Washington Will the United States retain its global prestige and influence by the middle of the 21st century?
That was the key question in many of my discussions last week with several of this city's most capable people. Although not a single one currently holds public office, some almost surely will step forward.
It cannot happen fast enough, that is, the arrival of a new group of thinkers, particularly in the foreign-policy arena.
America's sole superpower status has no claim to permanence. But it will last for a shorter or longer time depending on how the United States handles three serious, interrelated, global challenges during the next decade: terrorism, human rights and climate change. The effort must start with self-criticism.
Last week, I was amused to hear retired Gen. James Jones, formerly NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, share an increasingly heard observation - that Washington routinely tells other countries what they need, whereas China gives them what they want.
Now, I am not advocating that the United States discard its values simply to win global approval. But this country is long overdue for a hard look at the way it conducts itself internationally.
First, terrorism. To those who have grown tired of hearing about that scourge and embrace the misguided notion that Sept. 11 was an aberration, I say, "Wake up." You have been spared many additional nightmares only because of worldwide vigilance, the disruption of terrorist networks and a hefty amount of luck. If we fail to prepare for the unexpected, understand that all terrorism is local, expand education about terrorism, approach solutions multilaterally, and boost our innovativeness in the global battle for hearts, minds and souls, terrorists will grow stronger.
In addition, the United States and its allies should devise a systematic, measurable way of treating - to the extent possible - the causes of terrorism, including poverty, statelessness and repression.
Second, human rights. Although I have never questioned this country's commitment to its founding principles, reality often deviates from the ideal. Instead, the United States should elevate human rights permanently to a top priority and shy away from nondemocratic regimes. I would rather see an American president commit U.S. troops to stop genocide than intervene with scant evidence against a nation that supposedly has weapons of mass destruction.
Further, my definition of human rights goes considerably beyond the political realm. For example, I cannot accept that the promise of globalization will continue to elude most people. The United States - through aid, education, investment and trade - must extend a more vigorous hand to the two-thirds of the world's population that has benefited little or not at all from recent economic progress.
Third, climate change. If America does not help fix the accelerating problems in that area, global security and human rights - as well as U.S. prominence - will decline. Whether the danger emanates from warming, cooling or something else, no one can deny the planet's distress, as I learned from personal experience during Florida's four-in-a-row, 200-year hurricane phenomenon in 2004.
Thus, it is time for the naysayers to retire and for governments, including this nation's, to join more aggressively in finding solutions. We have an obligation to mitigate carbon-dioxide emissions in a substantial way, conserve, boost efficiency, and develop more renewable energy sources such as solar, wave, wind and, yes, nuclear power.
In the 1990s, Americans beheld a post-Cold War world filled with the prospect of peace and prosperity. Climate change was a speculative matter. Now we know better. The United States has at most another decade to strengthen its position or risk compromising its future.