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Power of spontaneous combustion

Power of spontaneous combustion

In a difficult environment, the US is again defining the future 

by John Kornblum

Thu 24 Apr 2014

As leaders in Russia and China demonstrate, some large ‘emerging powers’ still seem to believe that 19th century authoritarian methods provide the best means of managing radical change in the 21st century. Determined authoritarian leaders can make western nations appear weak and indecisive. But democracies usually succeed at mastering challenges much more successfully than controlled societies. 

Vladimir Putin’s hopes of building an alternative to the west will in the end be judged on his ability to profit from democratic change rather than keeping it from happening. There will be no middle ground.

In this race, the US is already far ahead. So much so, that America is likely to define the global future, much as it has influenced the history of the last seven decades. In fact, a new type of American leadership is already emerging. Beyond the fog of National Security Agency revelations or congressional disarray, it is already possible to see the outlines of what we might call a post-industrial American approach to its role in the world. 

President Barack Obama is often criticised when he exhibits such tendencies. But, over the longer term, new generations of American leaders will find his more balanced approach well-adapted to the increasingly dynamic technological society they are managing. 

Obama would be the first to admit that America’s ability to manage change has been severely tested. Over the past decade or so it underwent the worst foreign attack since Pearl Harbor, became embroiled in two nasty, ill-conceived wars, and was confronted by numerous vicious crises around the world. Battered by the most severe economic collapse since the great depression, the US has suffered from the impression that its power and influence are steadily waning in the face of emerging competitors such as China and India.

All this was accompanied by a post-Cold War turn inward similar that which has followed every major US foreign success since the First World War. American leaders at times seem to have jettisoned the careful practice of diplomacy in favour of a sort of cyber age crisis management. We now have cameramen in helmets, rather than the good old gunnery sergeant urging his troops to take yet another hill.

Both at home and abroad, US society often appears to be engulfed in chaotic and even damaging confrontation with itself. Such disorder invites scepticism about America’s ability to provide any sort of leadership in a multidimensional system. But conflict of this sort is as much part of the American tradition as the Royal Family is to the English. 

Nearly 2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus argued that the energy of life, his famous ‘Logos’, was the ‘strength’ mankind could draw from building on such changing currents of existence. From this point of view, the US is not doing too badly.

We are leaving an era characterised by a stable, but inflexible, world order, and entering one of growing pluralism and transparency, accentuated by unsettling change. As François-Henri Pinault, CEO of France’s PPR Group, puts it: ‘We are entering an age of irrationality. We are at the beginning of a social trend and a change in values which will go on for years.’

At first glance, such situations seem ready-made for reactionary or planned societies. Recall western infatuation with Japan 30 years ago, and for China today. In reality, however, this is where the US has always showed its strengths. America as a disruptive society can always navigate irrationality more easily that centrally-controlled, planned societies. 

US influence is not based solely on the talents of its leadership, or even on its power, but on a form of spontaneous combustion which arises from within its national life. The unique American mix of peoples, cultures and geography somehow enables the US to break from the moulds of the past more easily than others.

Becoming part of American society does not take years, as is often the case in other parts of the world. Instead, the contradictions, disorganisation and narcissism of what early 20th century German travel writer Arthur-Holitzer called an ‘irritating country’ repeatedly opens new avenues for innovation and imagination.

Barely 10 years ago, Joschka Fischer, then German foreign minister, declared that one of the most important goals of European and German diplomats lay in anchoring the European Union’s multilateralism in their foreign policies.

Today this recipe seems out of date. The EU at times appears to be risking the fate of the Soviet Union. The euro crisis demonstrated how hard it is to fit countries and issues into neat organisational boxes required by the EU’s old fashioned multilateral system. Neither ambitious entrepreneurs nor disgruntled dissidents feel it necessary to accept the authority of ‘the world's leading nations’: the EU or anyone else.

Anyone who doubts this fact should heed Timotheus Höttges, the new Deutsche Telekom chief executive, who on 13 April told the Bonn newspaper General-Anzeiger that US companies were dominating ‘digitalisation’, which he sees as the key to the world’s business and economic future. ‘Anything and everything which can be expressed in binary code will be digitalised. And everything which can be networked, will be networked. Companies which digitalise their operations will reap great gains in future productivity.'

Höttges asked: 'Are any German or European companies leaders in this field? The companies which dominate, for example Google or Facebook, are located in the US.’ Google’s market capitalisation, he noted, is greater than that of all European telecommunications companies combined.

Visionary business leaders often have a better instinct than politicians for the scale of real power shifts. Spontaneous combustion may be irritating, but it creates space for creative people and new ideas – and this continuously draws others into America’s circle. President Putin should take heed. The race is already over. He is not among the winners.

John Kornblum, a former US Ambassador to Germany, is a Member of the Advisory Board of OMFIF.

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