Sports coaches know that there is nothing more dangerous for a team than retreating into passivity for fear of making a mistake. Whether it is due to a desire to sit on a lead, or because of nerves following a setback, failing to advance aggressively is almost always a strategic error.
What is true in athletic competition is all too true in the life of nations. While imprudence is always unwise, excessive caution in the name of prudence or expediency can have grave consequences. A nation will never have more power or influence than it has ambition to shape the global system. A sense of fatalism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as adversaries are emboldened and allies move either to appease adversaries or to provide for their own security.
The vital strategic thrust proclaimed in US foreign policy over the past five years has been the pivot or rebalance towards Asia. This is entirely appropriate given the shift in the global economic centre of gravity. The reality though is that little has changed. The most important potential beneficial change in the next several years would be the achievement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yet the combined prospect that a deal will be negotiated and that it will receive Congressional approval seems much too low for comfort and there is little evidence that the issue commands urgency beyond the relatively narrow international trade community. The prospects for a trade agreement with Europe seem even more remote.
Then there is the economic assistance dimension. When Latin America faced a profound debt crisis in the 1980s, when the Berlin Wall fell and the nations of central Europe and the former Soviet Union needed to transform their economies, when financial crisis struck Asia in 1997, when debt burdens stunted Africa’s growth around the turn of the century, the US working with its allies and the international financial institutions crafted strong if imperfect responses to restore growth and hope. No comparably large and generous effort is visible today with respect to the Middle East or Ukraine, even as China is emerging as a larger presence in much of Africa and Latin America than the US.
A failure to engage effectively with global economic issues is a failure to mount a strong forward defence of American interests. The fact that we cannot do everything must not become a reason not to do anything. While elections may turn on domestic preoccupations, history’s judgment will turn on what the US does internationally. Passivity’s moment has past.
The writer is Charles W Eliot university professor at Harvard and a former US Treasury secretary