There is one norm we are abandoning that is endangering the American Dream.
On 9/11 I had walked out of the Pentagon when shortly after the plane dove into the building. I quickly came back and looked down at the burning scar the plane had made on the Pentagon, and on our nation that fateful day. I worked that night in a makeshift Navy command center on the hill. Again, the world had changed and I was called and told to establish the Navy’s strategic anti-terrorism unit. It took me to Afghanistan for a very brief period as the war started, gathering with SEALS in broken down farmhouses, and assessing rules of engagement for our hi-tech airpower in this very different Global War on Terror on the ground.
Returning, I was given the highest honor our nation can bestow upon anyone — to lead our sons and daughters in harm’s way; for me, as Commander of an aircraft carrier battle group. When we arrived in the Arabian Sea to begin our strikes against Afghanistan, my 10,000 sailors, SEALS and Marines experienced what I had seen wherever I had served my country. Waiting there for us to become part of our American battle group was an international armada.
The Japanese were there – whose ships had not been out of the Sea of Japan since the Second World War. Alongside them was Germany. Nations had sent ships from around the globe, some crossing the Atlantic like Canada, and others, came from the Pacific, such as Australia. The Italian Minister of Defense said it well for why they all came, “Some may think,” he said, “that we Italians are better lovers than warriors, but we are coming because America has been attacked, and we will be there for them.”
We had the world with us … united against evil … because in that distant sea was the realization that America’s greatest power is its power to convene, to bring the peoples and nations of the world together for a common cause that serves us all.
That is what America had been doing ever since the world’s greatest generation had returned home from having defeated the horrors of fascism and imperialism in the second of the world wars. And they swore it wouldn’t happen, again, to us, a third time.
They kept their promise by building the liberal world order based upon the rules of individual and human rights, open and fair markets, fair and just governments. It was one that embraced the world’s collective good. Whether Stalinism or human rights atrocities, dire poverty or world recessions, we convened the world by the power of these ideals. By bringing together those that shared these values in multilateral organizations and agreements, and by leading those efforts, we all became stronger, safer, healthier and more prosperous in our freedoms. And that – that, is what really makes “America First.”
And that is why America’s retreat from the world today is so dangerous and damaging to our American Dream.
First, if there is any doubt that this global concord – and our leadership of it — is the absolute prerequisite for our safety, health, security, economy – our way of life … it vanishes under the harsh reality that there is nothing we can do just by ourselves – absolutely nothing — to protect America from the most destructive threat to mankind. In just a decade, it will begin its slow implosion of our world into crises. That is when the worst seeds of the irreversible consequences from climate change will have begun to be sown. Unless uprooted, they will eventually grow into wars because of desperate drought and famine, violent seizing and hoarding of diminished global resources, economic shocks for poor and rich alike, and the bankruptcy of the idea that governments could actually provide for their peoples’ general welfare as the relentless rise of global heat and oceans takes an uncontrollable toll on their citizens. If America were to emit zero greenhouse emissions – even within a decade, as the Green New Deal calls for – it achieves only 15% of the required reduction to disarm this catastrophic threat before it explodes on all of us. Take almost any of the other 196 nations in the Convention on Climate Change: Saudi Arabia, it will use as much energy in 2030 to run air conditioners as it exports in oil today. It cannot be done without all of the world doing it — led by us — together.
But instead, America is withdrawing from the world behind walls, some wrongly believing that’s what’s needed to become great again. Meanwhile, China is knocking down the barriers to its emerging global order of Sino-centric institutions and authoritarian values. It has a GDP poised to surpass ours in four years, with a military that the U.S. military commander of the Pacific has said, China commands the Western Pacific – with a growing global naval presence. It is the first loss of the command of the seas by the U.S. Navy anywhere since World War II. So as America heads for home telling bruised allies left behind, “It’s a Wrap,’ China is exploiting its unchecked freedom to impose its illiberal values of “might makes right” through its expanding institutions.
For example, through China’s worldwide Belt and Road Initiative of predatory loans and infrastructure investments with already 70 nations and international organizations, cash-hungry countries now find themselves enslaved by massive debt to China. China then can force these countries to cede their sovereignty as if, the Prime Minister of Malaysia says, they are now colonies. For instance, Djibouti gave China a port for its first overseas naval base in Africa; Greece gave China its political voice by blocking the European Union’s condemnation of China’s unlawful territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Simultaneously, China is exploiting the international commons of corporations who outsourced not just our jobs but our national security to China. Because China now has a virtual monopoly in manufacturing the supply chains that make these corporations’ hi-tech products, data — for example from Android phones with Chinese software — is surreptiously sent to China; Chinese motherboards for worldwide servers from Apple to Amazon and the Defense Department to CIA are reportedly embedded with microchips for hacking. From making 75% of mobile phones and 90% of personal computers, to providing most of the 300 foreign critical materials and parts our military relies upon, China has assumed corporate control.
