A year ago, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent a powerful reminder to Americans that we live in a dangerous and unstable world. The war in Ukraine has also brought greater focus to other geopolitical threats. China’s bellicosity toward Taiwan and its desire to indenture the developing world through its Belt and Road Initiative are just two examples illustrating that, contrary to President Bill Clinton’s now-infamous expression, Beijing is not simply a “strategic partner” of the U.S. but rather a determined adversary. Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the chaotic unpredictability of North Korea offer additional evidence of a world that cannot simply be bent to America’s will. Americans with short memories or of more tender years can perhaps be forgiven for believing that danger had permanently passed. Now, as both major U.S. political parties increasingly acknowledge the end of the unipolar moment ushered in with the conclusion of the Cold War, a newly volatile world requires national seriousness and resolve.
This raises the question: Are we a serious nation, up to the task? The Biden administration has provided ample cause to doubt the answer. Among other things, it has employed a deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Nuclear Energy, feted as the first “genderfluid” individual in federal government leadership; Sam Brinton was relieved of his responsibilities after being twice charged with luggage theft. The administration’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, boasted recently that the Biden cabinet is “majority people of color for the first time in history,” as she touted diversity as a primary consideration in the selection of a new Federal Reserve vice chair; expertise and ability went unmentioned. Our top diplomat in Afghanistan, Karen Decker, recently tweeted that Afghan girls might benefit from greater familiarity “with #BlackGirlMagic and the movement it inspired”; even in apologizing for this bizarrely tone-deaf utterance, she couldn’t help but note that her error stemmed from not understanding “others’ lived experience,” a catch-all phrase typically deployed to circumvent objective reality.
This seeming lack of gravity extends beyond atmospherics. More substantively, we have lost functional control over our southern border, with the expected consequences ensuing from human trafficking, drug smuggling, and rampant illegal immigration. The federal government no longer even pretends to live within its means, with the federal debt-to-GDP ratio estimated at an eye-popping 123 percent at year-end 2022. (The World Bank considers ratios above 77 percent a tipping point for economies.) The priority given to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in our public and private institutions, in place of objective standards, merit, or output, imperils everything from military readiness to the availability of honors-level instruction in our primary schools.
The recent and anticipated entry into the 2024 presidential election Republican primary field of several credible candidates could present a forum for determining how best to meet various exigent threats, both foreign and domestic, and whether we are capable of doing so. The Democratic primaries, by contrast, are unlikely to feature such a debate, as President Biden is still expected to seek reelection without serious challenge. Even should he decide not to run, it’s doubtful that any mainstream primary candidate would run on repudiating his record. At least at the national level, the Democratic Party has largely abandoned any pretense of seriousness, in thrall to both sectarian ideology and magical thinking that serious matters will somehow resolve themselves. While Republicans certainly share responsibility for our current predicament, one senses at least faint stirrings of maturity among announced and rumored GOP candidates alike. What might a “serious” platform look like? Key tenets would include the following.
Hope is not a strategy in geopolitics. Admitting the problem is the first step. A blind faith in soft power over realpolitik, naively favoring acting through multilateral institutions over coalitional or unilateral efforts, and elevating fantasies—including the prospect of sincere, coordinated global action on climate change—over the national interest are fundamentally unserious policy positions. Investing in hard power and military readiness along with cultivating alliances (as, to his credit, Biden has done in Ukraine) will be necessary to confront an increasingly aggressive China and other global miscreants.
Stop talking about a “green transition.” As Regina George said to Gretchen Wieners in Mean Girls, “stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s not going to happen.” Neither is the so-called green-energy transition, at least not as imagined by the Davos crowd. Ukraine has cast in stark relief the indispensability of hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future, with the U.S. being one of the few nations capable of attaining energy independence—a strategic trump card that for ideological reasons the Left steadfastly refuses to play.
Expunge wokeness from commerce and public life generally. Concepts like ESG, DEI, and woke capitalism more broadly serve only to extract economic tribute, exert a corrosive influence on public life, and elevate feelings over reality. Championing merit, celebrating objective achievement, and rededicating ourselves to fulfilling the promise of our Founding are imperative to our national health.
Secure the border and fortify the budget. A nation without control of its own border risks forfeiting its sovereignty and lacks both the moral authority and resolve to assert that other nations’ borders are inviolable. Similarly, continuing to spend beyond our structural means mortgages the future and places us at the mercy of creditor nations.
Restore faith in government. The last several years have witnessed federal agencies’ intervention in electoral politics, a highly politicized public health pandemic response, and the diffusion of divisive DEI principles throughout the federal bureaucracy. And now the Department of Energy has acknowledged a Chinese lab leak as the likely source of Covid-19, a hypothesis widely believed since 2020 but actively suppressed by the government. In a crisis, only centralized government can command the requisite resources to mount an adequate response; it is thus critical that government be trusted, or at least credible. The next administration would do well to consider a commission focused on transparency and reform, which could represent a first step in rebuilding such confidence.
Rein in Big Tech. A bipartisan consensus is emerging that acknowledges the pervasive and unaccountable influence that tech titans like Google and Facebook exert over American society. Steps to take remain to be seen, but here again, growing recognition of the problem is a first step.
In his 1988 campaign for president, Michael Dukakis, recognizing an uphill battle against the vice president of a hugely popular but term-limited President Reagan, stated that “this election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competence.” He was justly mocked for trying to suggest that ideas and policies—on which Republicans then held an advantage—mattered less than mere professionalism, and he was routed at the polls in November. In an unintended sense, however, he may have proved prescient: more than 30 years later, prosperity and a long peace have caused competence, and the seriousness that invigorates it, to atrophy. Irrespective of ideology, competence must be regained. The national interest depends on it.