Pacific Standard

America needs to learn from Asia or get used to following it.

SINGAPORE — There is nothing like a trip to Asia to put Washington's lack of perspective on the great global issues of our time into perspective. I'm not saying this in that typical snarky self-hating American abroad tone often found in media commentaries. I say it because every place I've visited on this trip still actively and respectfully looks to the U.S. government for leadership. Allies and rivals alike still consider our role in international affairs to be a special one. Rather, the concern I've heard mentioned repeatedly during this past week (in Australia, Singapore, and in talking here to friends from both China and Japan) is about the political dysfunction and distraction in Washington and whether or not it's still possible for us to lead as we once did.

That is not to say that unease about structural problems and slow growth in the U.S. economy doesn't also factor into concerns about the United States. Nor does it minimize the shift in momentum that continues, even amid a regional slowdown in Asia, as this part of the world sees mounting evidence that it, rather than America, will lead global growth for decades to come. The television commercial I saw this morning in my Singapore hotel room -- a slickly produced promotional ad for the city of Chengdu, China, boldly touting the fact that half the world's Fortune 500 companies have operations there -- was starkly illustrative of this. So too have been the other data points, factoids, anecdotes, and insights that have punctuated virtually every conversation I've had here on this trip. That most leaders in Washington still have never even heard of Chengdu, the Szechuan capital that is considerably larger than New York, is, of course, unsettling. But this trip has made it clear to me that pervasive ignorance of the great realities of our time is only one of the problems we face.

It is just as striking to see how America's policymakers are falling behind in terms of creativity and vision compared to their counterparts. Our gaze is too firmly locked on our political navels and our energies too devoted to impeding our domestic political opponents' success for us to thoughtfully consider the challenges ahead. In Washington, it seems, "tomorrow" is the day that will never come, a place to which problems are punted and where we assume solutions will magically present themselves. Here however there is a daily sense that "tomorrow" has already arrived. It's a mindset that has even the blandest of bureaucrats thinking ahead. "Say what you will about the Chinese," said one senior official from a close U.S. ally in the region, "they are always grappling with the implications of tomorrow, of growth, of demographic change. They have yet to undertake many reforms that are needed. But they are at least having an ongoing conversation about strategy. You don't get that sense from the U.S." A senior Southeast Asian diplomat offered this: "The concern isn't about a shifting balance of power at the moment.  The U.S. remains militarily strong.  It is about a shifting balance of influence." Hillary Clinton's "pivot" of the first Obama term sent encouraging signals in that regard. There are, however, widespread concerns that the resolve to keep that momentum going has noticeably faded in recent months.

It's not that other countries don't have political distractions or dysfunction. In Australia, last Sunday's political debate between party leaders seemed dedicated to the proposition that what their country needs now is a robot prime minister.  Nonetheless, there was plentiful evidence at a conference I attended that, in their day-to-day work, political leaders from both parties recognized Australia was at a turning point and that greater open-mindedness and creativity were called for.

It was, to choose one example, particularly striking as an American to hear leaders from both parties accuse one another of moving too slowly to advance an Australia-China free trade deal. Now the mere mention of such a thing between the United States and China would cause seasoned Washington heads to burst into flame, but China is now Australia's primary trading partner and, clearly, trade with Asia is its future. They see the Chinese as being as challenging to deal with as we do. But they also recognize that deal with them they must and there is an openness to anything that enhances their competitive chances in that market.

While one of the uglier elements of the current campaign is over how Australia should handle the influx of boat-borne illegal immigrants coming in from the rest of Asia, there is an apparent bi-partisan sense that the country's future lies in its ability to make the transition from being not just in Asia but actually of it. (Mandarin is already the second most widely spoken language in Australia.)

