Outside the Walls

Something funny happened after two weeks without reading a newspaper, looking at a computer screen or checking e-mail. In many ways, it felt like I “checked out” of the world. But in others, it also felt like I checked back into it.

Part of it was looking out over the ocean, the horizon and, at night, the stars — as opposed to online news reports — to find out what would be driving events each day. But part of it was also reconnecting with a more concrete, grassroots experience, not so much of the world, but of my world. Focusing so much on the ways nations interact to pursue their interests — and following the events that drive their calculations so closely — might have obscured the ways in which the international arena is essentially a massive aggregation of individual interests. In other words, I lost sight of how the urgencies that guide nations as they project their power and influence is rooted in the urgencies that guide individuals as they go about the business of simply living their lives.

The island where I spent my vacation, Mauritius, is also a fascinating place, with a cross-pollenization of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and social and economic classes, all inextricably caught up in the web of the tourist-industrial complex. It was the first time I’d traveled outside the U.S. or Europe in quite some time, and served as a reminder that development is more than an abstract policy challenge, but a daily reality for the vast majority of the world’s population.

Since I got back two days ago, somewhat at a loss for anything to say, I’ve been eavesdropping on the conversations going on elsewhere. But before my thoughts coalesce back into familiar patterns of organization, I thought I’d jot down the principle reflections I brought back from two weeks “outside the walls.”

To begin with, I returned more convinced than ever that the major challenge facing the U.S. comes not from any particular nation or transnational threat, although those will have to be managed skillfully. Instead, it comes from the destabilizing effects on the global economy that would accompany any major regional conflict in Asia. Helping to steward the peaceful integration of Asia as it emerges as the productive engine of the global economy should be the overriding national security priority over the next 20-30 years. It should be pursued using a full-spectrum approach of diplomatic, economic and security engagements geared towards harmonizing U.S. interests with regional needs and concerns. Fortunately, that has essentially characterized U.S. policy across the past few administrations, and seems to be the guiding logic of the Obama administration as well.

Second, we need to pay more attention to catching up on the decade we let pass us by in South America. There have been enormous shifts in power, enormous advances in regional integration, enormous advances (and significant backtracking) in democracy. The threat of conflict, though it has significantly receded, persists. It’s a region with which we are uniquely positioned to be tightly integrated, despite the heavy burden of our history there. And yet, I can’t think of another continent where the U.S. is so out of touch with the new geopolitical realities.

Finally, I returned surprisingly blasé about a number of subjects, unable to generate much urgency about them despite their seemingly enormous importance. If it weren’t too flippant, I’d be tempted to say that the terrorist threat, the Middle East in general, and even the Afghanistan War (which was a subject of my long-form reading) are “overrated.” Not very sophisticated of me, I know. That was also before I learned of the Baghdad bombings and the potential problems surrounding the Afghanistan presidential election. And I’m sure that exposure to the persistent drumming of alarmist headlines will get me back into line soon enough.

But for now, I find the world’s zones of integration and opportunity far more compelling than its zones of conflict and instability.

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