Where Are Today's "Best and Brightest"?

Soon after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, then President George H.W. Bush called for a "New World Order." At roughly the same time, State Department policy expert Francis Fukuyama pronounced "the end of history," based on his premise that liberal, Western-oriented democracy had bested all other forms of government. Fukuyama was wrong, and Bush never managed to advance his idea. He ran out of time (and was turned out of office). Less than a year after the Berlin Wall crumbled, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and touched off a quarter century of escalating chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East.

There is a tendency for critics to look at today's world and conclude that things have never been this bad. I try to banish these thoughts by remembering Ronald Reagan's sunny optimism and by dismissing them as the cranky delusions of an aging Baby Boomer.

Unfortunately, these palliatives don't work. We are, in fact, living in the worst of times when it comes to the long-term dangers facing our country. Moreover, there's a leadership vacuum when it comes to shaping the necessary long-term structural reforms to ensure our children's and grandchildren's prosperity.

There are no Churchills. No Trumans. No Achesons. No Ben Gurions. No Keyneses. No Adenauers. No DeGaulles. No Eisenhowers. No Gandhis. No Mandelas.

You might challenge my premise by observing that at least we have not had a world war since 1945. That is correct, and a good thing, and we are fortunate that there are no Hitlers, Stalins, or Mao-Tse Tungs alive today who, collectively, caused the deaths of more than 100 million people.

Nonetheless, since 1989, we have had repeated examples of ethnic cleansing; millions of deaths in Africa resulting from disease, poverty, and warfare; at least 200,000 recent deaths in Syria accompanied by millions of refugees; nuclear proliferation in unstable and apocalypse-oriented nations; a Middle East that is in flames and where we have systematically alienated our closest allies and collaborated with rogue nations such as Syria; a Russian "reset" that has, indeed, reset the relationship - backwards to the pre-Gorbachev-Yeltsin era - with an unpredictable ex-KGB president determined to recreate as much of the former Soviet Union as possible. And let's not forget the growing scourge of ISIS, a group of religious fanatics sweeping through major parts of the Middle East with grandiose and apocalyptic plans to establish a 21st Century caliphate and exterminate the West.

Given these circumstances, it is understandable why so many observers are extremely concerned about the pending nuclear accord with Iran. While still only a "framework" and not a detailed, binding accord, this agreement could ignite a Middle East arms race, thereby dramatically increasing the chances that the ISIS caliphate ultimately gets control over a nuclear device. If this situation ever occurs, Armageddon moves from the remotely theoretical to the seriously possible. We need to plan for this possibility right now. ISIS certainly is.

After World War II, the world was blessed with leaders, some of whom are listed above, who had the long-term vision to establish structures such as the Bretton Woods agreement, NATO, a European Common Market, and the Marshall Plan. These structures led to what the French call "the Glorious 30 Years" between 1945 and 1975. Those structures, along with U.S. legislation like the G.I. Bill, helped sustain broad middle class prosperity that delivered strong economic growth at home and around the developed world for half a century.

During much of that time, we served proudly as the world's largest creditor nation. But that changed with President Nixon's decision on August 15, 1971, to end convertibility of the U.S. dollar into gold, thereby unleashing a period of freely floating exchange rates that enabled the United States, as the printer of the world's major reserve currency, to become relatively quickly the world's largest debtor. That development has also allowed our government to make promises that it can no longer afford and our citizens to live far beyond their means.

Those post World War II structures are no longer working for middle class citizens around the world. For much of the last 20 years, at least in the United States, wage stagnation and growing income inequality have occurred while elites are perceived to have gotten wealthier. This trend, along with the recent period of very slow economic growth, helps explain the rise of populist, inward-looking groups like the U.S. Tea Party and France's National Front. One of the casualties of this situation is the declining support for free trade agreements, as well as skepticism about immigration and who really benefits from globalization. At the same time, there are growing doubts about whether democracy can work, and whether American-style capitalism is sustainable.

We have spent the last 40 years or so locked into a system of living beyond our means. Our leaders do not want to admit this. Our competitors and some of our opponents, meanwhile, have been waiting patiently for our unchecked profligacy to undermine our institutions. They think long-term; we think short-term.

Iran has had a 30-year game plan to acquire a nuclear capacity that could also produce nuclear weapons. Iran has a long history of lying about its intentions and its actions.

Russia's Putin wants to recreate the former Soviet Union, the collapse of which he considers the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century. Putin lied directly to President Obama about his intentions in Crimea and the Ukraine.

Radical Islam wants to reshape the entire Middle East and has plans to stamp out much of what we hold dear in Western civilization. Examples of their determination abound: videotaped beheadings in Syria, point-blank executions of Christians in Kenya, and the destruction of museums and ancient historical sites in Iraq and Syria.

China's leaders have been building an economy to surpass ours, accompanied by an aggressive outreach to developing nations. China's recent launch of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (which we opposed and failed to persuade close allies like Britain not to join) is a direct challenge to World War II legacy institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the case of the IMF, we have persistently blocked important governance reforms for more than 15 years and have now been caught flat-footed by the arrival of the new Chinese bank.

At home, the American middle class feels threatened. Wages are stagnant. Labor-force participation is the lowest since 1978. College is increasingly unaffordable, and too many of our students have massive student loan debts that are crippling their futures - as citizens, as workers, and as consumers. Most Americans have not saved enough for their retirement, and countless public and private pension funds are seriously underfunded.

Meanwhile, too many of our best and brightest go off in search of overnight fortunes at hedge funds, private equity firms, and Internet startups. People dream of getting rich not the old-fashioned way through hard work but the easy way: "If only I can create that next breakthrough app!" Meanwhile, we are slipping as a global leader of innovation.

Our education system is worse than mediocre, and our political leaders are addicted to campaign contributions that render them incapable of thinking beyond the next election cycle. As a result, we have government shutdowns, inaction on climate change, collapsing infrastructure, and paralysis on federal fiscal policy.

Too many of our corporate leaders are mesmerized by the false holy grail of maximizing short-term shareholder value, an approach that happens to maximize their long-term net worth at the expense of middle-class jobs and vibrant communities.

For the first time in decades, the United States stands on the verge of energy independence, and yet we dither about a Canadian-US pipeline, the feasibility of hydraulic fracking, and the creation of a national energy policy. Our leaders are blowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve an enormous policy breakthrough that will pay domestic and international dividends on everything from the economy and the cost of living to foreign policy.

Right now, the 2016 presidential campaign is mostly about which candidate can raise the most money. That, too, is an embarrassment. The campaign needs to be largely about leadership and vision: which candidates have the capacity, the leadership skills, the creativity, and especially the courage to end our addiction to short-term behavior and, instead, focus on the serious long-term challenges that we know today will shape our future.

Early in his presidency, Barack Obama sent the Oval Office bust of Winston Churchill back to the British government. This peevish and petty gesture spoke volumes about the mindset of the new American president. Obama may have disliked some of Churchill's activities earlier in his career, but there can be little question that during the West's darkest hour in several centuries, it was Winston Churchill who saved civilization. We face similar challenges today. Perhaps our next president will ask for the return of Churchill's bust on January 20, 2017.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation--United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.