The Summit on the Global Agenda always kicks off with buzzing brains, clustered around their respective areas of discussion (from population growth to space security). Around each table, experts from business, academia, media and government bring together their best ideas and their collective thinking. The mission: to shape the agenda for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting. The discussions at this week’s Summit will determine what leaders from every sector will be thinking about when they come together in Davos.
This year’s Summit started with a call to map the “drivers of change” – the elements that will transform our given field. In my case, the field is my home country, as I am a member of the Global Agenda Council on the United States. What drivers of change does the United States face? We talked about the shale energy revolution, terrorism and catastrophic risk, and the economic recovery. Most of these developments are positive: in the economic realm, the prospect that energy independence and steadying GDP growth could create jobs and reinvigorate national confidence.
But alongside the hope for positive transformation there was a gloomy overhang, stemming from America’s faltering status on the world stage. The United States has been shedding its influence – its foreign policy power eroded by a lack of will or resources to help solve global problems. Now, this wasn’t a table of Washington naysayers simply rehashing theories of US decline. Instead, it was a diverse group of experts reflecting on a year of data from sessions held around the world, gathering input on America’s role – what it’s doing right and wrong in today’s world.
From Lima to Cape Town, Jordan to Singapore, there was a clear, emerging consensus. People in those places admire some aspects of today’s United States, like its culture of innovation and its leadership in meritocracy. Those uniquely American mindsets are still a competitive advantage. But those same voices criticized the United States for its lack of leadership, at a time when it is being challenged by China in practically every market. Respondents saw the United States as unengaged in Latin American issues, incapable of responding to turmoil in the Middle East, untrustworthy as an economic partner to Asian states and unable to close the gap with China’s investment volumes in Africa. On top of that, the US deficit and the country’s recent brush with default showed it to be a dangerous and irresponsible leader of the global economy.
Overall, there was a sense that the United States had pulled back from its long-held obligations in the world – whether those obligations were explicit promises or simply expectations that formed over the course of the American century. Those unmet wants and needs have left many global constituents in search of a guiding power, seeking an organizing principle for the balance of geopolitical forces.
While the US role in the world has receded, many are still calling for its leadership. There’s a long-held parody of that sentiment: a notion that the United States is either doing too much or not enough in the world, at any given moment. But today we’re seeing a new sentiment, a hardening notion of absentee America. The country’s retrenchment is now an established pattern. That poses a risk to the world, and to the United States itself, as a highly consequential driver of change.
Author: Lara Setrakian is a foreign correspondent and a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and Global Agenda Council member.
Image: The 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne boards a plane. REUTERS/Ellen Ozier