Washington's Broken Civil Discourse Muddies Our Foreign Policy
AP Photo/John Locher
Washington's Broken Civil Discourse Muddies Our Foreign Policy
AP Photo/John Locher
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Candidates for president are loudly promising that if elected, they would restore America's position as the unchallenged leader of the world. But the only way we can do that is by rebuilding our country at home. We cannot be stronger in the world if our own society continues to weaken.

When the Soviet Union collapsed a quarter-century ago, Americans celebrated our unrivaled military power. We proclaimed ourselves the indispensable nation. But we failed to define a coherent vision of a new world order, and we failed to pronounce an inspiring role for the United States within it. Our incompetence in foreign affairs has become a serious international problem.

Today the United States is steadily less geopolitically dominant, less internationally competitive, less emblematic of equal opportunity, less faithful to the core values of our republic, and less looked to for leadership by foreigners. We have worse relations with each of our great power rivals than any of them has with any other. Even our allies, while not turning against us, are often no longer with us.

Our global standing has been diminished not just by the rise of others and the estrangement of allies, but by structural changes in our economy and disinvestment in education and research. We are becoming less competitive. Social mobility in America now compares unfavorably with that in other industrialized democracies.

Meanwhile, we are defending our freedoms by curtailing them. We have suspended much of our Bill of Rights and become accustomed to a perpetual state of war. Our panicky reactions to the activities of terrorists abroad are increasing the risk of terrorism at home. The combination of militarism and the uniquely American impulse to redeem the world by democratizing it translates into armed evangelism.

The military power of the United States is universally acknowledged, but our moral authority, our reputation for considering the interests and listening to the counsel of friends, and our lustre as a just society with aspirations to continuing self-improvement have all taken hits. Post-constitutional America is adrift. Americans are understandably unhappy about this. We blame everyone but ourselves.

Yet there is absolutely nothing wrong with America that Americans cannot fix. Despite all our afflictions, the United States clearly has what it takes to get our groove back. We are very large, richly endowed by nature, remarkably diverse in ethnic origins and talent, and possessed of a healthy amount of greed and entrepreneurial drive, even if we are not notably agile or wise at present. We continue to enjoy the superb defensive advantages of a uniquely favorable geopolitical position.

Getting America's act together will require repairing and reversing the damage to our human and physical infrastructure that decades of neglect have wrought. Diverting more capital to the military-industrial complex, as virtually all of our politicians demand, will not offset that damage so much as compound it. The ultimate foundation of American global influence lies not in our ability to bomb or assassinate foreigners. It is instead carried in our capacity to enrich them and ourselves through trade and investment. It is in our potential to inspire them by our example to want to emulate and cooperate with us, not shun or injure us. We are strongest abroad when we are most just and prosperous at home.

A country that can no longer conduct a civil dialogue; agree about domestic priorities or adjust revenue and spending to achieve them; ratify a treaty; or develop coherent foreign policy objectives along with strategies to attain them, has no business pretending it is entitled to lead internationally.

What hand we will play in world affairs depends on the extent to which we cure partisan dysfunction and restore civil discourse in Washington. We must address neglected domestic priorities such as the need to invest in education and physical infrastructure. We must reform our banking system, tax code, and regulatory structure to promote entrepreneurship, innovation, and social mobility, rather than to protect vested interests. We must bring our nation's foreign policy objectives and commitments into balance with the resources we are prepared to devote to them. And we must focus on correcting the defects in our own society, and its performance, rather than on imposing our ideas on other societies.

The question is not whether that can be done. It can be. The question is whether we Americans will muster the vision, courage, and determination to do it. That is entirely up to us.

(AP photo)