Americans Seeking Leadership: The Threats are Real so A Pep Talk for 2014

I was thinking of doing a year in review blog as would be customary for this time of year but the sense of disorder in the world is so great, it was hard to know where to start. For the energy sector, there are so many factors that could turn into negative Black Swans, it is hard to know how to prioritize them.

Saudi Arabia is flailing around trying to create an “independent” foreign policy, including converting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a “union” with a military presumably under the command of Saudi Arabia. But members of the Saudi royal family are short on consensus for their own leadership roles within the kingdom, much less serve in a strong position to garner full fledge allegiances from the other rulers across the GCC.  The United States has more than oil at stake in the GCC. The region has repeatedly used its financial surpluses to bail out global financial institutions in times of crisis, is a major investor in US treasuries and the US economy, and has a geographic location where its air space is critical to international travel and US strategic positioning.   

 Beyond the GCC, the overall Sunni Arab community is similarly under pressure elsewhere. Sunni communities are lacking cohesion not only in Syria, but increasingly in Iraq’s Anbar region and beyond. In the wake of this mess, the United States is leading from behind, potentially making matters worse. More is at stake than oil. The Muslim world represents 23 percent of the global population (roughly 1.6 billion people). Talk of the advantages of the United States “switching” sides to favor Shia Islamic nations, should a peace agreement even be possible with Iran or on the subject of leaving Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad in place, is not a numerically sensible strategy. Close to 90 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims follow Sunni Islam. Of course the US needs a strategy that addresses terrorist threats but trying to distinguish between the sources of various extremist groups is a tail wagging a dog. US policy needs to try its best to address the roots of extremism whether Shia or Sunni. Our longstanding policy of supporting regional dictatorship as a means to stability didn’t prevent the September 11 attacks and it isn’t going to prevent new failed states in the post-Arab spring Middle East. It is unclear what more arms sales to President Malicki of Iraq is accomplishing, for example, versus no arms sales into whatever moderate military leaders there once were in Syria.

As Americans look at our seemingly incoherent policy in the Middle East, they are probably feeling disturbed and don’t realize it. The lesson of Iraq, Libya and Syria is that none of our recent choices, which were diverse in all three cases (ie intervene unilaterally, force NATO to intervene and have no ground troops involved or don’t intervene at all), seems to be correct. We are, in fact, suffering a crisis in confidence about American exceptionalism –one that is far worse than Vietnam: Aren’t we all secretly thinking that maybe we simply cannot help people no matter how good our intentions might be?

It doesn’t seem to matter whether we define the mission or not. The American public now lacks confidence that our leaders can be effective in the Middle East. And we have new problems emerging on the horizon. Will we fare better containing North Korea? Or the simmering escalation in military tensions between China and Japan? Are we managing well our responses to the widening corruption scandals and environmental emergencies in China? If you are like me and you watch the international news, it is hard not to feel unsettled. I would be optimistic about oil supply gains and a rebounding US economy but it is hard to ignore the fact that the rest of the world seems to be devolving into chaos.    

If the international atmosphere weren’t enough to make Americans feel a bit pessimistic, there is also the sense of disorder close to home. My Christmas holiday was marred by multiple visits to the bank and I am sure many others had the same experience. As Americans, we are bound to feel under pressure. Are we confident that our credit and debit cards are secure? Do we believe our government has access to more of our personal email and phone calls records than we would agree to? And of course let’s not forget those Americans who suddenly realized that they might not be able to renew their health insurance. To me it adds up to a pretty unpleasant end of the year.

And we don’t even know who to blame. No one appears to be in charge. CEOs take no responsibility for their companies, nor are they honest about problems with their products and services. The President does not seem to be leading our intelligence apparatus. And sorry for waxing on so discursively, but the latest media debate on Edward Snowden gives no cause for confidence either. A new report alleges that maybe China supported Snowden before he left Hawaii or is that just speculation because the New York Times thinks we should let him off the hook for at least letting us know we had a problem?

It makes me wonder. Do we have enough reliable Americans who know how to write code or not?

Is our reliable media (the one that bothers to confirm stories) strong enough financially to keep us in the know?

Will mid-term elections bring leaders we can count on for more intelligent solutions?

Believe it or not, I think the answer to those questions is yes and we as Americans actually have reason for optimism. When push comes to shove, we have freedom of expression, a history of innovation and merit based education, equal hiring under the law, and a free market economy and we still have a firm and functioning rule of law. That puts us way ahead of China in terms of the worry of implosion. We will solve our problems as we have in the past. But we need to demand those solutions publicly and vociferously. We need to demand the truth from our leaders, even if it is unpleasant to hear their mistakes.  

Millenials, I am counting on you. Don’t let me down.

We are in fact still a great nation again and a beacon for others. We can lead by example, even if we cannot promote this example through the actions of our military.

Unlike China or Russia, we still have a free press and a functioning court system that can hold politicians accountable. Even if it turns out the National Security Agency overstepped its mandate, the last few months prove that we have the means to find that out and the means to change it.

Chinese people have no such mechanisms, and that is a weakness they cannot solve through espionage and a new navy. We have rule of law. They have repression. We have an economic system that rewards innovation. They have secret foreign bank accounts. We still have a public education system that could be reinvigorated to redress inequality. We can re-embrace these things that make the United States unique and defend them vigorously. That is our strength. Whatever mistakes we have made, we remain empowered to fix them.  In China, the people still look to our institutions for inspiration and guidance for many troubles whether environmental, political, health or technological.

The United States economy is back on track because entrepreneurs are doing their jobs. We are creating new products in the United States that are truly amazing and all of them have giant export potential. There is no such resurgence of new products from China.

 It is not just that we might be exporting soon oil and natural gas following a renaissance in our oil industry.  American cars are also back in favor, with incredible new designs and dual fuel approaches. And we are soon to have access to a whole new range of products tapping manufacturing robotics, 3-D printing, big data, distributed electricity systems (and maybe soon wireless energy), bionic-biotech solutions to disease and injury, new building materials and energy efficiency systems, expanding internet services and new entertainment mediums, advanced social media frameworks, new apps and personal electronics and mobile accessories (glasses, watches, etc), remote gaming, waste management technologies, advanced personal communications systems and the list goes on. We are, when all is said and done, a nation on the move.

If you are 21 and have an imagination, I believe in you. We are not China and that is a good thing. We remain a country where not only can a person with a good idea become a millionaire, but a place where a principled individual can still unseat a corrupt politician or bring reform to a failing or overreaching institution. A lay person can still go to court to sue a large bank or a store or a corporation and get their money back or damages for environmental crimes. It’s hard but it can be done. We are empowered by our system of government and our constitution and that is our strength. Don’t squander it. Demand our leaders give more than a sound bite this election season. 2014 could be our best year ever.