Singapore, while earning brickbats over the years for the authoritarian dimensions of its evolution as an independent city-state, has always led the region in terms of policy creativity. As a small island economy it feels the constant need to reassess and reinvent itself in ways that more self-sufficient economies do not. And some of its recent innovations are particularly striking. For example, the country has just concluded an unprecedented "national conversation," a series of some 6,000 local meetings in which politicians did something very uncharacteristic for their professional counterparts in the United States -- they listened. These were not staged town-hall meetings but workshops in which local citizens not only grappled with complex policy issues but worked to find solutions the government might actually put to use. (And later this week some of the resulting conclusions from that conversation will translate into new policy approaches.) Senior local officials give credit for the initiative to younger members of the government who were seeking a new way to generate ideas and interact with citizens. Politics also played a role, of course, as the ruling party is trying to revitalize its support among voters. Still, it's hard to imagine taking this kind of approach in a country like the United States and not just because of our size. How many Americans know or care enough about core issues of public policy to come together to tackle the big questions we face? How many politicians and executive branch officials would take the time to really hear what they were saying? We often talk about participatory democracy, but can we really envision such innovative participatory policymaking happening in America today?

One of the current American political imbroglios occupying the attention of senior officials in Asia is that surrounding the selection of the next Fed chairman. "How could the process have come to this?" asked one with genuine concern and bewilderment. "It has dragged on and become so political. It seems it will lessen the position... and it is too important for that, not just to the U.S. but to the world." Everyone I spoke with said they felt that regardless of whether it was Lawrence Summers or Janet Yellen -- the two leading candidates for the post -- the monetary policy consequences would inevitably be the same.

But one smart finance official from the region added, "One issue I don't think has been raised is who will better be able to deal with [the other tough members] of the Fed board and bureaucracy. My sense is only someone as strong as Larry could keep them in line." He went on to argue that Summers would probably add greater value as both an independent and potentially creative voice in an American economic policy landscape -- one that lacks stand-out, strong voices save that of outgoing Fed chairman Bernanke. In particular, this official argued that America has failed to address the core reforms needed for fiscal policy, tax policy, underfunded public pension liabilities, underfunded healthcare liabilities, and bigger issues like the growing income gap in the country and the disconnect between corporate growth and job creation. 

Adding a more global perspective, the same official noted that recent Fed policy -- such as quantitative easing, coupled with Chinese growth -- has produced conditions that have made it easy for countries around the world to avoid reforms they too needed to make. Ten trillion dollars of added liquidity and a global commodity price boom made it possible for countries like Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, and Indonesia to think they were succeeding on their merits. But really, he argued, it was the tailwinds created elsewhere that were providing momentum.

Now, at the critical moment that the United States must manage the tapering process it has its "weakest international economic team in years" and that consequently it is suffering from a "leadership vacuum." (China was cited as being sui generis because it -- unlike some of the other big emerging economies -- was actually enjoying growth fueled by genuine and consistent productivity gains. That said, and as noted earlier, the country is also widely seen as in need of major reform.)

But leading the world in the failure to make the reforms that circumstances require is not exactly what people were hoping for from the United States. So we face a choice. Either look to Asia (and wherever else we might find it) to discover inspiration for the kind of creativity and open-mindedness our own policy process needs for us to lead again ... or learn to look to this part of the world for the leadership we once provided.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

The Real Risks

Prison breaks, the embassy shut down, and an al Qaeda comeback all reveal one thing: we're still handling the terror threat wrong.

With each passing day, it becomes even clearer that despite what appears to be a very serious current terrorist threat, the greatest risks facing America come from our own misplaced priorities and mistaken assumptions.

As recently as late last week, I spoke with a very senior administration official -- one of the White House's best and brightest -- who forcefully described the significance of America's successful destruction of "core" al Qaeda. White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated this point in comments to the press on Monday. But two errors in that assessment have now become abundantly apparent. The first is obvious given that the current alert is reportedly due in part to communications between a still-active core al Qaeda led by Ayman al-Zawahiri and lieutenants in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The second and perhaps more important revelation is the enduring notion that al Qaeda could effectively be defeated (or the risks associated with it could be contained) by targeting its so-called core.

A large part of the threat associated with al Qaeda has to do with the fact that it is not a traditional hierarchic organization, operating with a structure that allows it to recover from even heavy blows, move to new locations, as well as reform and resume operations. Further, of course, as we see the by-product of the upheaval throughout the Arab world (in particular in places like Syria), extremists come in many forms with many allegiances, so targeting any one organization doesn't necessarily reduce the threat. On top of which, the spread of weak regimes and chaos in the region actually accelerates the recruitment of new fighters, the development of new organizations (such as al-Nusra in Syria), and a diffusion of risks that makes managing them even tougher.

