We are now well into the second decade of the 21st century and the U.S. is beset by serious, even existential, threats. They fall into three broad categories: (1) a geopolitical challenge posed by unfriendly rivals — Russia and, especially, China; (2) transnational threats, notably pandemics and climate change; and (3) the enemy within — the ongoing campaign to degrade and destroy the constitutional order, epitomized by the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol. This space is normally devoted to international issues, but it is striking that effective responses to these three challenges will require far-reaching domestic responses. The answers to our greatest international challenges will be found, not exclusively, but substantially, at home.
America is, of necessity, entering an era of domestic transformation. This will be a complex, multifaceted thing. In this limited space we can touch on only three aspects of this endeavor — technology, manufacturing and governance.
It has been evident for a long while that the future of this country, and the world as a whole, will be decisively influenced, and probably determined, by scientific and technological innovation — or the lack thereof. Examples abound. The world has spent two years in the grip of a viral pandemic. The American and global death count is high, but nothing compared to what it would have been without remarkable medical/scientific advances, including vaccines and therapeutics. The advances in genetic and molecular biomedicine over the last 20 years have been breathtaking — and the entire process is gaining momentum by the day. Today’s youth will grow up in a world of possibilities and capabilities that their grandparents could not have imagined, much less predicted. The rush of scientific and technological achievement goes well beyond the biological sciences. In recent days, the U.S. launched the Webb Space Telescope, which is designed to literally see back to the beginning of time. It is probably the most complex, audacious and difficult technology project in human history. The intricacy of the mechanism — which must operate with zero tolerance for error — is beyond description. As of this writing, the entire deployment in deep space has been flawless.
All this supports an obvious point. If the world is to navigate the threats of climate and disease and, if the U.S. is to prevail in tests of strength with China and Russia, it will be science and technology that will provide much of the critical capability. That, in turn, rests on R&D centered in America’s great universities, national laboratories and corporate research centers. All this has geopolitical implications. The MRNA vaccines were not developed in China or Russia; the Webb telescope was not conceived in Beijing or Moscow. Both were the product of U.S.-European collaboration — and the future of the planet may well depend on the same.
A second determinant of the future lies in the more mundane arena of manufacturing. It is a truism that, over the last five or six decades, the once world-dominant U.S. manufacturing sector has been badly depleted as factories have moved overseas in search of cheap labor. A revolution in containerized shipping meant the resulting product could be shipped back for sale in the U.S. The exodus of manufacturing transformed the U.S. — and not in a good way. One effect was to wipe out manufacturing jobs that had provided a critical pathway to the middle class for workers who do not have a college degree. Another was to make both the U.S. economy and national security dependent on overseas sources linked to long and complex supply lines. What are the implications for the Pentagon when military planners discover that key components and communications systems for new armaments are sourced wholly or, in part, from China?
The pandemic has exposed these vulnerabilities. The resulting efforts to “onshore” U.S. manufacturing (move it back to North America) is both a government and corporate priority. This is particularly true of critically important, high-tech manufacturing, like semiconductors, advanced materials and next-generation batteries. For labor-intensive industries, the lure of low wages overseas will remain a potent economic force. The whole process of “onshoring” will be prolonged and difficult, but it is underway. It will require a close partnership with educational systems that can supply the technically skilled workforce needed to operate the new facilities.
Finally, there is governance. As long as anyone alive today can remember, Americans could assume that the miraculous constitutional order bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers would continue to function as designed. We could also assume that the American public would exhibit basic common sense and rationality. Neither of these historic verities can be assumed today. By early 2021, the MRNA vaccines had become widely available in the U.S. Their effectiveness in preventing serious illness and hospitalization exceeded 90 percent, an absolutely stunning number. Yet, since then, over 400,000 Americans have died of COVID — simply because they refused the vaccine, rejecting authoritative medical advice in favor of crackpot conspiracy mavens on social media and elsewhere. Now they are in the roll call of names at the cemetery. If you are one of the millions who have refused the vaccine, you are a sitting duck, and you can be confident that the virus will find you.
The assumption that Americans would almost universally honor and respect their Constitution was profoundly challenged on Jan. 6, 2021. The mob that attacked the Capitol howling for blood (“Hang Mike Pence”) was instigated and effectively led by a former president who behaved like any tinpot dictator of a banana republic. “If I won, the election was valid; if I lost, it was rigged — and I will burn the house down rather than accept the result.”
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.