A Vision to Match the Threat

By Walter Isaacson, president and chief executive of the Aspen Institute (THE WASHINGTON POST, 09/07/07):

Sixty years ago, America faced a new and dangerous global challenge, the expansionist aims of Soviet communism. This threat arose rather suddenly, and it was clear that it could portend a long struggle.

Our leaders reacted with a burst of creativity. Working across party lines, they created a military alliance, NATO, to counter Soviet aggression. To win the economic struggle, they formed institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and programs such as the Marshall Plan. To win hearts and minds, they created Radio Free Europe and revamped Voice of America. They defined the struggle clearly and articulated it publicly with the Truman Doctrine. Then, in such documents as NSC-68, they worked to agree on the balance of commitments and resources necessary to sustain this struggle for as long as it would take to prevail.

This response was conceived and put into place within five years, and over the course of nine presidencies it eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet state.

Now we are again faced with a new and dangerous global threat, the rise of jihadist terrorism. But more than five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, we have not yet responded with the creativity displayed at the outset of the Cold War. Instead, we are either disparaging Cold War institutions or, at best, tinkering with them to make them play a role for which they were never designed.

With a presidential election approaching, we should push the candidates to provide some imaginative ideas and a vision that match the creativity exhibited 60 years ago. Here, for example, are proposals they could explore:

· A new defense pact, supplementing NATO and with the same armed potency, that would serve as a Middle East anti-terrorist alliance. It would be open to all nations allied in the struggle against radical Islamic extremism and terrorism, including moderate Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan. Like NATO, it would train joint military forces capable of making war or keeping the peace.

· A new type of Marshall Plan that would provide small-business loans to help create a stable middle class across the Middle East. At the Aspen Institute, we have been working at the behest of the Overseas Private Investment Corp. to launch such a program in the Palestinian territories, with the cooperation of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders.

· An organization for public diplomacy in the digital age. This is a field in which America, with its values and media savvy, should be triumphing, but instead it is failing astonishingly. The outmoded structures of the Broadcast Board of Governors, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and the like — built for an analog broadcast era — should be swept away for a coherent agency empowered to create an honest and open information strategy built for the age of blogs, social networks, digital streaming and satellite. It should be led by people with the integrity of Edward R. Murrow (who was tapped by President John F. Kennedy to run the sorely missed U.S. Information Agency) and the creativity of the inventors of Google and MySpace.

· A corps of trained doctors, engineers, teachers, administrators and municipal workers — some young and others retirees — that can be deployed to countries wanting help getting their hospitals, schools, information infrastructure, utilities, courts and other institutions functioning properly. It would be a cross between the Peace Corps and nongovernmental agencies such as Doctors Without Borders that provide services around the world.

· A tough, sensible and nonideological energy policy that tackles the security problems that arise from being so dependent on foreign oil and the environmental problems caused by the emission of greenhouse gases. (Fortunately, these security and environmental needs coincide more than they conflict.)

· A clear statement of the nature of the new global challenge, who the enemy is, the strategy for winning, and what balance of commitments and resources serves our clearly defined national interests and comports with our values. This mission statement should be geared to garner long-term bipartisan support. It will be the next president’s version of the Truman Doctrine, and it would be helpful if he or she would articulate it early in the campaign.

A generation from now, when the second and third drafts of the history of the post-Sept. 11 era are written, the issues of Iraq “surges” and timetables will be relegated to the footnotes. We will be judged on how we responded to the challenges. Did we match the vision of the generation that came up with NATO and the Marshall Plan and Radio Free Europe to win the Cold War? It would be nice if some candidates, instead of bickering as they look backward, give us a forward-looking vision that emphasizes the need for such creativity.