Chinese corporations are now connecting at least two-thirds of the world’s population to the transformational speed of the 5G network. This is arguably the greatest threat of all. It will revolutionize economies — and warfare — particularly for those who build the network and therefore own it – and the United States does not even make the wireless equipment to do it. China’s ownership will give it a police-state capability to surveil everything on the network, both for commercial and intelligence purposes: whether it is to observe virtual business meetings or to close down critical infrastructure during international tensions. And to ensure it has “eyes on” everything, data that is not gathered on wireless will pass into China’s hands as it lays the undersea fiber-optic cables connecting the world’s continents that carry more than 95% of all international communications traffic.
It now is truly one world, where destruction by climate change; contraction of our way of life by China; and damage to our national security by corporations, will happen no matter what we do, just by ourselves here in our home.
The absence of U.S. leadership in upholding the values and institutions of the liberal world order has also let dangers in the global neighborhood encroach upon us with the rise of populist leaders across the world who mimic the autocratic, brutal and corrupt behavior of authoritarian China. It’s not just that Russia annexes the Crimea and commandeers warships of Ukraine with impunity. It’s also that it desecrates the sacred sanctity of American democracy, our fair and free elections, without repercussions, as President Putin hi-fives the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who feels empowered to murder an American resident in his embassy because — like populist autocrats, from Hungry to the Philippines, Turkey to Venezuela – there is no longer concern about consequences from a rules-based world order.
The hour has become late to restore U.S. leadership to this liberal world order, but we must be careful how it is done. There have been misjudgments that have cost America, dearly; most often, when the world is changing and there is great uncertainty and we unwisely used our military’s power, such as after 9/11 and the tragic misadventure in Iraq. At such times, our President, and Democrats and Republicans alike who cast their votes for such a reckless war showed little understanding that while militaries can stop a problem, they can never fix a problem.
It took the economic recovery by the Marshall Plan to fix fascism, after our military stopped Germany. If we had fixed the illiteracy rate of women in Afghanistan — which was 95% when I was there on the ground at the beginning of the war — we would have done more to fix the Global War on Terror than our military, which after 17 years of war is still working courageously to stop it. And few think that we “fixed” Iraq, after our military invasion unleashed Shia against Sunni, and Sunni against Shia with former generals of Saddam Hussein forming ISIS, which then took us, as it metastasized, into Syria and beyond.
When the world is changing, it entails great uncertainty for our decision makers, as it did after 9/11, and as it does again now. Today, our country desperately needs a President with a depth of global experience and an understanding of all the elements of our nation’s power, from our economy and our diplomacy, to the power of our ideals and our military, including its limitations … so, when faced with the decision on whether to use our military, our Commander-in-Chief will know how it will end before deciding if it is wise to begin.
This lesson was borne out for me when I was ordered to take my aircraft carrier battle group out of the Arabian Sea and into the Persian Gulf to begin the precursor strikes against Iraq … but this time, only the British and Australians came with us. We had failed to convene the broader world for this tragic misadventure, because our leaders could not explain how it would end, before it began. The other nations did know…and saw that it did not support our ideals or the world’s.
Our forefathers created the flame of justice in a global concord … and then kept that flame burning brightly with Presidents both Democrat and Republican – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — who understood that it was this world concord, wisely led by us, that would in turn, provide for our peace, our prosperity, and our freedoms.
If we are to restore the American Dream for those living between our two coasts in Middle America, and for those in the innermost of our inner cities, both of whom see only growth of inequity, not of the economy — we must reverse America’s retreat from the world for our collective good here at home.
It’s why we need to remember: The sculpture in Washington DC that is closest to the Oval office is not of an American, but of the ally who stood with his French troops beside George Washington as they won the final battle of Yorktown for our freedom, together. And it’s why General Rochambeau still stands closer to the President today than any other in our capital: to remind us that we can only preserve our American Dream together, with our allies.
Today, we must have a President who knows how to serve us abroad – but also at home.