It is too soon to tell whether these revolutions will result in governments that respect the rights of their citizens, or if one form of autocracy will be supplanted by another. While we work to assure the former, American policy should be realistic about our ability to avert the latter.
What we can do is affirm our commitment to democracy in the region by standing in solidarity with our longstanding allies in Israel and our new partners in Iraq.
Where revolution has come, as well as in states struggling to adapt without violence, our policy should be guided by a readiness to assist the peoples of the region in the arduous task of building free societies.
Our ability to affect events is strongest in Iraq and Afghanistan, where for the last decade we have been fighting the scourge of global terrorism. In these countries, we can and we must remain committed to the promotion of stable governments that respect the rights of their citizens and deny terrorists access to their territory.
Although the war has been long and the human costs high, failure would be a blow to American prestige and would reinvigorate al Qaeda, which is reeling from the death of its leader. Now is the time to lock in the success that is within reach.
We cannot face these challenges alone. To the contrary, we need our allies and friends to increase their capacity and willingness to act in defense of our common interests.
The first step in that process is robust and frank engagement with our closest allies. We all share an interest in the maintenance of the international order with its liberal trading system, general tranquility, and abundant opportunity – and we should all share the burden of maintaining it.
The Obama administration has taken our allies for granted and accepted too willingly the decline of their capacity for international action. Our alliances were vital to our victory in the Cold War and they need to be revitalized to see us through the 21st century.
We must also embrace the opportunities that trade offers to strengthen our ties of friendship. The administration finally is no longer impeding long-overdue free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. These agreements serve our mutual political and economic interests, and they should be sent forward for the prompt consideration of Congress.
Part of revitalizing our network of friendships and alliances is expanding that network to include the rising democratic powers of India and Brazil, which share many of our core principles and interests.
At present these powers are freely consuming the global public goods America provides, but their growing economies and maturing political systems will enable them to play a larger global role. We must be willing to listen and accommodate their legitimate concerns as we preserve the framework of the international system and solidify our leadership within it.
We also have to meet the challenge of rising powers with very different values and interests from our own and of the broader community, most notably China.
The key question for American policymakers is whether we are competing with China for leadership of the international system or against them over the fundamental nature of that system.
It is a debate in which we must demonstrate American strength – economic, military, and moral – to make clear our choice to reject decline and instead recommit to renewed strength and prosperity. According to press reports, some Chinese leaders have started talking about when, not if, the United States will lose its status as a great power. We must demonstrate that planning for the post-American era is a squandered effort on their part – and that America’s greatest days lie ahead.
Also – we should seek to increase China’s investment in the international system. We should welcome the contributions and strengths that over one billion people can offer and push for the government of China to give those people space to express their personal, religious, economic, and civil ambitions.
A liberalizing China is not only in the interests of the world, but also in China’s own best interest as it copes with the tremendous challenges it faces over the next couple of decades. Just as America faces an entitlement crisis driven in part by the aging of our population, China faces an even more severe demographic crisis driven by years of coercive population controls.
The stresses that this rapid aging will place on China’s economy and financial system are gargantuan. The ability of China to meet these challenges tomorrow will depend critically on whether they address their unsound economic policies today. Their export-led growth strategy has produced rapid growth, but it has also required policies that are causing massive distortions in the underlying economy.
Ultimately, we stand to benefit from a world in which China and other rising powers are integrated into the global order with increased incentives to further liberalize their political and economic institutions. Managing the strengths of these new powers – as well as their weaknesses – is necessary to creating vibrant markets for American goods and services, and expanding our influence abroad and our security at home.
A safer world and a more prosperous America go hand-in-hand. Economic growth is the key to avoiding the kind of painful austerity that would limit our ability to generate both hard and soft power.
A more prosperous economy enables us to afford a modernized military that is properly sized for the breadth of the challenges we face. Such a military must also be an efficient and responsible steward of taxpayer dollars in order to maintain the confidence of the American people. The House-passed budget recognizes this, which is why it includes the $78 billion in defense efficiency savings identified by Secretary Gates.
By contrast, President Obama has announced $400 billion in new defense cuts, saying in effect he’ll figure out what those cuts mean for America’s security later. Indiscriminate cuts that are budget-driven and not strategy-driven are dangerous to America and America’s interests in the world. Secretary Gates put it well: “that’s math, not strategy.”
I’ll close on a final thought: Britain’s premature decline was triggered by a crisis of confidence among its political leadership. Once they concluded that they should manage Britain’s decline, it mattered little what Britain was objectively capable of achieving on the world stage. This crisis of self-perception was fatal to Britain’s global leadership.
Today, some in this country relish the idea of America’s retreat from our role in the world. They say that it’s about time for other nations to take over; that we should turn inward; that we should reduce ourselves to membership on a long list of mediocre has-beens.
This view applies moral relativism on a global scale. Western civilization and its founding moral principles might be good for the West, but who are we to suggest that other systems are any worse? – or so the thinking goes.
Instead of heeding these calls to surrender, we must renew our commitment to the idea that America is the greatest force for human freedom the world has ever seen; a country whose devotion to free enterprise has lifted more people out of poverty than any economic system ever designed; and a nation whose best days still lie ahead of us, if we make the necessary choices today.