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A. Overview

In its first year of existence, the Global Agenda Council on the United States (the Council) observed the rapidly changing global landscape and established a new framework through which to reflect on the continuing international role of the United States. Through a series of individual interviews/discussions with Council members, virtual meetings and at the Summit on the Global Agenda the Council reviewed a number of pressing issues for the United States. Energy, Immigration and National Security are a few examples of the issues addressed in an effort to determine a focus for the Council. But regardless of the specific issue an overarching idea kept surfacing: that of the changing role of US leadership in the world and the implications of this change.

In Abu Dhabi this realization led the Council to focus on the role of US leadership in the world with some specific ideas regarding deliverables, such as a book that would serve as the basis for offering recommendations to the either the second Obama or new Republican Administration. On further deliberation the idea for a book morphed into a film and finally a dialogue series that would feature a short film to serve as a firestarter to prompt a conversation on some variation of the question, “Where is America in the World Today?”. Due to time constraints, next year’s Council will carry on with the development and execution of the firestarter film and dialogue series.

In addition to helping generate the idea for the dialogue series, the deliberations of this year’s Council helped inform the US-related programme at the Annual Meeting 2012 in Davos.

 B. Insight

The primary piece of thought leadership generated by the Council was produced during the Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi, subsequently refined, and will serve as the foundation for the intended Council focus for the 2012-2013 term:

The single greatest risk to global stability…

…is a significant absence of US Leadership.

Imagine a world with greatly reduced American leadership. Some may argue that we are living in that world right now. Others, including our Chinese colleagues, would see the world without US Leadership as one filled with chaos. US global leadership since World War II has upheld the global order and underwritten stability more than any other nation in our modern era. It has not been without its shortcomings and certainly there have been missteps. However a strong argument can be made that no other country thus far has been as prepared or equipped to exercise leadership on behalf of the global good as the United States of America.

The role of US leadership, the architecture it helped to create and even the very values for which it stands have increasingly come into question. The changing global landscape, unprecedented in its complexity, has raised doubts about the purpose, direction and effectiveness of US Leadership. The very essence of American identity, the American global purpose, is being evaluated by Americans themselves.

 Intention and Capability to Lead

There are two elements of global leadership that directly influence its effectiveness; Intention and Capability. These elements are inter-linked and influence each other. In the American context, these translate to the American Global Purpose and US Strength (Economic and Military).

 I. Leadership Intentions: American Global Purpose.

American Identity: cultural elements of shared values that galvanize the citizenry to action. In the international context these shared values and sense of identity generate the American Global Purpose. These values are not uniquely American and have been adopted by the US itself from international sources. However, the United States has traditionally championed the values Individual Opportunity and Open Societies globally. The world has historically looked to the United States to champion these values. These values have historically guided US leadership and contribute directly to the global commons.

  1. Individual Opportunity. It believes that hard work will yield positive results. Entrepreneurs can take good ideas, combine them with initiative and courage, and generate rewards. It requires the rule of law, equality and individual rights.
  2. Open Society. This value celebrates freedom of expression. It allows knowledge to be shared among all people and inspires creativity. It allows for independent thinking. It allows and encourages populations to participate in government. It fosters a robust academic environment, which in turn generates quality academic institutions and research facilities. It provides a basis for a vibrant media.

Times of failure or political paralysis have come when the US has ignored these elements of American identity and lost sight of its global purpose. When societies are challenged, it is natural to evaluate the values that contribute to identity. A contributing factor to the current political climate in the US extends from a national evaluation of ‘Who are we as Americans?’ and ‘What does my country stand for?’ Various groups clamour on the political landscape in an effort to protect these values with respect to others. Elements of these values are perceived to be under threat. Successful US Leadership requires reconciliation and clarification about the American identity moving forward.

 II. Leadership Capability. US Strength.

US Strength is not a zero-sum game. The US has led globally over the past 60 years by consciously contributing to the global commons. Exercising US strength has at times been viewed as acting in its own self-interest. However, reduced US strength would have negative implications for many countries. In contrast, a prosperous and engaged United States benefits the world.

Most importantly, addressing domestic challenges are fundamental to maintaining and strengthening American influence. Issues such as political dysfunction, global imbalances, health policy, job creation, the environment, immigration and energy all have broader implications on US capability to act/react in a complex and changing global environment. It will require judicious investment among a range of priorities. Thoughtful investments should be designed to meet the challenges ahead, from infrastructure to force structure.

US Strength derives not only from its GDP and military size. It needs institutions that are effective. It demands an economy where the public and private sectors work together in concert. It requires a whole of government approach, where processes are cantered on issues and not agencies and a population that have the skills required to rise to the occasion.

 A Need to Return to the Fundamentals

  1. American Global Purpose. The world needs and, therefore, still looks to the United States for leadership. There is currently no viable replacement for US Leadership. The values contributing to an American Identity contain values that are shared and admired globally, whether or not they are associated with or categorized as being American.
  2. US Strength. With a large dynamic economy and the world’s strongest military the foundations by which the US can exhibit leadership remain strong. Current economic troubles and intense partisanship make leadership more difficult, but far from impossible.

It is imperative that the United States invest in itself while understanding the current global context. The United States must continue to invest in science & technology, manufacturing, infrastructure and education. It must conserve precious global resources. These investments will benefit not only the US, but will provide the skills and technology capable of addressing global challenges such as food, water and energy security.

 Conclusion of the Council in Abu Dhabi

The world is changing; complexity abounds and uncertainty grows. The interconnectedness of our world increases the impacts on all of us. Currently there is no replacement for US Leadership, but it needs to adapt to the new realities of our world. The US must exert active, concentrated global leadership. It should facilitate cooperation between countries. Americans rose to the challenge and helped rebuild post World War II Europe and then avoided global destruction and championed freedom throughout the Cold War. It needs to reinvigorate the core elements that have made US Leadership so effective. The next great challenge for US Leadership is to battle fear and doubt. The US needs to strive to increase global confidence, facilitate international cooperation and reduce global uncertainty. It needs to solidify its relationships with its allies while reassuring the global community.

 C. Impact

 Annual Meeting 2012 Programme

A concrete impact the Council has had this term has been in providing input into the US focused sessions in the public programme of the Annual Meeting in Davos. This input was generated both by extracting themes that emerged from general Council discussions and by sharing and receiving feedback on specific session ideas with Council members during the Annual Meeting programme development phase. Specifically this included consulting the Council to help develop the following sessions:

  1. Forging Ahead: The United States in 2012
  2. The Future of American Power in the 21st Century
  3. The New American Identity – A Political Perspective

 Dialogue Series/Firestarter Film Concept

After much deliberation on a range of specific issues important to the US the Council chose to focus on the macro issue of the changing nature of US leadership in the world. In order to advance the conversation on this subject the Council ultimately settled on developing a dialogue series that will feature a short firestarter film. The film will use both quantitative and qualitative data to address some variation of the question, ‘Where is America today in the world?’ The quantitative data to be featured will be determined by next year’s Council with an effort on providing thought provoking, yet balanced, data in relation to the current state of US leadership in the world. The qualitative data will be drawn from interviewing a range of US and international voices.

The plan is to have the firestarter film completed in time for the 2013 Presidential Inauguration with the possibility of holding dialogue series sessions in Washington DC, at the Annual Meeting in Davos and on select university campuses in the US and abroad. The dialogue series will feature the firestarter film followed by a panel discussion and conclude with an interactive discussion for all participants. Council members will serve as an overall advisory body to the project, be interviewed for the firestarter film and ideally participate in the panels at the screenings.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.