...and what might matter more.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
I can make only one prediction about 2016 with certainty: We will not know the significance of any developments that may take place in the new year until well after the year has faded into memory. Predictions are easy. Perspective is hard.
It does not take an oracle to prognosticate that the U.S. election will be one of this coming year’s most important developments, or that Hillary Clinton is likely to win that election. It requires no great visionary gift to know that in 2016 the world economy is likely to slow or that there will be shocking terrorist attacks, more cyber attacks, or more gun violence in the United States. It might take a small leap of faith to suggest that there will be a big push in 2016 for a Syria political settlement and that it might lead to the eventual departure of Bashar al-Assad from office. And it takes even less insight to suggest that this step forward is unlikely to solve Syria’s myriad problems or to stop the flow of refugees or to address the broader issues that have roiled the Middle East. But it will take real insight to know what any of these developments might mean.
Take the likely election of Clinton. The arithmetic is pretty straightforward. She will be the Democratic nominee. The Republican Party is in disarray and still has to rid itself of the existential threat that the candidacy of Donald Trump poses before settling on another candidate who, judging from the current field, will likely be weak and flawed. Demographic trends in the United States favor Clinton, as does her track record of intelligence and relative strength on vitally important issues like foreign policy. (There is no one in either party—nor has there been one elected president in a quarter century—who can hold a candle to her international experience).
Assuming there’s no major shocking plot twist in the story of Campaign 2016 (which, of course is always possible), Clinton will become the first woman to be elected president of the United States. Because the United States remains the world’s richest and most powerful nation, her election will be a resonant statement and will be an historical development—one on a par with, or, given the fact that women are the majority population, perhaps one that will even transcend the election of Barack Obama as America’s first African-American president.
But it is precisely the example of Obama that should give would-be seers…and voters…pause. Because while Obama’s electoral achievement was a great one and a development that reflected well on the maturation of the voting public, it is also possible to look back now on the Obama presidency and fairly ask whether the president’s greatest achievement did not take place the day he took office and shattered a barrier that should have never been in place. That does not minimize the achievement. Nor does it minimize either the generally good domestic record he achieved or the adverse domestic and global circumstances he faced. It merely means that the likely first line of any historical record of the Obama presidency will focus on the color barrier he broke and not on his subsequent, generally positive but average-range achievements. In short, he became a president that achieved something historically significant through his election, but was unable to equal that impact during his time in office.
Further, he was elected in part because he made such a compelling case as a candidate that he would represent something new because he was unlike any president that came before. But being different is not the same as being successful or being prepared. He did not have enough experience to be president, did not have the right temperament to lead and manage the U.S. government or the Congress, did not have the international chops or strategic vision to cope with shifting global realities and so from the perspective of America’s role in the world, his presidency represents not a breakthrough but actually an extrapolation of the line of the Bush era, one tracing growing international doubts about U.S. leadership. (Despite the president’s sincere efforts to the contrary.)
Leaders in the GOP will no doubt try to use Obama’s record to taint Clinton, arguing—though they know better—that she was an “architect” of his policies. Of course, the Obama White House was so hands-on that it micro-managed or undercut the affairs of most of its cabinet departments on the international front. This fact has now been attested to in memoirs and comments from five such top international officials—most recently former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel here in an interview at Foreign Policy, former Defense Secretaries Gates and Panetta, David Petraeus, a man who like Panetta ran the Central Intelligence Agency, and by Clinton herself, though delicately in her memoir. On critical issues—most notably Syria—had Obama followed the advice of his more experienced cabinet members, he would arguably have done much better. In any event, the chorus of critiques that have come from former top officials confirms some of the weaknesses of the current president and his inner circle.
Thus, while it is tempting to focus on celebrating the breakthrough that Clinton would represent should she be elected president—as it seems likely she will be—we should now have the perspective to know that is not enough. It is an important step. It will be a moment to be celebrated. It will be long overdue and will begin to right centuries of wrongs against women in politics and as U.S. citizens. But for the Clinton presidency to be historically important, voters should ask themselves not what a vote for her means on election or inauguration day, but what it will mean at the end of her term (whether that will be in 2020 or in 2024).
Further, when we look at the great issues confronting the United States, domestic issues that far outweigh in importance or risks associated with them the international threats we face—from growing inequality to gun violence, from political dysfunction to the tensions associated with the demographic shifts that are transforming America—it is also important for voters to recognize that the big question is not who we want to lead America but what kind of an America we want to have in 2020 or 2024.
The candidates for president and the next president will be faced with the aftershocks of what is certain to happen in 2016. We are certain to see more gun violence. We are certain to see more terror attacks. We are certain to see more dysfunction in Washington. We are also therefore certain to see more anger and alienation within the country—from disenfranchised minorities to that of majority populations, like middle class white males who recognize that not only do they face real economic challenges but that their historical political dominance is fated to end. (The anger of this last group is the bread and butter of the repugnant Donald Trump campaign of intolerance and hate speech.) Not only are these real issues that will continue to trouble America in the year ahead, but they are also likely to grow more divisive and hard to deal with during the term of the next president.
As a result, we will need a president who is as adroit at handling conflict management at home as she is handling it internationally. We will need one with real depth of experience in Middle America, in Washington and around the globe. We will need one who has been tested by crisis and whose character in the face of such tests is known. We will need one who has the intelligence of an Obama but the know-how to manage the entire U.S. government as it faces these great challenges.
Fortunately, the reality is that the likely next president, would not only be the first woman to be president of the United States, she is also, of all current potential candidates for presidency, the one who possesses most of the above qualifications. It will not be easy for her to rise to the challenges she will face in the White House…nor will it be easy for America. But the 2016 election is likely to put the person (among all those in the running for America’s top job), who is best positioned to ensure that when we look back at this coming year from 2020 or 2024, we will see it as having been a turning point for the better.
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