Leadership in a Time of Flux
We have been here before. Think of other late August and early September days in recent years past — 1990, 2001, 2008. In each of these years the international system entered a period of flux as the summer ended. In 1990 the end of the Cold War left a major power vacuum in the Persian Gulf. In 2001, a contested election and a distracted American electorate left the most powerful nation on earth paralyzed against its plotting enemies. In 2008 profound discontent with the “Global War on Terror” hamstrung the Western powers against constructive action as Russia invaded its Georgian neighbor. These periods of later summer flux, like those notorious August days of 1914, enabled determined small actors in the international system to re-direct and often undermine the strongest states. Late summer strategic flux is very dangerous.
We have definitely entered one of these moments again. The challenges for the most powerful actors are plentiful and the promising solutions from their leaders are paltry, to say the least. The United States has withdrawn its combat forces from Iraq, it continues to fight in Afghanistan and sanction Iran. What is the American program for a more peaceful and stable Middle East? How is the Obama administration pursuing a constructive vision in its daily reactions to recent events, including the terrible floods in Pakistan?
The same questions arise in East Asia. The United States has managed cautious, amicable relations with China, and it has isolated North Korea. What is next? What is the Obama administration’s program for assuring continued access to Chinese capital, economic growth in Japan, and, most important, security on the Korean peninsula?
Strategic flux is the confused and passive position that pragmatic policy-makers adopt when they feel overwhelmed. It represents an abdication of leadership, a clinging to cautious tactics and myopic time horizons. Leaders must do more than react tentatively to the crises of the day, they must do more than promise to keep the ship of state above water. As Max Weber recognized more than a century ago, leaders must articulate aspirations that create a new reality, that mobilize energies and capabilities, that create change amidst flux.
Obama better get to work. For all his intelligence, good judgment, and rhetorical talent, he has fallen down on the job. America’s greatest asset as a powerful nation is its ability to re-define the international system in constructive ways. At a time when old models for economy, governance, and war are in decline, the United States must articulate alternatives. Many will disagree with an American vision, but debate on American terms will silence the much more dangerous, destructive, and degenerate voices that wash across the landscape as the United States sits silently, a ubiquitous Goliath defined by the Lilliputians all around it.
Jonathan Swift would be the first to tell Obama that he must find the vision to engage and motivate observers, rather than allow them to tie him down. Late August is a time to leave the beach renewed for creative, integrated, visionary strategic leadership. The only other possibility is a long winter of suffering. We need an Indian summer of strategic courage, and we need it now.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.