Present at the Stagnation
Graduates entering international affairs in the early 2020s have the opportunity to move beyond the repeated policy failures of the post-Cold War period.
As I thought about what to say tonight, I happened to discover my certificate of induction into Pi Sigma Alpha, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York, April 1990. I was about to graduate and head to the Department of Political Science at Laval University in Quebec City for a master’s degree. The world was changing. The Cold War was ending, and we won. Eastern Europe had deposed its communist regimes, Germany was on a mad dash for unification, and Francis Fukuyama told us it was the end of history. The courses I took during my senior year reflected that evolving world. Dr. Robert Wells, who I am sure is with us in spirit tonight, taught United States Foreign Policy, where I gave a presentation about a new Europe full of things that I ought to take back after thirty years. Dr. Carl Lankowski, who was only here for a year but who went on to be a State Department colleague, taught European Politics, and our class went on to play the German delegation pressing for unification before a skeptical SUNY Model European Community. And Dr. Laura O'Shaughnessy was ahead of her time as she taught a Government 390 seminar on right-wing populism, which spurred an interest that I still pursue in my research on Canadian politics.
Our Government curriculum was ahead of its time! It prepared me to study for master’s and doctoral degrees, to teaching positions at three universities, and to 22 years as a Foreign Service Officer, where I served in Brazil, Paraguay, the Philippines, and Kuwait. As I left St. Lawrence, the Cold War was giving way not to the end of history, but something altogether new, a post-Cold War world with unipolar dominance by the United States.
In 1990, the world seemed full of promise to someone embarking on a career in international affairs. We were liberated from the fear of nuclear war, and parts of the world that had effectively been cut off for more than 40 years were suddenly thrown open. But as I look back over the past 32 years, especially the 22 I spent in the Foreign Service, I can’t help but feel that the promise of 1990 was never met. My time as an American diplomat was not one of success for the United States. I became a diplomat in time for 9/11, worked through the war in Iraq, the global financial crisis, America turning its back to the world, the deterioration and collapse of Afghanistan, and finally, the reemergence of the great power politics that we thought had become obsolete. My diplomatic career was bookended by having to explain the aftermaths of the 2000 and 2020 elections to dumbfounded interlocutors.
Dean Acheson may have been present at the creation. I was present for the stagnation, for 22 years of ineffectiveness and institutional rot. NATO and the European Union have expanded eastward, but Britain has left the EU and Russia now acts more dangerously and less predictably than the Soviet Union did. Unipolar dominance did not last long, with the United States bogged down in wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and China not just rising as a potential superpower, but leading a Eurasian alliance with Russia.
The ideal of globalization has taken a hit, both from the inequality and despair it has provoked in wide parts of the population who no longer see themselves as having a stake in their societies, and from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led countries to raise their drawbridges with nationalism and border closures. Governments struggle to coordinate and cooperate, as has St. Lawrence has been seeing up close for two years as Saturday trips to Ottawa have seemed more far away than ever.
Now let me turn to my real aim tonight. What is my advice someone beginning a career in public affairs? Here it is in a nutshell: do better. There is a lot to rebuild.
In the next few years, I see four major areas for rebuilding that I think will dominate your careers in public affairs.
The first is building the post-globalization world. It’s more a question of building the post-neoliberal world. The economic order that has emerged since about 1980 has accomplished much. It has brought new wealth to large parts of the world and has created middle classes in places like China and India. It has brought innovative technologies that enable us to have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Science has brought us the mRNA vaccines that are taming the coronavirus. But the neo-liberal world has caused the collapse of middle classes across the developed world, and students of political science know that middle classes are the bedrock of democratic stability. Our societies are under unbearable stress. It has caused many to lose hope for the future, and even worse, for the futures of their children. The current period of capitalism has been sputtering toward its end ever since the financial crisis. Building the next era of capitalism, one that generates growth without shutting half the population out, is one of your generation’s challenges.
Your second challenge is to build the next version of the international system. After the Soviet Union dissolved, we thought that American power alone would sustain a rules-based liberal world order, and we assumed that power would also allow the United States to pursue the national interest unilaterally. After September 11, we prosecuted the Global War on Terror by setting our own rules. We assumed that the era of supreme American power would last indefinitely and did not pay enough attention to China’s rise and Russia’s refusal to fall quietly. The task of the next generation of leaders is to build an international system without the romantic attachment to Western victory in the Cold War or fixation on the terrorist attacks of 2001. A system where American leadership will sustain a rules-based world order and set an example to counter authoritarianism and aggression.
Your third challenge is to build the post-pandemic world. We were nowhere close to ready for the ‘rona. We were warned by countless researchers , and even by Bill Gates. SARS in 2003 telegraphed that the next pandemic might be a coronavirus emerging from Asia. We failed to act together as a planet. We failed to believe in science and embraced conspiracies. Our new tools of instant global communication enabled disinformation to spread at the speed of light. This is more than an issue of being ready for the next pandemic. The next big one could take another century.
What needs to be addressed urgently are social trust and the state of our institutions. We hear that we are headed toward civil war. We hear doubts that we can live together again. The scenes from January 6 in Washington and last month in Ottawa show what happens when a third of us lose all respect for our institutions, and the pandemic has put on a display of our institutions at their least effective. For four decades we have run our institutions on the cheap, hollowing out our public service, national expertise, and foreign policy capacity. We accept dysfunction and start to think that it is normal. A new generation with fresh thinking needs to turn this around. Be at the front a concerted multi-decade effort to rehabilitate our political, economic, and social institutions.
Solving these three challenges is necessary if we are going to take on the fourth challenge, global warming. It needs to be addressed at a global level, requiring international cooperation based on trust. It will demand expertise and the respect for knowledge. It will demand the ability to lead in a way that makes both societies and fellow nations work together. It requires the ability to think about the long-term consequences of the things that we do today. Right now, we are accomplishing none of this. The planet can go on at a higher temperature and with higher sea levels. It went on after the dinosaurs were wiped out. It just went on without the dinosaurs. Stopping global warming is about preserving human civilization and keeping our common story going.
We hear the phrase “build back better” a lot, from Boris Johnson to Justin Trudeau to Joe Biden. Sometimes it sounds like a marketer’s justification for mountains of government spending during the pandemic. Its origin was more pedestrian, from the United Nations Economic and Social Council’s efforts to rebuild parts of Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. The term has stuck in our minds because we have a lot of building to do, and I hope that the war in Ukraine is going to shake us out of three decades of frivolity and take this task seriously. As you head into careers in public affairs, you’ll have some building to do. I have every confidence that you will be good at it by being voices opposing conventional wisdom when you need to, but history remembers the most those with the courage and the strength to redefine the conventional wisdom. I wish my generation had not wasted so much time showing you what not to do.