By Read Scott and Mat Marshall
After World War II, the United States was in a state of transition. Our entry into the war, and ultimately our use of the atomic bomb, brought an end to the world’s deadliest international conflict to date. As a result, we emerged as a superpower alongside the Soviet Union. Following the war, United States enjoyed a sort of brief honeymoon in which American foreign policy circles—particularly in the State Department—tended to regard the Soviet Union and Stalin as allies, in spite of sharply differing views on the world’s future. George F. Kennan, a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in the Soviet Union, saw the new world order differently. Responding in 1946 to concerns over Soviet opposition to the World Bank, he sent the now-famous “Long Telegram” to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Kennan believed that the Soviet Union was planning to spread its military and political influence around the world, in order to consolidate its power under the banner of communism. He believed that the United States had to act strategically in order to contain the Soviet threat. A year later, the telegram served as the foundation for the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s policy of containment against the Soviet Union. In 1949, the Soviets detonated RDS-1, the first non-American nuclear weapon, confirming Kennan’s concerns and launching the two superpowers—and the world—into 40 years of proxy conflicts, tense diplomacy, and apocalyptic anxieties known as the Cold War.
Due in large part to Kennan’s poignant analysis of the postwar world and the American people’s innovative spirit, the United States saw decades of technological advances and breakthroughs in science, staying one step ahead the Soviets. The American people’s ambition during this period put us on a fast track to military and economic strength we had never seen before. When the Soviet Union’s deteriorating economic and political systems came crashing down in the late 1980s, capitalist democracy cemented its dominance on the world stage. We became the world’s only superpower largely because the government and the private sector worked together to make America strong.
America faces tremendous challenges today that will require the kind of ingenuity that helped us win the Cold War. Mr. Kennan informed our nation of the world’s new realities in 1946. Now we must face the realities of the 21st century.
To be sure, there are major differences between the Cold War era and the modern day. We no longer have a singular rival like the Soviet Union. Instead, the threats to America’s future come from many fronts, and taken together, could have serious consequences for our future. Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum write in their new book, That Used To Be Us, that our biggest challenges are our long-term debt and deficits; our energy consumption and climate change; globalization; and the global information technology (IT) revolution. These four issues, and our response to each one, will largely decide our future. Just like the Cold War era, it will require careful and tactical maneuvering for the United States to stay on top.
We need to rediscover our innovative spirit and, as Friedman and Mandelbaum suggest, return to our best practices. We can be a powerful force for democracy, trade, and free markets, if we learn to move past today’s political shortsightedness and realize the nature of the beast that is the 21st century.
We can no longer expect to prevail by merit of our capitalist democracy. Perhaps our greatest challenge is that our rivals are not centrally planned, overextended, communist empires like the Soviet Union, but other advanced capitalist democracies. The global market is becoming increasingly multipolar, with China emerging as our preeminent competitor. Germany has established a strong reputation as a manufacturer of high-quality goods and appears to be Europe’s economic titan. India, Brazil, and Singapore, among others, are expanding rapidly as the world’s borders become more and more porous to investment and trade. All of this threatens American economic superiority.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has struggled to define its global leadership. In many respects, we have grown complacent, instituting rigid governing philosophies that satisfy our ideological fervor but do nothing to substantively address the issues. As we see other nations replicate our national model in the form of free markets and democratic reforms, we seem to be straying from our own best practices. The political debate has dwindled down to a false choice between government and free enterprise, rather than a debate over how these sectors can work together to address our major challenges. Treating these two institutions as mutually exclusive and adversarial, as conservatives do proudly and frequently, substantially weakens both.
Contrary to the conservative canon that “government is the problem,” America has a proud history of public-private partnerships. In fact, they were central to our success during the Cold War. During this period, the government invested heavily in research and development, which developed a strong relationship between universities, government agencies, and private companies.
Public and private entities teamed up to modernize our roads, our schools, our technology, and our defense, among other things. We knew that scientific and technological advances were crucial to our success, and so more Americans rushed to learn about science, technology, and engineering, and the government provided new opportunities for them through their smart investments. Advances like the Internet—which grew out of ARPANET, a Department of Defense network developed during the Cold War to connect projects at labs and universities across the country—helped us dominate innovation and reinvented global industry.
All of the actors in this effort had a mutual interest: the health, security, and success of the United States. Our current problems can once again be solved through this approach, because it brings the sources of American power together in order to keep our country strong. The size and scope of our problems require a huge national response that will require everyone to do their part.
Jeffrey Immelt, the chairman and CEO of General Electric, explained this approach best in That Used To Be Us. “We worship false idols in terms of the power of the free market. The U.S. government has been the catalyst for change for generations. The National Institutes of Health shaped a generation of leading-edge health care technology. And all of the defense spending has spawned the nuclear power industry and the Internet.” He goes on to say, “I believe in the endless possibilities of individual choice and private initiative. But there’s a long history in this country of government spending that prepares the way for new industries that thrive for generations.”
Several of America’s biggest challenges are ripe for public-private partnerships, where targeted public investment could create new opportunities for American entrepreneurs. However, these partnerships have to be coupled with a long-term deficit reduction strategy that cuts spending without threatening important government programs.
In addition, there need to be targeted regulations on the free market and government alike, in order to ensure fair play in our power structure. Government regulation should not be overbearing, but without some structural changes, our economy will be more vulnerable to further problems in the future. There is a lot of common ground between our business and political leaders, but it will take a full recognition of our biggest challenges to begin our new path of progress.
Government investment and tax incentives in the green energy industry would be the most promising start for a new U.S. economic strategy, because reinvigorate our manufacturing industry, ending our reliance on oil (whether foreign or domestic), and making a substantial effort to reverse the effects of climate change addresses three of our greatest economic weaknesses. China has accelerated their investments in green energy, with over 50% of the world’s solar panels being made in China.
To make this possible, it is vital that America makes an aggressive effort to improve our national infrastructure. Even ignoring green energy, without a major renewal of our national power grid, highways, bridges, and schools, we will be unable to grow economically. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the United States’ infrastructure is failing due to a shocking lack of maintenance and modernization. The quality of American infrastructure is currently graded “D,” posing a major threat to our future economic prosperity. Without a modernized infrastructure, the United States will not be able to meet the needs of businesses that are trying to connect with customers across the country, and the world.
Americans should challenge the conventional wisdom that guides our politics. A national agenda of wedge issues and distractions has come with the growing political divide in America and the explosion of special interest groups in Washington. We have lost sight of our greatest challenges, and many on the national stage arrogantly dismiss any criticism of our actions as a nation. America is still the greatest country on Earth. We shaped the modern world, pioneering the free market and the international move toward democracy. But a major part of our success has been our apt understanding of global trends. We need the foresight of the Long Telegram again, to put the full force of American innovation behind solving our challenges.