Watching the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections from proud and self-indulgent yet weak and cowardly Europe, I am disturbed that so little attention has been paid to electing a President who will have the courage to provide leadership and, if need be, resolute action in an increasingly dangerous world.
I stress the word "dangerous" because for nearly two decades the world has looked relatively safe. Since the collapse of Soviet communism, the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the emergence of the U.S. as victor in the Cold War, the nightmare of nuclear Armageddon has faded. We've been living in a period of comparative calm, under the watchful protection of the democratic and liberty-loving sole superpower.
This conjunction tempted one or two theorists to predict the end of history as an ideological struggle and the start of a future in which liberalism (democratic market economies) would slowly but inexorably become permanent and universal. I never believed this, not even in the first joyful flush of the Soviet collapse. I simply thought that history, far from ending, would become more complicated, bringing with it new dangers and anxieties. From a 2008 perspective, I'd say that was an understatement. We are once more living in a vertiginous world.
I'm not talking about the threat of Muslim fundamentalism. Thanks to some strong leadership from George W. Bush, that danger has been contained. Muslim extremists will not overthrow our societies. Fundamentalism will gradually lose its support and power as the majority of Muslims who want a better life just as much as most other people do reject its anarchism.
No, what worries me most are the new moves and strategies being executed by the big players on the world chessboard. First and foremost is the revival of Russia. The huge expansion of China's industrial economy (as well as those of other rapidly expanding former Third World powers) has effectively doubled the demand for energy, sending the price of oil skyrocketing. Of all the oil-producing countries, Russia has benefited the most, politically and psychologically.
The Russian people oscillate between a love of freedom, ending in anarchy, and a profound respect for strong leadership, ending in tyranny. They have recently gone through the anarchic phase and are now enthusiastically embracing Vladimir Putin's brand of ruthless opportunism. Putin is not shackled by an ideology. He believes in nothing except power. He's not a Communist but a former secret policeman. He is constructing an empirical police state, which tightly controls Russia internally in the name of restoring order, and is stretching its insidious reach worldwide through scientific assassination and new forms of sophisticated industrial espionage.
This is a formidable regime to deal with, not least because Putin is popular in Russia. He is restoring his nation's self-respect, which was cruelly damaged by the loss of its European empire and by the independence of the vast and rich Ukraine, as well as other territories in the Caucasus and Asia. Putin is using Russia's new wealth to rebuild its armed forces, sending off its newly efficient navy and its fleet air arm on exploratory missions on the high seas. The increasingly strident tone of Putin's observations about the world also receives positive play at home.
Now, I'm not saying that Russia is or is likely to become a rival superpower to the U.S. Russia has many weaknesses demographic, economic and cultural. But it is again a major factor in world politics. An index of Russia's returning strength is the growing terror of its immediate neighbors and their anxiousness to take shelter under America's nuclear-and-Star-Wars umbrella.
The old 19th-century adage remains true: Russia is never as strong as it looks; Russia is never as weak as it looks. For nearly two decades we foolishly exaggerated its weaknesses, yet now that it appears strong again, we must not overestimate its strength.
Which of the leading U.S. presidential candidates is likely to provide the kind of firm, consistent and cerebral policies that will contain and render safe this newly invigorated Russia? From a European viewpoint this is the key question of the election. It is linked to other factors that have been looming but are now moving to the center on the world chessboard: the burgeoning economies of China and India. What policies should the U.S. adopt regarding them, separately and together?
China has taken the traditional road to economic superpower status by investing heavily in industry. China is also investing much of its new wealth in its armed services. India, on the other hand, is investing mainly in high tech, something at which its people seem to excel and which flourishes in a free society.
I have no doubt that in the long run India will emerge the stronger and richer of the two countries. In the meantime, however, China carries more weight. Rivalries are bound to flare up. During the next presidency the U.S. may have to decide which of the two to back, as well as figure out what repercussions that choice will have on its handling of a newly assertive Russia.
In short, the next American President will be obliged to make some courageous and complex decisions probably early on in his or her Administration. Courage in complexity is the requirement voters should be looking for now.