The confluence of these last two factors is well illustrated by the fact that the alleged Zawahiri communication was with al Qaeda's new "No. 2" -- its leader in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wuhayshi. Formerly Osama bin Laden's personal secretary, Wuhayshi was imprisoned but escaped and moved to Yemen, one of the region's weakest states. He has since taken the reins of a steadily strengthening local operation with global aspirations. (Ibrahim al-Asiri, the 31-year-old Saudi master bomb maker who was behind recent plots like the underwear bombing and printer cartridge explosive device is reportedly also in Yemen and part of AQAP.)

Wuhayshi's escape from prison also happens to underscore yet another of our misplaced priorities. While America has engaged in an overly politicized and overly loud debate over the tragedy of last September 11 in Benghazi, there has been precious little discussion over a much more worrisome set of failures: the series of prison breaks at facilities housing dangerous extremists. This list most recently includes Abu Ghraib, a prison in Pakistan, and one outside of Benghazi. As a result of just these last three breaks, reports say nearly 2,000 extremists have been freed.

Where is the investigation into how this pattern of prison breaks was allowed to unfold, why it wasn't flagged earlier as a serious risk, and why there wasn't tighter security? Indeed, it could well be that while we have understandably focused on security errors at the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, lapses of greater consequence subsequently occurred.

Another set of misplaced priorities has been associated with the intelligence that led to the current alert. As noted in Shane Harris's recent FP piece, it is clear that the Edward Snowden revelations that produced such a firestorm in Washington did not eviscerate our ability to use intelligence to intercept terror plots. But the administration's decision to leak that intercepts were behind the current embassy shut-down alert also put U.S. sources and methods at risk. Though the decision to reveal the nature of the information undoubtedly was made after careful consideration, it underscores the inherent nature of the cat-and-mouse game that we and these extremists play -- communications and intercept techniques constantly shift and evolve. 

Of course, the greatest misplaced priority associated with our intelligence program is the notion that stopping terrorists is worth undercutting the basic privacy rights of U.S. citizens and our allies. Terror threats are limited, fleeting, and literally impossible to fully contain -- all reasons that should have never been allowed to undercut those other, enduring principles. It is important we are able to see and acknowledge this point, even when a current threat is looming.

However, many in Washington are already trying to use this asserted threat to justify the intelligence programs exposed by Snowden, as well as our other over-reactions to terrorism. Were there to be another attack, they would surely do likewise. There is a pattern here that we need to view dispassionately rather than with fear. The Patriot Act was an over-reaction. Building up the NSA surveillance programs was an over-reaction. And, it must be said, shutting down scores of U.S. diplomatic facilities is an over-reaction. We must protect our diplomats. But we also must avoid appearing to be cowed by terrorists (or those who would engage in political sniping back at home). And, of course, there are other choices than the wholesale closing of a massive cross-section of America's diplomatic capacity across the Islamic world. 

Other countries, other embassies, and other facilities are at constant risk of attack. Yet they choose to remain open. They harden defenses. They restructure facilities. They take lower-key precautions. And they make these choices to avoid producing panic and also because shutting down scores of facilities only makes other facilities the target. 

This brings us to the ultimate mistaken assumption -- that it is actually possible to win a war on terror. We can suffer defeats, to be sure. These come when we pursue the wrong targets, employ the wrong tactics, and fail to assess risks wisely. Indeed, we can lose such a war if we let terrorists set our policies, drain our resources, and mesmerize us with a shadow game that never ends, one that offers only illusory victories and leaves us distracted from our real needs and priorities, and the many greater threats we face. 

No, the only way to avoid losing such a war is to avoid framing it as such. We must protect ourselves -- but against not just the terrorists but ourselves and our terror. Cool perspective is more effective than all the drones, special ops, and surveillance programs we can muster. That is not to say we shouldn't be on guard or that we shouldn't strike hard against demonstrated threats and those who have conducted past attacks. We must. But we also need to get a grip -- to understand what elements of this we need to be prepared to deal with on a continuing basis, to prepare accordingly, and to focus on the real risks rather than simply those that cause the biggest hue and cry among the hysterics on Capitol Hill and in the American media.