These are two current challenges facing the nation and at first glance seem totally unrelated. But in fact they are two aspects of the core challenge for the 21st century: promoting U.S. prosperity.
The 21st century poses an unprecedented strategic situation -- no major power faces any significant threat of invasion or occupation. Now the major threat to the United States is economic, driven by globalization. There was a time when isolationism made sense; as a self-sufficient nation we did not depend on anyone else. In fact, the United States enjoyed favorable rates for raw materials and imported agricultural products. U.S. businessmen actually dominated some foreign countries, notably Hawaii (eventually incorporated into the United States) and the "Banana Republics" of Central America. Governments in these areas were structured to favor U.S. commercial interests.
Globalization has created an interdependent global economy held together by trade, the Internet, and transnational organizations (commercial, nongovernmental and criminal). Prices for oil, other raw materials, and agricultural products are now much more competitive, while manufacturing facilities distributed globally not only mean less demand for U.S. goods, but supply the United States with many items that used to be manufactured at home. U.S. exports have increasingly been services (including intellectual property and financial). The bottom line is that U.S. prosperity now depends on global stability; the United States cannot prosper in a world of turmoil. Isolationism is no longer a viable option.
Kids crossing the southern border are simply one vivid illustration of this interdependence. Central America has some of the highest crime rates in the world, partly as a legacy of predatory governments initially set up with U.S. direction, the unintended consequences of actions taken decades ago. At the same time, Mexico is confronted by vicious drug cartels fed by demand from the United States. The border crossers are only a symptom of these deep-seated problems that have grown over decades, and will take decades to address. The solution is to promote transformation of governmental and economic systems so that they work for everyone, the same basic requirements that face any government, including the United States. This is obviously a long term challenge, and it is not unique to Central America. Discontent over kids at the border, over illegal immigrants, centers on the concern that they undermine prosperity in general and jobs in particular. But this unwanted immigration is only a symptom of the much larger, complex and intractable challenge of avoiding global turmoil, which would be much more damaging to the U.S. economy than illegal immigration.
Globally, failed states and weak governments are unable to build the support of their own populations, so unemployed youth turn to civil wars, radicalism, piracy, drug trade and other nefarious pursuits. Good relations with China are critical for global stability, but growing economic and environmental problems there threaten to undermine the government: a natural response would be a strongly nationalistic and confrontational stance, impairing stability in a large part of the world. And lately Russia, now a second-rate regional power, has demonstrated how disruptive confrontational relations can be. With an economy heavily dependent on one sector (energy) and major demographic and environmental problems, not to mention a growing and disruptive Muslim population, Russia could easily descend into anarchy, a mosaic of confrontational fragments.
Promoting global stability with global good governance is a daunting task. As a number of commentators have stressed, the United States remains the only nation capable of global leadership, but a nation cannot lead if it does not know where it is going. And a recent assertion that democracy remains the only viable governmental system underlines the problem. The spread of democracy has slowed significantly because its major proponent, the United States, has been discrediting it. Rabidly partisan politics at home have undermined the government's ability to even govern. Growing economic inequality has undermined the American Dream, now out of reach for millions of citizens. Externally, support for unsavory regimes has gradually caught up with us, exacerbated by a bungled invasion of Iraq, costly not only in terms of finance but even more so in terms of global reputation, particularly in the Muslim World. The United States is simply no longer seen as a Beacon of Freedom. It may be the only nation in a position to assume global leadership, but its declining stature and growing problems at home make this difficult.
Afghanistan, for better or worse, has become the demonstration case of how the United States can now help build stability. A lot of what we have done there has been done poorly. The over-emphasis on military operations has left development and real stability way behind. A focus on short-term results was vividly proclaimed by our assertion that "we don't do nation building," which of course is a long-term challenge. But we do do nation building and have done it extremely well at times - just ask Germany or Japan, or more recently South Korea, another war-torn, desperately poor, illiterate, agricultural country that we helped turn into a modern economic powerhouse. The same is possible with Afghanistan.
It is hard to see because of the dismal press coverage, which seems to cater to an American public now fed up with the effort and looking to justify abandonment. But this pervasive coverage is wrong. There have been major improvements in many aspects of Afghan society and economy, and there is a clear potential for it to blossom into a modern nation, just as South Korea did.
Afghanistan is at the forefront of U.S. efforts to address global stability. Unfortunately, this particular effort is fragmented, lacks clear objectives and is not set into any overall concept. From a global point of view, the Afghan effort has certainly been disproportionate and troublesome. Nevertheless, it is the largest effort we have going to address the challenge of global stability, to demonstrate how the United States can still help transform a backward nation.
The biggest problem of all, that both Afghanistan and the kids on the border highlight, is the lack of any US sense of direction -- the critical element of leadership. Neither of these challenges, nor many others facing the nation, can be adequately addressed by disconnected, short-term measures. Without a vision of what the nation wants and an integrated, cohesive concept of how to get there, the United States will continue to drift from one problem to another while the world drifts into turmoil.