I am a baby boomer, but I prefer the term “cold warrior.” I came of age when the United States was locked in a global confrontation with the Soviet Union. As an American diplomat during those years, I was among the leaders and policymakers who firmly pushed back against Soviet revisionism and expansionism, exposing socialism for the sham it is and bringing it to capitulation.
America won the Cold War and, for more than a decade, the United States was the leader of the world on every dimension: social, cultural, political, economic and military.
So it rankles me to hear my younger colleagues, taking their first career steps, say that the world they are inheriting is a uniquely awful place, that their futures are bleak and that we boomers messed everything up. I don’t hear that so much from Gen Xers, perhaps because they lived the culmination of the Cold War and experienced the initial years of this century as adults.
In fairness to those post-9/11 generations, they have come of age at a stressful moment in our history. Sept. 11 left Americans feeling angry and afraid because an enemy most of us had barely acknowledged cruelly exploited our open, well-intentioned society. Then came the 2008 financial crisis, leaving many Americans afraid that their future, and their children’s birthright as Americans, had been stolen. And now there is COVID-19, which has left us isolated, has swept away whatever confidence remained in our public institutions and has tipped our economy into a recession.
Nevertheless, the post-9/11 generations are inheriting a country with tremendous strengths. It will fall to them to find our country’s way into the future.
As they do, they should resist the temptation to reject everything boomers built and achieved. We, and our parents’ generation, created numerous tools, including particular mechanisms and habits of international cooperation. They are uniquely suited to the challenges of the 21st century — challenges that by their nature will resist unilateral solutions. Only a global coalition can hope to overcome terrorism, systemic financial risk and pandemics — let alone climate change.
This multilateral “architecture,” of which the United Nations is one of the most visible and controversial parts, is in reality a complex and multilayered set of agreements, institutions and relationships designed to facilitate post-World War II rebuilding and mediate international conflicts. The World Trade Organization takes disputes over market access and turns them into legal proceedings. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization helped us vanquish the Soviet Union. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other multilateral organizations helped us shape the post-Cold War world in an increasingly capitalist direction. The United Nations managed the transition to national independence dozens of countries that were colonies in 1945 in Africa, parts of Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.
Nonetheless, 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008 and now coronavirus show that the architecture that put an end to the era of European colonization and won the Cold War did not guarantee global security or prosperity once and for all.
But how could it? Circumstances change, sources of conflict evolve, and different actors take different courses. The challenge for post-9/11 generations is to ensure the security and prosperity of the United States in the circumstances that exist today.
For example, to prevent future financial crises like the one 10 years ago, millennials and Gen-Z will be called upon to think and act creatively to address the threat to our prosperity. Where should the line between national and international action be drawn? How will stakeholders who have grown and prospered as a result of the internationalization of financial markets bear their share of the burden of preventing and responding to crises?
These are not easy questions, but they may be easier to address than the challenge to global security posed by non-state actors like al-Qaeda and the related problem of chronic conflict within countries. The United Nations was designed to facilitate the emergence of nation-states. The assumption was that nation-states would be vehicles for political expression, provide essential services and enable their communities to prosper. The persistence of conflict within nation-states suggests that assumption is unwarranted.
Here again, the post-9/11 generations must address this challenge to our security. What does the political dysfunction at the heart of too many nation-states mean for a global order built on nation-states? Where is the proper balance between devolved government close to the people and central government that enables national action? How will stakeholders, beyond the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, be engaged to ensure burdens are shared?
Pandemics and the world
What about COVID-19? Pandemics are not new — the world has experienced at least four in the last 15 years — and they are not caused by globalization, but they pose a tough challenge. Because a pandemic touches on national sovereignty even as it respects no borders, it demands an international response.
How will post-9/11 generations mount a more meaningful response that will save lives and livelihoods? Where is the proper balance between efficient production supply chains and resilience in the face of pandemic — or, for that matter, terrorism or financial stability? What should be the role of international organizations — and the role of the United States in these organizations?
At the end of the day, this is a classic good-news, bad-news situation.
The bad news: These are complex, intractable problems that will probably resist future generations’ efforts to fully resolve them. If they are skilled, determined and lucky, as I would modestly claim that the Greatest Generation and boomers were, the future will have a little less conflict, just as today’s world is less conflictual and less turbulent than the world we inherited.
The good news: Along with all those problems, boomers are handing successor generations a pretty good toolkit, in particular a scaffolding of international cooperation that, as George W. Bush Institute programs like Human Freedom, Global Health and Economic Growth show so clearly, is well suited to the global nature of the problems. It will take creativity, leadership and vision to adapt these tools to this century’s latest challenges.
Matthew Rooney is the economic growth managing director at the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.