It was a distinct privilege for this political scientist — indeed this American — to be in Washington D.C. this week for the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama. In an age of persistent and pervasive change, this one instinctively feels most welcome — and much warranted.
It’s already a cliche to state that President Obama faces the "most challenging" global environment of any president since Franklin Roosevelt. My view is different: no American leader has ever been presented with the same chance to reshape our relationship with a world undergoing deep –and overwhelmingly positive — transformation thanks to globalization’s stunning advance.
Dour experts tell us that this is no longer our world. America is in decline, they say, and the rest of the world has caught up to us. Wars may be won, but the peace belongs to others — we just have to get used to it.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
This is a world of our making. Neither accident nor providence, this "flat world" is fundamentally our design — a template of networks spreading, economies integrating, and states uniting. It’s hyper-competitive because that’s our natural habitat; we don’t know how to make it any other way.
In this world we find no strangers, just younger versions of ourselves who are prone to all the same sins and manias we once suffered, even as they teach us magnificent new ways to secure our tightly shared future. We must neither fear nor dismiss them, but encourage their pursuit of happiness. In doing so, we’ll find their main goal is one very familiar to us — the attainment of a middle-class existence.
This looming achievement will put the planet under great duress in coming decades, much as it once did these United States. For this path to remain sustainable, compromises must be made and great technologies found. Some see only billions of mouths to be fed, but I see billions of minds to be harnessed. The resource we will never deplete is our collective imagination.
But imagination requires confidence, which both spreads and dissipates with the velocity of a virus. Here America plays a special role: we are modern globalization’s source code — its DNA. As the world’s oldest and most successful multinational economic and political union, we remain the planet’s most revolutionary force.
The next few years will constitute the first true test of globalization. If there was any remaining doubt that the world’s great powers either all swim or all sink together in this interconnected global economy, then this recent contagion has erased it. Globalization is no longer a national choice but a global condition, and at this seminal moment in history it demands from its creator renewed — and renewing — leadership.
The United States isn’t coming to a bad end but a good beginning — our American System successfully projected upon the entire world. Our Rome wasn’t built in a day but constructed over many decades of struggle, our governing impulses subject to constant revision and improvement — including President Obama’s historic win last November.
That the same is now true for this globalization-of-our-making should not cause us despair. We have been down this path before, taming both a wilderness and the market forces we later unleashed upon its settled lands. We are simply blessed today by a global economy whose expansion has already surpassed all past hopes and dreams for a connected, super empowered world. So many frontiers, so little time.
President Obama’s opportunity to — as he has so often put it — "turn the page" could not be greater, for history rarely offers such made-to-order turning points. America has done a world of good to get humanity to the point where wars are disappearing and networks are proliferating. As long as we can remember what got us here, trust me, we’ll recognize the shape of things to come.
(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)