Fire in the hole: The need for US global leadership

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The U.S. and the world are facing existential crises. There is a global economic meltdown. The IMF recently revised its global economic picture from a decline of 3 percent to 4.9 percent this year. No country’s economy appears to be immune, particularly the United States, whose economy the IMF predicts will shrink by 8 percent this year.

This is the result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the U.S. harder than any other country. The U.S. has more than 25 percent of total cases and deaths of COVID-19 globally, and recent signs show an increase in cases, rather than a decline or even a leveling off. 

The U.S. is going through a social and political upheaval, offering an opportunity to undertake a necessary, hard look at the role of race in defining what kind of a nation the U.S. is now and has been historically. The questions that this debate raises must be answered with real change, and that will take time and effort. 

All of these crises have a cost. The PTSD of the pandemic and the underbelly of systemic racial bias risks moving U.S. political leaders away from having the country play a global role in helping other nations deal with the chaos engulfing the international community. 

The practical considerations of present problems cannot be dismissed. Congress responded to the economic collapse with a several trillion-dollar safety net, and the Federal Reserve is pulling out all stops to respond to the financial dimension of the crisis. Still, 100,000 small businesses have failed and more such stories are on the horizon. Unemployment is unsustainably high and another stimulus package is bogged down politically. Deficit spending is necessary, but it is clear the deficit is out of control, which means that spending on anything not deemed essential will be severely limited.  

In addition, for some time, politics has mitigated against having the U.S. play a leading global role. An extreme example of this is the call for troop withdrawals, as well as withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) and international agreements by the Trump administration. Trade policy has reverted from free to fair, with the punitive refinements that accompany it.

Political and policy realignment is not unusual, and often necessary, but the law of unintended consequences can create unanticipated problems and leave old Gordian knots unsolved. The U.S. presidential election will determine how U.S. national security — political, economic and military — will be handled for the next several years and beyond.

At the moment, the world seems to be rudderless and in need of leadership the U.S.   traditionally has provided. As W.B. Yeats put it in his poem “The Second Coming,” 

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Specifically, global hunger is on the rise. David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program,  said “821 million people go to bed hungry every night” and “there are a further 135 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse.” Migration, refugees and displaced persons continue to be problematic, not only for low-income countries but for the middle- and high-income countries who receive them. A report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff, “Global Forced Migration,” details these problems. As Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) writes in the introduction to the report, “This global forced migration crisis is one of the most profound and least understood challenges of our time.” The debt burden of developing countries is a consistent worry, and wars in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere need to be addressed. These are just a few of the political issues confronting the U.S. and its allies. 

If the path forward is further withdrawal by the U.S. globally — including more restrictive trade, moving away from allies and international institutions, ignoring the plight of those countries that are barely surviving and hoping that terrorists and other non-state actors will fade away — then the world is in for quite a bumpy and dangerous ride.

International engagement is never an easy choice for the nation’s leaders to make. Military involvement is always — rightly — a tough decision. Broad support for foreign assistance is a perennial political problem, despite the fact that it is a negligible part of the budget. Trade is always viewed as a zero-sum game, even though it has created economic opportunity and growth for most Americans. 

And despite the inclination of the American voter to want to look inward during this time of almost unprecedented crisis, the American people have a history of being willing to step up and lead globally to bring some order to chaos, as they did after the end of World War II, in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union, after 9/11 and during the Great Recession. 

If this is to happen again, American political leaders must have a reckoning with the American people. Simple, honest interventions such as telling them that foreign assistance doesn’t cost much, and that we must promote human rights and values, while true, will not be sufficient under present circumstances.

The next president and his team will have to determine what role the U.S. will play to get back on track and why, specifically, it is in the interest of the American people that they assume this role. Americans must be made to understand the stark choice of what Ben Franklin rightly said when the nation was being founded: We all hang together or we hang separately. There is a desperate need for the kind of historic U.S. leader who has fought and defeated possible dystopic outcomes to crises.  We need to be brought together in common cause and purpose, not only domestically but internationally as well, or we surely will hang separately. 

William C. Danvers recently worked as a World Bank Group Special Representative for International Relations. He previously was deputy secretary general of the OECD, and worked on national security issues for 35 years in the executive branch, on Capitol Hill, for international organizations and the private sector.

Tags Aid Bob Menendez economy Globalization International relations

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