So far, Barack Obama and his Republican challengers have refused even to mention the biggest issue facing America in 2012. Perhaps they’re scared. Perhaps they’re in denial. In fairness, our domestic problems are now so serious that even the most discerning members of our leadership class could be forgiven for developing a touch of intellectual tunnel vision.
But we must not forgive them. Right at this moment, the foundations of international order erected by the Allies after the Second World War are crumbling away. In all likelihood, they will be gone forever — in fact, if not in name, within the next ten years.
The consequences for the U.S. are beyond profound. If we do not act now to accept and prepare for the sea change facing humanity in the decade to come, America will struggle desperately and errantly simply to react. If we do act now, Americans will continue to enjoy an existence sharply better by almost every measure than almost everyone else in the world.
Believe it or not, the U.S. is already in an enviable position as the New World Disorder begins to spread across the globe. Its financial, economic, and military preeminence is important but not decisive to its peculiar advantage. In fact, America’s deeply rooted culture of democratic social order places it in a class of its own relative even to other well-developed postindustrial states.
Despite discouraging trends in illegitimacy, incarceration, and structural unemployment, Americans possess, almost as second nature, a veritable hoard of cultural riches that make all the difference between success and failure in times of contagious and unbuffered socioeconomic disorder.
Broad-based entrepreneurship, authentic religious faith, and a long history of robust individuality interrelated with robust community — these resources, evident at the very origin of America’s historical experience, are not found together anywhere else in the world at anywhere near American levels.
Domino by domino, as the New World Disorder topples the global status quo, countries currently the object of nervous American envy (in Asia) or post-historical pride (in Europe) will pay dearly for this deficit that hides in plain sight.
Political leaders in the U.S. must instruct the American people to expect an unprecedented global upheaval, not just in the Muslim world but in most of the Old World, if not virtually all.
Punishing new waves of economic “crisis” — a better word is “reality” — will exhaust and render irrelevant the international economic institutions built to rescue the civilized world from the wreckage of World War Two. More is being laid bare than the dire structural problems facing the financial and economic architecture of the Old World. Already, the inadequacy of the political identities presently on offer in the Mideast, in Europe, and even Africa and Asia is being revealed.
Painful at present, it will soon become earth-shaking. Europeans especially will face a crossroads that dwarfs even that of the Cold War, as their economic partnership mercilessly fails to supply even the unity and resolve necessary to maintain a single currency — much less the collective fortitude needed to keep public order while mass movements of the far right and left return amid a decentered and wrathful strain of militant Islam pushing deep beyond its impoverished and violent epicenter. Organizations like the UN, the EU, the IMF, the World Bank, and even NATO will be obliged to transform themselves into unrecognizable forms if they do not wish to reenact the closing chapters of the League of Nations.
Even then, surviving international institutions will be entirely dependent upon the political and economic capital of the United States. That largesse may not be forthcoming even if, technically speaking, it is available. The homespun wisdom that you can only spend a dollar once will rule like a king over American politics at a time when choosing when and where to intervene, economically or militarily, will be a constant and portentous necessity. The intensity of popular resistance to today’s entitlements and wars will seem like a hiccup relative to that which the American people will visit upon a leadership class that fails to choose wisely, sparingly — and, above all, legitimately.
None of this is the talk of the Beltway or the national commentariat. Some financial and political risk analysts are beginning to speak frankly about the possibilities and options facing American investors. But with telling swiftness, prognostications of worldwide disturbances and a destruction of the international order are routinely dismissed as the fantasies of apocalypse-minded rubes and fringe conspiracists.
In part, this self-reassuring reflex can be attributed to the mostly healthy optimism that insists “America’s best days are ahead.” So they are, but this is beside the point. Even if the U.S. faces a protracted period of hardship and struggle, the ordeals that most of the other nations of the world will endure — or not — will leave America still by far the most desirable place to live in the world.
If, that is, the American people and America’s leadership class begin now to recognize, and bluntly discuss, the situation they are so soon to find themselves in. Political, economic, and psychological preparations must be made. Whether or not Barack Obama has a grand strategy, this is a task his administration seems unable even to comprehend. As yet, the leading Republican candidates for their party’s presidential nomination have not shown themselves to be much further ahead, if at all. The 2012 election season has put the opportunity to preserve America’s preeminence on a silver platter. It remains to be seen only if any political figure will help his or her country to take it — before it’s too late.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.