America's Malaise

The United States remains the sole superpower, but its dominance is challenged by an economic and cultural shift toward Asia and the impact of globalization which Americans do not yet fully comprehend.

The next US president, Democrat or Republican, will take office at a troubled time for most Americans who do not have confidence in their future.

The subprime banking crisis is the latest major event, likely to continue for at least another year and no one can predict if it's hit bottom or there is still bad news to come. Foreclosures will not only leave thousands of American families without homes, but it will mean they lose much, if not all, of their life's savings. And, this is at a time when l0% of the US population owns 90% of the nation's wealth. The remaining 90% are living on l0% of the wealth which will continue to impact the already hard pressed middle class.

Long ago the United States demonstrated that centrist politics and a thriving middle class are the very foundation of a healthy democracy capable of coping with change. Today, the American political spectrum lacks balance. The Bush presidency, promised to be the "great uniter," has polarized the body politic moving too far to the right away from the comfort zone of centrist politics virtually eliminating bipartisanship. Unilateralism in foreign affairs and partisanship in domestic issues have created a crisis of confidence among Americans.

A serious credit crisis is hitting Americans hard, but it comes on top of the catastrophe of the American health care system, the decline of education in the US, and a broken infrastructure and transport system.

The United States is the only member of the OECD that does not have universal health care. The cost and availability of adequate health care in the United States, even for those who have insurance, is a looming crisis. Those Americans without insurance are outside a broken system and left largely without options.

One of the great levelers for a country of foreigners has been the American public education system. Today, that system is in serious decline at every level -- from kindergarten through high school. Many of those who graduate from high school do not have the basic skills to get even a low level job, let alone find a career path. Universities have become outrageously expensive and while many still provide good higher education, American students want to get rich quick and are not choosing science and mathematics which has always given the United States a lead in innovation and technology.

America's infrastructure is dated and in desperate need of repair and renovation which will carry a heavy cost. The transport system is particularly appalling with inadequate public transportation, poor roads, and overcrowded airports. Europe, Japan and China have fast trains on many routes, but the United States is not even considering a fast train at geographic hubs such as the Northeast corridor, Washington DC, Chicago and the West coast. The so-called fast train, the Acela, takes a full three hours from New York to Washington. A modern fast train can go from NY to Washington in about an hour, taking many cars and buses off the overcrowded highways, reducing carbon emissions and providing a service which would encourage commerce and culture.

The big American auto producers have access to the same technology as Toyota which makes most of its cars for the American market in the US. Yet, Detroit does not seem willing or able to make use of that technology to produce automobiles which are fuel efficient, safe and long lasting. As industrial giants, American automobile manufacturers have an obligation to adapt to new technology and the need for fuel efficiency.

Americans are now finally aware of the global warming crisis which is another major worry. Yet, presidential candidates continue their slogans about decreasing US dependence on foreign oil instead of facing the ugly truth about American energy consumption. The United States, about 4% of the world's population consumes 25% of the world's energy and produces about 30% of the globe's noxious gases. How the US uses energy is the issue, not where the energy comes from---oil is a global commodity and will be the energy of choice for years to come despite global warming and the huge increase in demands primarily from India and China.

Energy security is a global issue. The US needs a serious and realistic energy policy, but will not ultimately have energy security without a multilateral global approach which addresses not only supply and demand, but transport, climate change, new technologies and alternative energy, repair and renovation of facilities, exploration and refining. What may now be the most important global threat - energy security - requires strong US leadership which is sorely lacking.

Other long term problems including the judicial and prison system, racism, poverty, distribution of wealth and social questions continue fester and need the attention of the American people and their leaders. Bickering rather than civil discourse about these vital issues in the presidential campaigns wastes an opportunity.

Only a leader who will genuinely tell the American people the truth about their situation at home and abroad will be able to introduce meaningful reform and change in the way Americans live. Talking about core values used to be the prerogative of the right who wrapped themselves in the flag to prove their righteousness above all others. Today, renewing core values is a matter of restoring the American way of life, its commitment to human rights and civil liberties, its vibrant economy and creativity and its essential role in the world.

Americans are not now influenced or ruled by the brainy people, the innovators, the courageous and visionary. Somehow, money and material wealth have become the characteristics of leadership that Americans admire and follow. Celebrity, either positive or negative, has also become a requirement for leadership in the United States.

As a people, Americans are generous, enormously resilient and willing to change when necessary. They are much better with an innate wisdom than most of the leaders they elect. Every presidential campaign matters, but the 2008 presidential campaign is particularly important. What the United States needs is a president who will begin to heal the nation and to address its formidable problems realistically and courageously. There is no doubt that the American people, once again, will make whatever sacrifices are necessary providing their leaders tell them the truth.

Americans are afraid, but they do not know of what. The "war on terror" fear mongering of the Bush administration has created a "gated community" mentality in the United States allowing old prejudices and new enemies to emerge. Instead of seeking to be part of globalization and a partner to the international community, Americans are isolated and out of touch with their own reality.

Transnational threats including extremism, global warming, cyperspace, disease, energy security and others require multilateral approaches, even for the sole superpower. Sovereignty and borders including for the United States are far less important when confronting these transnational threats. Americans need to understand that there is no threat to the United States of an invasion by a foreign army, or of any country near or far declaring war on America. But, the world is still a dangerous place where acts and events which happen across borders, even on the other side of the world, impact on US national security.

Violent extremists are a global threat, but not nearly to the extent the Bush administration wants Americans to believe. Confronting the extremists as well as understanding and fighting root causes are necessary in a multilateral approach. The United States cannot do it alone despite its superpower status. Though many extremists come from the Middle East or Pakistan, the Middle East is a front page story, but actually not a major threat despite the Iraq war, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pakistan is still in question.

The rapidity and consequences of global warming is undoubtedly the most important and severe threat to the United States and the world. Global warming cannot be negotiated or fixed by traditional means. No presidential action or congressional resolution are going to help. Climate change threatens the planet -- and long before that -- its consequences will create economic chaos and humanitarian crises around the globe.

If there were ever an historic need for American leadership it is now, not in the second term, not in a decade, not when it is convenient. Steps to stop global warming cannot wait for the politicians. A global crisis of this magnitude calls for a leader who will rise to the occasion. There is no Lincoln or FDR on the horizon, but often circumstances create leaders who can accomplish extraordinary achievements.


The question is whether the American people will elect a president who is also a leader so that the United States becomes again the beacon on the hill, providing an example and hope while tackling incredibly difficult problems at home and abroad.

Judith Kipper, Director, Middle East Programs, Institute of World Affairs, provides strategic advice consulting to the private sector.