Philip Zelikow warns the world is slouching toward a grave systemic crisis

Historians in the News
tags: Philip Zelikow

On August 5, Philip Zelikow delivered the following keynote address at the annual meeting of the Aspen Strategy Group, a discussion forum for experts and government practitioners. Zelikow, who is currently the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, has served at all levels of American government, and for administrations of both parties—including roles at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon. He was also the executive director of the 9/11 Commission. In this speech he reflects on the much-discussed concept of “world order,” interrogates the claim that a “more open” world is really better for Americans, and issues a warning about America’s world leadership. The full text is below.

… Looking around other countries or regions around the world, probably all of us share some sense that the world is slouching toward another cycle of grave systemic crisis. The last three years have been disheartening.

Everyone here can reflect on unease in global capitalism, global environment, mass migrations, cyberspace, advances in biological engineering, trends in mass media and culture, the implosion of the Arab and Muslim world, and other problems in Eurasia, East Asia, Latin America, or Africa.

It is hard for me to see how American efforts in the world are being purposefully directed in any meaningful way.

Also, as a government, the U.S. is not well informed or well equipped for strategic works of catalytic construction. Here we are in this information age, with our more than $70 billion intelligence enterprise, and as a government and as a country, I feel we are less able to reconstruct the policymaking world in the really crucial, swing countries than we were in Marshall’s time 70 years ago. And U.S. capacities for working with foreigners to solve their problems were also smarter and more functional 70 years ago than they are now.

That does not mean Washington is not busy. A poorly functioning government is not inert. Instead, it lives the life of a pinball. The life of a pinball can feel quite busy. So many bright lights, so noisy, so bounced about.

Maybe any more constructive moves will just have to wait a few years. Yet it does seem to me that the world is drifting toward a truly massive general crisis.

Every one of America’s major adversaries now has the strategic initiative. They—Russia, Iran, China—are currently better positioned to set the time, place, and manner of engagement, including political engagement. On every vector, we react.

Blustery declarations, backed by unsustainable commitments, do not regain the strategic initiative. Instead, they invite exemplary humiliation, this American generation’s version of Britain’s “Suez” moment, that some of our adversaries will eagerly try to arrange.

Suppose, instead of just reacting episodically, the United States and its friends wanted to go on the offense, so to speak, and seize the strategic initiative. My little reading of history suggests a checklist of three strategic questions:

1. Set priorities. What battleground issues or states are most likely to influence this generation’s global election about prospects for an open and civilized world? (Including the pivotal battlegrounds for the future of governance here in America.)

2. Think outside-in. Out in those states, out in the world of those issues, are there catalytic possibilities? How do they see their situation? What (and who) are the critical variables in their choices?

3. U.S. efficacy. In that context, where or how can the U.S. really make a strategic difference?

These are exactly the kind of questions Marshall and his colleagues analyzed in 1947. They are also just the kind of questions the Bush administration analyzed during 1989 and 1990….

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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