The past year has seen an exhausting series of economic crises, natural catastrophes, and political earthquakes around the globe. From Europe to Japan to the Middle East, the world’s events were anything but predictable, and those who tried to predict them were quickly overtaken by reality. Assumptions about the safety of a nuclear plant in Fukushima were dashed by 50 foot waves; dictators were driven from power by the very people they thought they controlled; political leaders tried repeatedly to keep up with a spreading virus of economic instability in a system they themselves helped to create.
Amidst this array of uncertainties emerged a diminished sense of trust in both institutions and those who are responsible for them. The results were in some cases violence and in other cases cynicism and a creeping loss of confidence in the future.
The explosion of mass protests in Arab countries against repressive regimes has the ingredients of both hope and anarchy. The potential for people empowering themselves to challenge the status quo has gained ground, but lessons going back as far as the French Revolution remind us of what can go wrong in such volcanic phases.
The spread of global economic fragility has shaken up much of the hubris in the financial community that marked the pre-2008 period, particularly in the transatlantic sphere. The forces of both mutual vulnerability and shared stakes in solutions demanded that leaders combine resources to prevent a global disaster not seen in decades. Yet that same challenge has inevitably generated tensions – and a lot of blame games – over the right recipes for dealing with new threats. We are a long way from consensus on both methods and models for a 21st century economic and political web of interdependence.
The one model which was heralded as the best for post-nationalist solutions – the European Union – is struggling with its own cracks and fissures around the Euro crisis. Yet this is not only a technical glitch, but rather a test of a European vision able to sell itself to a half billion Europeans. Amidst the arguments and accusations being exchanged across the Continent – and across the English Channel – one can still see the remnants of the roots which once catapulted Europe twice into its worst nightmare in the last century. The ghosts of Europe’s past are still visible enough to remind Europeans of the need to forge a future beyond them.
Examples of that are illustrated in the current efforts by Germany to forge a path through these unchartered woods. While knowing that as the strongest economy it carries the responsibilities of the present, Germany is also well aware of the continuing responsibilities of the past. No other country in Europe bears that burden in a similar way. Chancellor Merkel is fully aware of that political tightrope. How she walks it – at home and in the European arena – will shape the options ahead in 2012 for Germany and for Europe. While Merkel does not face elections in the New Year, she does face the travails of a shaky three way coalition government, which could fall apart if the centrifugal forces plaguing it continue. And those same forces are at work within the larger framework of the European Union.
And then there is the struggle of the United States with its own sense of purpose, at home and on the global stage. It is not a new struggle, as we have been arguing about it for over two hundred years. Yet the same web of interdependence that marks every nation’s vulnerability today is not well received in an uncertain America. There are elements of resentment and desires to reassert US superpower status – especially in presidential election environments.
Part of that perceived status is the belief in American exceptionalism. U.S. history – and the competing narratives of that history – does make up a story with exceptional dimensions. The path the U.S. has taken since its beginning as a country has been a result of good ideas and gifted leaders, favorable circumstances, unlimited opportunities and, equally important, the ability to learn from mistakes and reform itself. That latter trait was instrumental in building a U.S. that could stretch over a continent, improve on its founding constitution, eventually overcome slavery, survive a bloody civil war, strive for balances between liberty and equality, engage itself on the world stage, and constantly not be afraid to renew itself – indeed question and debate itself – about its ability to live up to its own standards at home and abroad.
At the moment we are having a loud, noisy, and sometimes exaggerated, but also necessary, debate about those standards today. It comes at a moment when there is real concern about the sustainability of American society, as well as its ability to maintain its global leadership role.
In 2012, Americans will determine who as president will lead them further in dealing with those worries and hopefully inspire confidence in that effort. The results in November next year are unpredictable, as are the conditions any president will face in the following years. But what is predictable is that we will continue to face the same challenges we have faced before: What are we willing to pay for, invest in, and support so as to sustain the choices we want to have for ourselves and the nation. That same challenge faces us as a global power with an enormous stake in the sustainability of world stability, for which the U.S. carries both exceptional responsibilities and capabilities.
It bears repeating that the United States has been for the past several decades a source of global security and many nations, none more than Germany but certainly a large portion of Europe, were dependent on that American capacity to provide for their own needs and deliver global goods at the same time.
The current debate in the U.S. is about the degree to which our growing domestic needs and obligations are going to narrow the range of our foreign policy options. That trend will inevitably raise the questions about where the United States can find collaborative partners to share more burdens in the future.
While there is no nation today which can aspire to, or assume now, the role the U.S. has played during the past six decades — as the U.S. did when the UK gave up its role on the world stage — there is no doubt that there will be an increasing need for the U.S. to look for those nations that share its commitment to the international economic, political and military institutions, as well as the values which inform them for help and collaboration. While there is no stronger a cluster of such partners than in Europe, there remain serious constraints on European capabilities, both in the form of the European Union as well as in individual countries, to respond to the challenges ahead.
On both sides of the Atlantic, there will be an increasing need to overcome the temptation of inward looking preoccupations by recognizing the expanding global threats and challenges. The dangers of a transatlantic drifting apart can increase in proportion to those who seek to avoid confronting that agenda.
As in the past, some challenges remain unpredictable — the future stability of Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East, new leadership in North Korea, a nuclear Iran, terrorist plots, or another Fukushima type catastrophe. Others continue to accumulate momentum — a fragile economic system, environmental damage, the enlarging struggle of millions to seek justice and resources for a fair shot at life.
If 2012 means more of 2011, then we may see more attempts to avoid hard choices in Europe, more fractures in the European Union’s institutions, more loss of confidence in the markets and the euro, and more dissatisfaction among voters who don’t know where to turn. French President Sarkozy may be one of the victims of these trends in next year’s elections. Chancellor Merkel’s coalition government in Berlin could also fall apart. Things could get ugly elsewhere on the streets of Europe – and that is all without the unpredictable figured in to the picture. For many, transforming the way the Europe Union operates has become an end unto itself, instead of a force for nations and people to empower themselves in a global arena. That carries the danger of Europe being seen more as an entitlement, rather than as a project that needs to be continually renewed.
In the U.S., the danger is similar. 2012 could mean more 2011 in the form of continuing high unemployment, increasing debt and deficits, a presidential race which turns into a huge mud-slinging contest, and a disenchanted public losing even more trust in government and politicians – and that is also without what is unpredictable.
On the other hand, 2012 could come with a wake-up call in Europe and in the U.S. to get a better grip on what is required to respond to the changes reshaping our choices. The vision of the U.S. as a global leader needs to be claimed with the capacities which make leadership possible, not just proclaimed as a given but earned.
2012 will not be the end of the world. It will certainly not be the end of these challenges. It will rather be another chance to widen the lens of how to meet them. Germany and the United States do not really have a choice of challenges. They do have a choice in deciding which ones they will face and which they will try to avoid
As one old saying goes, “the more things change the more they stay the same”. In fact, the only thing which is the same is the fact that we have continued choices to make.
The Mayan calendar did not predict the end of the world in 2012. It was a memo suggesting the end of a cycle and the transformative beginning of another. Maybe they are right. We will soon find out.