The sound of history: Let’s put on our work boots and engage the world

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Washington is burning, the nation is divided, and some are still fighting over a settled presidential election, ignoring the real crises confronting the U.S. and the international community. The pandemic has changed the world in ways we have yet to understand.  Nonetheless, existing problems must be confronted, albeit in a pandemic-altered environment.

Here are a few of the existential problems facing the Biden administration as it prepares to take office in January:

The pandemic will be the primary focus of the new administration. Resources, financial and human, will be issue No. 1 domestically and globally. Some estimates predict global GDP will decrease by 4.5 percent in 2020. The World Bank estimates that the global extreme poverty rate could be as high as 9.4 percent of the world’s population by the end of 2020, and the World Food Program has indicated that as many as an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the point of starvation as a result of the pandemic. These issues will impact everything from trade to a burgeoning refugee problem, to a rise in autocratic governments taking advantage of the complications the pandemic has created for governing.

Great power competition will be one of the most important issues the Biden team will need to manage. While this is really about the U.S. and China, recent cyber attacks by Russia make it clear that U.S.-Russia relations cannot be pushed to the side. The dilemma with China is profound and complicated. As incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Asia-expert Kurt Campbell wrote for Foreign Affairs, “China today is a peer competitor that is more formidable economically, more sophisticated diplomatically, and more flexible ideologically than the Soviet Union ever was.”

The environment will have an impact on all aspects of U.S. national security issues. Rejoining the Paris Climate Accords may be the first order of business, but it certainly will not be the last. Food security, resource scarcity, out-of-control refugee and migration issues are among just a few of the many problems that climate change creates.

U.S. international standing has been hurt dramatically over the past four years. A Pew Research center poll indicates that in that time, the image of the U.S. globally has deteriorated. Lack of trust of the U.S. has a dramatic impact on the ability to work with traditional friends and allies to deal with issues of common interest and concern such as climate change, economic recovery and responding to China’s rise.

Cyber issues have become a more acute concern. Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta warned that the U.S. needs to be prepared for a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” His prescient concern appears on the precipice of being borne out with the recent attacks on U.S. government agencies and businesses, apparently by Russia. China, Iran and North Korea also pose imminent cyber threats to the U.S. This is about much more than 5G competition; it is about a destructive capability by potential state and non-state actors.

Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs continue to be a threat, despite efforts to stop them.  For example, Iran appears to be undertaking construction at its Fordo nuclear site in addition to increasing its overall nuclear program. North Korea remains a significant nuclear threat with respect to both nuclear devices and delivery capability.

The threat of non-state actors has not gone away, and terrorists and organized crime are both adapting to changed circumstances. ISIS no longer has a caliphate, but remains present in Syria, Afghanistan, Asia, Africa or globally online. Al Qaeda also still plays a role globally. A case in point is its relationship with the Taliban in Afghanistan, complicating the peace talks there. As for organized crime, there is concern over efforts to distribute fake pandemic vaccines, and the Mexican cartels are looking for new lines of business as a result of the pandemic. 

This list of problems is illustrative, not exhaustive. These issues will not go away, and almost certainly there will be other crises that are not yet on the radar. The question is how the U.S. government and the American people respond to these challenges.

In his book, “Band of Brothers,” about Easy Company, part of the 101st Airborne, Stephen Ambrose writes of the incredible courage of these brave men who helped win World War II. He paints a vivid picture of their bleak Christmas of 1944, in freezing weather and with enemy bombardments. They stood their ground, fought and achieved their objective against great odds, suffering many casualties. The lineage of these men was found in Korea, Vietnam and, more recently, with the men and women who served — and serve — in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their sacrifice and commitment are illustrative of the legacy of America and Americans: a beacon of hope for all those around the world who believe in democracy, human rights and freedom. 

Unfortunately, some in the U.S. seem to take this legacy for granted, as well as the incredible sacrifices so many Americans have been willing to make to keep their country strong and united.  This is particularly dangerous at a time when common purpose and commitment to confront challenges, domestic and international, are essential. To paraphrase Voltaire, the sound of history is satin slippers going down the steps and hobnail boots coming up. Everyone in the United States needs to take off their soft shoes and put on their work boots and engage the world, helping to make the U.S. the global leader it has been and can be. It is in our national interest.

Poet Robert Frost wrote a poem for the inauguration of John Kennedy, “The Gift Outright,” which has a poignant and appropriate passage for the U.S. and world today: “Something we were withholding made us weak, until we found out that it was ourselves.” The very good news is that a record number of Americans elected a president, Joe Biden, who has said repeatedly that there is nothing Americans can’t do if they work together. One can only hope so, and all should give him a chance to lead the way. 

William C. Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs who, among other things, worked for the intelligence community. He most recently was a World Bank Group Special Representative for International Relations. 

Tags Biden foreign policy China Climate change Iran Jake Sullivan Joe Biden John Kennedy National security North Korea Russia

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