first to admit she has much to learn about the new neighborhood.
The president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began outlining the pivot during the first Obama-Biden term, and now we find ourselves several years on. Last week, current Secretary of State John Kerry visited the East-West Center to further outline the administration's strategic vision for long-term engagement. In doing so, he spoke to distinct challenges and the potential opportunities found therein for the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific community. Read as: very important speech. As with any key policy address, its strengths and imperfections alike were dissected amongst those already steeped in the issues at hand — but were others listening beyond those predisposed to care?
Just as any busy reader might note, Kerry was simultaneously juggling this address in the midst of no small slate of time-sensitive international challenges: Liberia, Iraq, Gaza, Syria, Ukraine. Closer to home, many Americans are tuned into demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo.; party tensions playing out in midterm primaries; or the ALS #icebucketchallenge. Whatever we have underway in our day-to-day, it can be difficult to lift our heads up above the pings and dings of the headlines and to-do lists. Any of us who respond like Pavlovian dogs to the iPhone's siren call can relate, and yet, we are not doing ourselves any favors.
It is no wonder elected officials continually find themselves responding to and legislating by events. As humans, our "present bias" leads us to watch stocks fluctuate daily, rather than observing long-term trends. We overestimate the likelihood of an event or risk when it is available to the mind's eye, whether from our own anecdotal experience or the images presented to us by our 24/7 media. However, it is often the less sexy, the less vivid, the less immediate that should garner our attention and resources. One can never neglect threats just because they are not, at present, seen or felt — and the most visionary identify and embrace opportunities where others see only challenge.
We count on our leaders to think and act strategically. While their specific missions or goals might differ, the challenge faced by corporate executives and nonprofit executive directors alike looks similar. They work closely with boards of directors for this very reason. However, we need not all be running companies to recognize the difficulty we have maintaining long-term perspective.
Whether one is a senator or a soccer mom, if smart, we must remind ourselves to distinguish between the urgent and the important. So often we are busy responding to the immediate issue, a mere symptom of a problem, rather than addressing its root cause. What requires real skill — and where we can all improve — is the ability to toggle between the daily firefighting while thinking long-term.
It is not to say that Ferguson doesn't demand our attention, but it does not require a Ph.D. or board of directors to understand that it is indicative of larger challenges our country still faces regarding race relations. Similarly, one dare not dismiss several thousand persecuted minority Yazidis on Mount Sinjar as unimportant, but the reality is that in policymaking we are in the business of considering trade-offs and making tough decisions under financial and temporal scarcity.
If we were to assess the risk of diseases, considering their full costs and allocating medical efforts accordingly, would we be focused on Lou Gehrig's disease and the Ebola virus this summer, followed by pink ribbons in October and mustaches for November? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Cost-benefit analyses and Excel spreadsheets never make for compelling sound bytes or Facebook posts.
Whether we are thinking economically, militarily, diplomatically or otherwise, it is in all of our interests to lift our heads up from the immediate to consider the long run, rather than continually responding. So back to Asia. When we consider just a few global trends — that Asia is the world's most populous continent; that its crop yields are in decline; that Asian countries are now growing and investing at noteworthy rates after years as export-led economies — it is not hard to understand the region's strategic importance. Some might say we would simply be responding if we prioritized the East-West relationship. I suggest otherwise. Though not without their bumps, the Luces and Rockefellers, Boeings, General Electrics, Nikes and Krafts have long invested in the U.S. relationship with Asia. Perhaps the rest of us are the ones coming late to the party.
Living between the U.S. and U.K., my recent years' work has had me focused mainly on the transatlantic relationship. Just as the autumn travel schedule will have me flying to Washington and London, I anticipate Shanghai making its way into the itinerary too. Having only recently moved from New York to Hawaii, I sit on the steep part of my learning curve. I do not claim to have all the answers or to be an Asian expert, but I do recognize the folly in not asking questions, listening and engaging. In the coming years, it is in all of our best interests to make that deliberate effort beyond the urgent to learn and plan beyond the immediate horizon. Not to throw cold water on the summer fun, but it's time we go back to school.
This post has been edited and corrected from a previous version.
Babcock-Lumish, president of Islay Consulting, previously served as the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute's founding director of public policy and an economics professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point.