Beyond the U.S. presidential debates
Nigel Cameron / Jan 2016
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
While the Atlantic alliance remains the bedrock of global security, election time on both sides of the ocean can leave even the cognoscenti in Brussels and Washington scratching their heads. Especially in Brussels. For EU observers, it's tempting to believe that when the American political scene looks especially depressing - with its unique blend of the small-minded and the grandiloquent - it can't really be as bad as all that. But, believe me, it can. And while the best evidence tends to lie on the Republican side of the ledger (or the GOP, as we call it over there), America's sickness is essentially bipartisan.
One taproot of the problem lies in American isolationism. As I have quipped from time to time in my 25 years in the US, American conservatives will often just tell you outright how small is their interest in the wider world. American liberals will often just outright lie about theirs. Running a world in which one has little interest is quite a challenge, especially for a highly-responsive (that is, populist) democracy like this one. As the recent GOP debates have been demonstrating rather well, there are no brownie points with the primary electorate for geo-strategic smarts.
It's perhaps unfair to pick on these ritual debates for comment, though rituals tend to embody truths that otherwise lie unspoken, and these particular rituals offer heavy clues to the "corporate culture" of Washington's politics. Unfair partly because they can force candidates (Kasich, Bush, Christie, for example) who are subtle and experienced individuals to wear scary masks and play over-written parts. And also unfair because they naturally disadvantage, in most European eyes, the Republicans, parts of whose constituency lie so far outside the norms of what from Brussels looks like the mainstream as to be simply incomprehensible. American politics simply has a much more conservative centre of gravity than the European variety.
Put the global disinterest and the conservatism together, and much is explained. So, in the debate on security, the focus was not on the great tectonic plates in movement in a world order less stable than it has been since at least 1989: resurgent Russia, the march of post-Tiananmen China to become the world's dominant economic power, a Europe increasingly preoccupied with itself, our NATO partner Turkey flexing its regional muscles. And the Middle East, ever requiring subtlety and never moreso than today, is seemingly reduced to the need to support Israel - and prevent Islamic immigration. Because that's where the votes (and the money) seem to lie.
In fact this lack of interest in the wider world is one of three prongs of disinterest-driven ignorance driving American leadership, all equally baneful to American and therefore Western security. Perhaps they should alarm our European partners even more than already they do.
For a nation founded by futurist visionaries, the United States has succeeded in acquiring leaders across the spectrum with limited interest either in the future itself (beyond, ahem, the next election), or – as I recently argued in the San Francisco Chronicle - in the science and technology that have empowered the present (including America's success) and are set to shape the future in ways that are entirely without precedent.
Plainly, their lack of interest in the post-electoral future is condemning the nation to a succession of short-term decisions – decisions that leave domestic infrastructure increasingly depleted as much as they threaten America’s global position. Their lack of interest in S and T is seemingly endemic, and has long shaped Washington’s culture; the twin unmitigated disasters of the Obamacare website roll-out and the huge hack of the Office of Personnel Management drive the point home. And remember, this was the Obama administration, which came in on a wave of technophile marketing before it proved its technological incompetence. The collapse of interest in space after 1969, one of the most extraordinary facts of modern times, shows that this disengagement from S and T is not new (at its height, the space programme consumed almost 5% of the entire federal budget; we are now down to one-tenth of that number).
Which takes us back to leadership, the singular quality that the candidates are seeking to display to the electorate in the primary season. Leaders, of course, among their core gifts, have an ability to spy out both the future and the current strategic situation, and to make current decisions in light of these wider concerns - even as they persuade voters, or investors, that those choices are also good for now.
The issue for America is to decide which of these many candidates of right, left and centre, aspires - well beyond the dire necessities of the candidating process – to strategic leadership in a world of renewed great-power geo-politics, rising asymmetric threats, and Moore’s-Law-driven explosive technological development. That’s the only kind of leader who will have a chance of re-shaping Washington’s culture and renewing American governance.