Discover more from The Liberal Patriot
Look on the Bright Side…
Why America needs a "global opportunities assessment" to complement the global threats assessment done every year
We’re all bumming each other out.
We are all caught in a vicious cycle of bad news and angry debates about what to do about a broken world.
A lot of it is tethered to some pretty grim realities in the world that are hardly worth repeating. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already pretty clued into things.
We’re the main reason why this cycle repeats over and over again. How we think about things and debate issues holds us back. Our ability to see events, absorb and critically analyze them quickly, and then project our opinions and thoughts out into the world is pretty amazing. But it’s also part of the problem.
So much negativity and pessimism overshadow the whole process of generating and talking about the world. As a result, we fail to see the silver linings and opportunities. America’s pundit-industrial complex, combined with some structural factors in our media and government institutions, incline most of us towards pessimism and division. As a result, the sum of our political and policy debates usually isn’t greater than their individual parts.
Blame the politicians or the social media algorithms if you choose, but as a society we’ve each lost the willingness if not the ability to take the time needed to discern and listen carefully. We’re so busy absorbing and reacting, we rarely find enough time to process and see things a bit more rationally. Our brains are pretty amazing and evolved, but most of us don’t yet recognize that we need to take a regular pause and let things settle in our minds in order to see things more clearly.
It’s not 1991 anymore
I became interested in the world, U.S. foreign policy, and American politics in 1991 – a much different moment in the world than we’re seeing right now.
It was the end of the Cold War – the Soviet Union fell apart, the Berlin Wall came down, and the geopolitical winds were at America’s sails. Freedom and democracy were breaking out, and America’s economic engine was primed to generate a wave of widespread national prosperity. Heck, we even won a major war in the Middle East without incurring major human and financial costs.
Flash forward to 2022 and in many respects, things look really bad – especially if you skim the headlines, read social media feeds, or watch cable television news. Europe’s first major interstate war since 1945 has caused a major refugee and humanitarian crisis, and some worry an escalation could lead to nuclear war. There’s even idle talk of World War III. The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t look like it’s quite finished yet, and every week there are fresh warnings about the effects of climate change. To top it off, freedom is on the decline at a time when autocratic countries like China and Russia are challenging the international system in unprecedented ways.
And that’s just the picture in the wider world – there are some clear negative trends in America’s own democracy and cohesion at home.
It’s hard to dispute all of these data points in and of themselves. But there are two main problems with fixating so heavily on them:
1. A flood of negativity and an almost exclusive focus on problems tends to induce paralysis and feed divisive political dysfunction.
2. It produces a dynamic that keeps us trapped in a reactive stance without a clear vision of what we want to see happen in the world and at home.
In other words, we end up defining our thinking and actions against the things we don’t want to see or do, as opposed to presenting them in a more proactive and positive fashion that defines the outcomes we want to see.
It’s not all that bad on the economic and security fronts for America today
In two key areas for most Americans today things look a lot brighter than they did at the end of the Cold War: economics and basic human security.
For sure, things aren’t distributed equally on these two key fronts in America and the gaps between different groups and the haves and the have nots remains a major problem. There remain major issues with the way our economy at home has been built to reward financial wizardry over hard work, and how we’ve intertwined ourselves with kleptocratic and authoritarian regimes like Putin’s Russia. But if you look at America’s overall position in the world on these two fronts, its assets far outweigh the negatives in a balanced ledger.
1. America’s unrivaled global economic position.
On the economic front, America’s bounce back from the intentional shutdown of the global economy of 2020-2021 to combat a pandemic is pretty much unrivaled in the world. Robust economic growth and soaring demand are main factors driving the present bout of inflation, at least until the recent supply shocks from the Ukraine war and the effects of economic sanctions against Russia occurred.
China’s growth and emergence as a global economic force over the past thirty years is undeniable – but China now faces some major internal structural challenges and strains that its autocratic system tries to hide, but that’s not likely to last for long. Russia, the other country often identified in national security strategies as a peer competitor, is an economic weakling – its entire gross domestic product was smaller than the states of New York, California, and Texas individually – and Russia’s economic power is now being dramatically diminished each day.
