Editor’s note: The St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs has brought together diplomats, military, media, scientists and experts for more than a decade to work together at better understanding and operating in the world. It will be held at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Student Center from Feb. 6-8. This column is by a participant. This year’s theme is “Rethinking.” Find out more here.
We are living through what the Germans call a zeitenwende — the “change of the times” — in global affairs. From the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the disruptions of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies and climatic and environmental shifts, the international system is in the midst of a transition where assumptions about U.S. engagement with the world are being challenged — and where Americans themselves are questioning what the purpose and role of foreign policy ought to be, debates that will intensify as we move into a presidential election.
A defining feature of international affairs in the 21st century is nearly every government in the world — whether democratic, authoritarian or some mix of the two — is now pledged to obtain or preserve a middle-class lifestyle for its citizens. This feeds into what is termed the trilemma — the search for sustainable sources of water, food and energy, which are essential to maintain those living standards. As competition for these resources intensifies, we can expect greater conflict around the world — and renewed pressures as people seek to migrate from water-stressed, food-insecure and energy-deprived countries. The United States is grappling with a dynamic and unpredictable global security environment.
For the last two decades, the United States projected its military power in an effort to promote stability and provide security for a globalized economic system. Today, we need to reenvision national security as something broader than simply avoiding armed attack and how our environmental, energy, health and technological security can be enhanced. U.S. leadership in the international system increasingly will rest on whether it can regenerate its industrial and technological foundations to offer Fourth Industrial Revolution solutions — from artificial intelligence and quantum computing to advances in synthetic biology and green energy — that can address the challenges of the trilemma.
Part of this depends on rethinking our supply chains for the needed raw materials and components. Two separate but connected developments at the beginning of 2024 — the drought affecting the ability of ships to transit the Panama Canal and the Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea — highlight the fragility of long, extended networks. Part of the reconceptualization of U.S. policy is an overdue shift away from thinking along an east-west axis in favor of southern engagement, especially toward the Caribbean and Latin America.
Florida, which serves as America’s business gateway to the rest of the hemisphere, is poised to play an important role. As the United States seeks to partially decouple its economy from overdependence on China as a manufacturing hub and to reduce dependence on the Middle East as a source of energy, the Western Hemisphere has much to offer.
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In 2020, the Atlantic Council noted the “unique advantage” that our own neighborhood offers, “rich in natural resources from conventional fuels such as oil and natural gas to critical minerals such as lithium for batteries.” The countries of the region are already deeply connected through trade, investment and cultural and security ties. Trade routes are shorter and more easily secured, while new investments can produce the jobs and economic growth that reduce incentives to migrate northward.
We have the opportunity to “reshore” some industrial and manufacturing positions back to the United States, answering the mandate the State Department special coordinator for global infrastructure Helaina Matza describes to “grow our own economy (and) employ our own people” while “nearshoring” other parts of the supply chain away from more distant shores closer to home.
This, of course, demands seriousness on the part of our political leadership to set up an enduring policy framework not subject to sudden political shifts, which, in turn, would signal to the business community that it is safe to make long-term investment decisions. But I believe that if the United States can harness the disruptive impacts of both technological change and geopolitical competition, it can regenerate its economic capacity to respond to crises — and rejuvenate its leadership of the community of free nations.
Nikolas Gvosdev is senior fellow for U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council and senior fellow for national security affairs at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.