Never Let A Crisis Go To Waste

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

There are so many international crises looming as President-elect Obama takes office, and they all present him with an opportunity to formulate a transformative vision of the United States’s role in the new global order.

In one crisis, the terrorism problems are converging in Pakis tan, Afghanistan and India. If the three governments must recognize that they have a common interest in dealing with it, we could have a new era of zero tolerance for jihadists

With the attacks in Mumbai, the .Pakistan military has a success; for very low cost they have destabilized Afghanistan and India. Would Pakistan turn off the terrorist tap? Probably not if they are not yet convinced that they have created an existential threat to themselves and therefore must destroy the plumbing of terrorism.

Unlikely as it might have seen just weeks ago, Obama is the first American president to have South Asia as the number one crisis. Although he might now wish not to have won his turn at bat, it is a major leadership opportunity. United States has had good relations with the three principal actors and can be a useful intermediary in opening the diplomatic channels of communication. The big question is, can there be a settlement of Kashmir 60 years after partition? Toward that end, in this process the U.S. could be an honest broker and facilitator.

Likewise, we have had a frozen relationship with Iran, no meaningful contact with he government of Iran. Obama has an opportunity to open up negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program & capability. If we are lucky, we can make progress to deflect the nukes, and if we fail in negotiations with Iran, it will strengthen the hand of the United States to go back to China, India & Europe and negotiate much tougher sanctions against Iran.

As Fareed Zakaria has written, this is a rare moment in history for us: “At this moment, the United States has a unique opportunity to push forward a vision that aligns its interests and ideals with those of most of the world's major powers.” But it is a fleeting opportunity. The great danger in foreign policy is that we become endlessly reactive because everything is so urgent as events unfold in crisis. Obama has the singular opportunity to ask himself, what do I want the world to look like in two, five, or ten years, and then to create an architecture of what he wants the world to look like, then use these crises to move toward that vision rather than episodically putting out fires. To assist him in this task, he heads an exceptionally impressive and powerful foreign policy team of deputies.

Moreover, Obama has unique credibility worldwide which means he can lead in a different way as we make the transition to the global era from the post-cold-war era. The United States still must lead because we are the dominant power but we cannot lead alone, we have to lead in concert with others, and that means we have to recognize one central fact: the great majority of problems the U.S. will face around the world---terrorism, climate change, drug and crime cartels, and the problems of nuclear proliferation—none lend themselves to unilateral action by the U.S., and certainly not to isolationism..

The most immediate crisis that we cannot let go to waste is the economic downturn that now grips the entire globe. That is the pressing issue of the next two, three, or four years. It does create an opportunity for generation-spanning change of a progressive kind in the sense of the G-20* and trying to lead into the inevitable new order. The global economic downturn also creates the opportunity to address the imbalances and to create middle classes around the world that could provide the basis for political stability and sustainable progress globally. Fighting terror is not going to take us there, but using this economic crisis to transform global institutions might do so.

So at this time and for this new President Obama, there is a unique opportunity to use American power to reshape the world. I hope Obama can seize this moment in a way President Bush never did, never even conceived of doing. Because Bush of limited vision squandered our international capital and reputation; this transition is rather like coming out of eight years in the dry desert. We don’t know if Obama will be more successful in navigating through the global thicket, but I sure hope he has an intelligent, coherent vision for America’s place on the global stage as a cooperating agent, and I hope he never lets a crisis go to waste. I like that idea. What an empowering principle of governance, and I wish him well.


Sometimes a crisis provides an opportunity. The Washington G20 meeting, for instance, was an interesting portent of a future "post-American" world. Every previous financial crisis had been handled by the IMF, the World Bank or the G7 (or G8). This time, the emerging nations were fully represented. At the same time, the meeting was held in Washington, and George W. Bush presided. The United States retains a unique role in the emerging world order. It remains the single global power. It has enormous convening, agenda-setting and leadership powers, although they must be properly managed and shared with all the world's major players, old and new, in order to be effective. -Fareed Zakaria


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