There’s a reason why America can lead most of the world in massive economic measures doing huge damage to Russia’s economy – it continues to dominate the global financial system in ways that are underappreciated by many foreign policy analysts.
2. America’s unequaled capacity to keep its people safe and secure.
One unique advantage America has had since its founding is its unique geographic position, with two oceans on either side and relatively peaceful and less powerful countries on its immediate borders (though the recent insecurity inside of Mexico and Central America and all of its negative externalities have impacted America in negative ways over the past decade).
America’s military remains the strongest and most capable in the world. We’re still trying to learn from the major series of unforced errors in its overuse in the post-9/11 period without making the mistakes of self-deterrence and over-restraint – but on balance Americans are safer now from external threats than we’ve ever been, with the possible exception of a brief period in the late 1990s.
Certainly, a lot of very bad and catastrophic things could happen, but we have institutions that are filled with capable, patriotic Americans who wake up every day trying to strike that right balance between overreach and underreach. It’s a factor that’s often forgotten in our overly politicized and often rigidly ideological national security debates.
In new realms like cybersecurity, there’s been remarkable progress in getting ahead of threats and enhancing America’s capacity to deal with a rapidly evolving landscape. Again, as with nuclear threats and other big risks to the international system, this is not an argument for complacency but instead in favor of greater confidence and continued vigilance.
Widen the aperture a bit more to include other aspects of human security –things that actually impact all of our lives, like health and education. Here again America faces many troubling gaps, and we can do a lot more to lift up millions of our fellow citizens even higher than we already have. If you add the impact that technological advances will have on our lives in areas like biotechnology and artificial intelligence into the mix and consider the ways these technologies could help reduce hunger, disease, and dependence on fossil fuels, we may be at the start of a new phase of human history – but only if we successfully navigate this tricky and complicated transition period we’re in right now.
The key point: when we focus singularly on problems and shortcomings, we risk forgetting how much overall power and ability we have to change things in a way that brings everyone along. This isn’t an appeal to the power of positive thinking but rather a call for realism and rational optimism.
Don’t bring me down – no, no, no
It may seem a bit perverse to pen an article that starts with “look at the bright side” at times like these. The carnage of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the major spillover effects it is already having in the world today are just the tip of the iceberg in a world of hurt. We can’t afford to ignore reality and stick our heads in the sand, and we should dedicate our efforts to contain and respond to the challenges and crises we face.
But if that’s all we do, we are going to miss an important lesson from the Great Depression and World War II – we need to have a clear picture of the world we want to create even in our darkest days, not just simply focus on what we oppose and need to defeat.
That vision for the future needs to be captured in a compelling story. History is driven by those who have the most convincing narratives that mobilize large groups of people – and lasting history is created by those who tell stories that create and build, rather than destroy and fragment.
One thing we all need to do is find time every day in our lives to think what it is we want to get done and produce, rather than reacting to the constant stream of stimuli that can at times overwhelm the senses and cloud our thinking. Take a breather and step away from the news from time to time; the world will probably still be there when you get back.
As far as the U.S. government goes, it should consider tasking the Director of National Intelligence to write an annual “global opportunities assessment” – one to match the annual global threats assessment that is produced and distributed publicly near the start of each year. For a range of reasons, a better idea might be to have a group of dedicated patriots and professionals working on a trans-partisan project to do this outside of the confines of government and the strictures of the profit-driven bottom lines of the private sector and its consulting firms.
If there’s one silver lining to the horrible war in Ukraine, it’s the bravery of the Ukrainian people as they fight for their freedom and independence. They face dark days ahead, but they’re motivated not just by survival and defense of their country against an evil, predatory dictatorship. They are also inspired by a vision for a better day for their country.
It’s a lesson that those of us who are mostly just spectators and commentators on this Ukraine war can bring into our own lives: stand up for something and fight for what you want to create and build.