The challenge of being an incumbent, of being king of the hill, is that you don’t want change. You like things the way they are.
The COVID-19 pandemic really erupted on the scene in 2020 and in doing so, it revealed to great swaths of society many of the changes the world had undergone, largely unbeknownst to them. Interconnections, interdependencies, and risks. Disparities. Vulnerabilities. Fragility. The reality of the world was not quite the image that many had been carrying around in their heads. It had changed dramatically. And then those changes accelerated right before our eyes.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has done the same thing, just two years later. This time, it is revealing for many how much the world has changed, geopolitically and in terms of norms and conflict. While specialists have been confronting these changes for some years now, a great many of us were not aware of just how far the world had been shifting away from the comfortable image of a post-WWII, post-Cold War “Pax Americana.” Rules-based, globalizing, and triumphant in the spread of “universal” values.
For as much as many of us back in the 1990s chuckled knowingly at the “end of history,” even those of us who critiqued that view missed the real lesson there. Even as we may have derided the notion that there were no more challenges to worry about, we overlooked the signs, historical and contemporary, that the world order could be threatened. That it would be challenged.
While we in the West, and in the US in particular, moved out with confidence under the assumption that societies and markets and values around the world would continue to integrate (and that people would continue to welcome it, or at least eventually come to appreciate it), there were those who were not happy with the world they saw. There were those who looked forward to the future and did not like the idea of living under a US-led liberal, free-speaking world order.
It is, of course, long past time we named some of these actors. The Chinese Communist Party. The Russian regime of Vladimir Putin. Iran. Violent extremist organizations like al Qaeda. These and other actors were clearly not satisfied with the world order. They wanted change.
So, what did they all do? Individually, they did what all humans across time have done whenever confronted with the idea of a future they will not abide. They pursued change. They innovated in their concepts and strategies, in their technologies and tactics. They identified weaknesses and sought to exploit them.
And you know what? They were successful.
Despite all of these actors pursuing different visions for the future, the combined result of their successes up to now is that we can no longer assume that the future will be open and free.
Unfortunately for us, up to now, the US’ implicit, reflexive vision for the future has roughly been “today minus 22 years.” Our unspoken, unexamined preference has been for the past. And of course it has. The post-Cold War years represented a wonderful moment to bask (and bronze) in the sun. Life seemed good and things seemed to be going our way. Anyone would want those times.
For any incumbent there’s an important rub: if your vision for the future is the status quo, then you will eventually lose. The status quo is, ultimately, an untenable vision for the future. If change is the one constant in the universe, then at the very least you have the universe arrayed against you.
Further, having the status quo as your preference means that you are forever on the defensive. You react to other people’s attempts to effect change. Others will always take the initiative because, unlike you, others will always have the incentive to take the initiative. They want change. Meanwhile, your orientation to the world is firmly rooted in maintaining, in keeping things fixed.
To make matters worse for the US, our preference is not even for the current status quo; it is for the past. Unfortunately for us, the past is not something we can bring back. Ever. This means that not only are we constantly reacting to other people’s initiative, we are doing so with strategies and tactics that are likely outdated, shaped as they were for a world that no longer exists.
For us, there is no chance of achieving our current, implicit preference for the future.
As a nation, we need a new vision for the future. We need to articulate a preference for the future. And that vision cannot describe yesterday, and it cannot be today (please, say it isn’t so…). Any real vision for the future needs to account for the change that has already happened in the world since our brief heyday as a unilateral power, and it needs to consider the future change that is yet possible. And it needs to express our values. By definition, it needs to describe a future world we want to live in.
Our new vision does not need to be a single, monolithic, crystallized vision for the future. It could encompass a range of acceptable futures. It just needs to describe a future we aspire to and one to which we can bend our considerable philosophical, intellectual, and material resources to creating.
And it would be absolutely fantastic if that new vision could resonate with a critical mass of our fellow humanity.
We need to start spending a lot more energy discussing this issue. The world is changing. Rapidly. Many of those changes are being driven by state actors, non-state actors, and even corporations that are pursuing their own visions for the future. Their visions are neither synonymous with nor aligned with what we as a people want for the world. They have been shaping the future without serious contest for too long. So long as we continue without a real vision for the future of our world we will continue to struggle with coherent goals and strategies, and we will continue to play defense for an image of the world that, in fact, no longer exists.