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Trying to make sense of the current economic and political environment, one can’t help but think of the late 1970s and the early ’80s. Then, like now, the country found itself in a deep — to use a word of the time — malaise. The economy was sputtering, political division was entrenched, and there was a feeling of relative impotence on the world stage.
But, as they say, the darkest time comes just before the dawn.
Indeed, 1980 and the inauguration of Ronald Regan led to a real shift not only in economic and foreign policy but also in the way Americans viewed themselves, their role in their community, and their country. This new confidence, combined with tough policy choices, would see the United States emerge from the 1980s with a renewed economy at home and newfound respect overseas.
Today, not unlike the late 1970s, the average American feels estranged from the government. Americans feel like pawns in an international globalized game. There is no unifying cause or national purpose that the American people feel like they are a part of or pulling for. President Reagan had two powerful features to his leadership: Each and every American (1) knew where he stood on the issues and (2) felt like they were on the front lines of the international fight against the Soviet Union and communism.
The average American felt like they were part of the plan. They believed that what they did on a daily basis was integral and part of something bigger. Reagan was able to harness a populist sentiment toward not just something bigger but, in fact, something that appealed just as much to Main Street as it did to the elites in the major cities.
This is not the case today.
Today, the average American feels like a bystander in every international issue, from the fight against Islamic extremism and the security challenges posed by Russia and China to the post-WWII international order to matters of trade and jobs creation. As a consequence, Vladimir Putin and other adversaries feel emboldened to challenge the United States at every turn, cross red lines, and dismantle Western political and security institutions. This is because our adversaries believe that U.S. leaders and the leaders of our Allies may not have their public behind them.
This assumption — and perhaps reality — may be the greatest strategic risk to the United States today.
In his recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, retired Gen. and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus made the case that the international order established by the United States and its allies following World War II is under unprecedented threat. The threat, Petraeus argues, is coming from revisionist powers, including Russia’s president, who sees “the real center of gravity [as] the political will of the major democratic powers to defend Euro-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the European Union … working to sow doubt about the legitimacy of these institutions and our entire democratic way of life.”
But it isn’t just Putin who sees this as crack in America’s armor. China, North Korea, Iran and ISIS have, all in their own way, worked to undermine the confidence of the American people and that of our friends and allies around the world.
Our leaders absolutely must confront these threats and must communicate how these threats directly affect the lives of all Americans. But that’s not enough. Our leadership must also genuinely reconnect with the average American and celebrate the public at large. Then they must unleash what is, in fact, the greatest strength of our country: the will of our people.
Our leaders must ask the people to be a part of doing something about the challenges that we face —to be part of something greater than themselves.
Perhaps one of the greatest strategic mistakes of former President George W. Bush was not his ill-advised invasion of Iraq but his failure to galvanize the American people and put us on a war footing following the 9/11 attacks. Instead, interest rates were lowered, and we were all encouraged to go to the mall or buy a house. While it is true a strong economy underpins our ability maintain a strong military and influence events around the world, what was lost in that moment was the opportunity to ask the American people to, in the words of JFK, “pay any price and bear any burden.”
To make every American feel that we could only overcome this new enemy together and that everything we did, from turning out new cars in Detroit to working at a restaurant in Florida or putting on a military uniform, would in the long run contribute to our ultimate victory over Islamic extremism. Needless to say, Bush’s successor did not even try to bring the American people together to help end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone meet the challenge of a rising China and a newly assertive Russia.
President Trump and his team must heed these lessons.
Our country suffers from many ills and many challenges in the early decades of the 21st century. Greatest among these may be the crisis of connection and the crisis of confidence between we the people, our government and our leaders. We must right this ship; it is not just our friends and our allies but our very republic that is at risk.
BY JOSEPH WHITED AND ALEX GALLO