Save the world — America's greatest priority

Save the world — America's greatest priority
© Getty Images

When the United States and the world emerged from the Cold War 30 years ago, the watchword in foreign affairs was “change.” Now, on so many global fronts, the imperative goal is far more arresting: to save humanity and the planet.

The coronavirus pandemic has delivered one soccer punch after another to the gut of nearly every society, emphasizing not only the dominating impact of global health but also the singular goal of survival as the Joe BidenJoe BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE administration, with its ambitious agenda, enters office in a few weeks.

Before I entered the Clinton administration in 1993 (becoming the first ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues in the second term), I served as senior consultant to the Carnegie Endowment National Commission on America and the New World and helped draft its report, Changing Our Ways. It was a blueprint for the post-Cold War foreign policy of the United States and it advocated transforming America’s mindset from containment to change. The end of the Cold War had opened a whole new playing field to institute bold initiatives that would create a progressive foreign policy unshackled from the constraints of the long struggle with the Soviet Union.  


The Carnegie report presaged some of the Clinton administration’s agenda, although its implementation fell short of expectations. My own slice of the change agenda focused on United Nations peacekeeping and international criminal justice, which we pursued to expand their reach globally. I was a carpenter of change, but then the George W. Bush administration reset the nation’s goals.

When Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Obamas' first White House dog, Bo, dies Census results show White House doubling down on failure MORE rode into the presidency on a change agenda (“Yes we can”), the prominent survival imperative was his administration’s dedication to confronting climate change. Other initiatives, like the Affordable Care Act (ACA), were difficult and innovative steps toward real change, but they were not survival initiatives.

Today the survival imperative eclipses the change agenda. The former recognizes there is no way out because the stakes are so high, while the latter can rise and fall on the vicissitudes of politics. The coronavirus and its horrendous death count compel isolationism in domestic life, economic upheavals and suspensions of travel as the world awaits widespread vaccinations. Our shared predicament screams out for multilateral initiatives, global cooperation and shared sacrifice last experienced during World War II. 

There are inescapable realities:

The fate of the planet and humanity are the masters of policymaking now. They require, for example, the end of American exceptionalism, a tiresome battle cry whose time is long expired, and the beginning of a new era of assertive American collaboration with other nations and international organizations.   


Science will rule in global health and the environment:

A new global compact on prevention of infectious diseases must be conceived so that pandemics and epidemics are not only reduced, but the worst outcomes prevented with multilateral planning and stockpiling.

Climate change can only be minimized now with audacious innovative policies, including targeted investments, that radically reduce harmful emissions, a goal that compels international cooperation driven by courageous political leadership across the globe.

The nuclear arms race, which verges on a breakout moment that will accelerate extreme risk to both humanity and the environment, must be dramatically reversed with strong diplomatic initiatives on arms reductions and non-proliferation.

Cyberspace has to be tamed so that it helps shape a peaceful and prosperous world and is no longer permitted to relentlessly propagate hate, misinformation and even genocidal violence.

Preventing atrocities and massive refugee flows is essential to stop the hemorrhaging of humanitarian crises in the 21st century and to liberate resources for saving rather than rescuing humanity. Major powers must forge new initiatives with the United Nations and humanitarian agencies to intervene early during armed conflicts and internal repression to obviate atrocity crimes and migrant expulsions. 

Though in recent years the United States slipped into near irrelevance in many global arenas, that need not be the future of the American role in the world. Ideological jousts offer few answers. The pandemic has exposed the life-threatening realities that must be wrestled down by powerful actors on the world stage.

The incoming Biden administration, Congress and even the American judiciary will be judged by how pragmatically, eschewing partisanship, they use their vast powers to help build a global coalition of survivalists. The greatest priority is no longer to change the world; it is to save the world.

David J. Scheffer is a visiting senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.