Past Speakers of the: LANDON LECTURES

Landon Lecture by Thomas Donilon,

Former National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama
April 15, 2014

Thomas Donilon: Thank you, president, for that kind introduction, and thanks to all the students, faculty, and members of the Kansas State community for having me here today. I especially want to thank and acknowledge Dr. Jackie Hartman, who oversees this distinguished series. Thank you, Jackie, for all that you do. And I am honored to speak here at this same podium as many of our nation's most notable public servants, including presidents, military leaders, and members of Congress. The Landon Lecture series, now in its 49th year, is a wonderful tradition that provides leaders an opportunity to take some time to reflect on their experiences and the nation's challenges and opportunities, and frankly, to do so in such a terrific and civil environment at Kansas State. My first trip to Manhattan was under different circumstances, as best I can remember, I came here some 33 years ago, to be in the wedding of my dear friends, Dan Bowl and Ellen Silter. That was back when Jackie's father was making Kansas State basketball history. It was a great occasion, I also, on that occasion, met Edward Seaton, the publisher of the Manhattan Mercury. I was thinking about this last night, Edward and others and I had dinner, and I was proud of myself, that even that early in my career I had realized the value of spending time with the local media moguls. So it's great to see you here today. And it's fitting that we're here to honor the legacy of Governor Alf Landon, who embodied the best traditions of public service here in Kansas and across the nation. He once humbly described himself as "an oilman who never made a million, a lawyer who never had a case, and a politician who carried only Maine and Vermont." Of course, the rest of us remember him for his leadership, and his advocacy for American engagement in the world, and his daughter and Senator Nancy Kassebaum-Baker and the rest of the Landon family continue that legacy of service today. It's a special privilege to speak here to such a talented group of young men and women who are trying to find their places in the world. I'm going to talk today about the topic of American declinism, which is a hot topic in Washington these days and around the country and around the world. I do a lot of traveling around the world and you hear that today, and I want to address, quite directly with you here today. Young people today are used to hearing a pessimistic story about the country's future.

And we're well aware of the challenges we face. The worst of an economic crisis behind us, but too many of our fellow citizens are still struggling to find work. We face long-term deficits and debt. Our elementary and high schools have slipped down international rankings. Our infrastructure needs rebuilding, and there are real concerns about whether an increasingly technologically advanced and globalized economy can produce good jobs for Americans into the future. There's also a broader pessimism we hear about America's place in the world. As National Security Advisor to President Obama for almost five years, I spent the vast majority of my time in government coordinating the U.S. foreign policy responses to crises and challenges from the winding down of the war in Iraq, to addressing uprisings in the Arab world, from North Korea's provocations, to our constant efforts to protect the country and defeat Al-Qaida. And sometimes it seems like all we were doing was putting out fires, it's all we had time for. And during those challenging moments, we would often hear that America's influence wasn't what it used to be. That our days as a leading superpower were numbered, and that the United States is no longer capable or willing to take on the global challenges of the day.

I came here today to reject that view. And today I'd like to discuss with you why in my judgement, America is not in decline, but will continue to be the worlds leading and most powerful nation for a long time to come. I arrive at this assessment fully aware of the threats our nation face. I spent much of the last five years in some very dark places, battling those who would do us harm, and I am fully aware of the strengths of our national competitors, embodied in the extraordinary rise in the rest, as they say. One of the most consequential trends in world economic history. But I remain unflinchingly optimistic about America's position. The fact is that no nation can match our comprehencsive multidimensional set of enduring strengths, bountiful resources human and material, our global network of alliances, our unmatched military strength, our entrepreneurship and innovation, our liberal political and economic traditions, our remarkable capacity for self-assessment and rejuvenation. And frankly, I am more confident today in America's prospects than I was as a 22 year old walking into the White House almost 37 years ago for the first time.

I recently came across the following assessment, and I quote, "The United States cannot afford decline like that which has characterized the last decade and a half. Our only self-delusion can keep us from admitting our decline to ourselves." Now, that familiar line of argument could come from today's opinion pages, but in fact, those words were written over fifty years ago in 1961 by a young guy at Harvard named Henry Kissinger. The story shows that for all our optimism, America is always worried about our place in the world. It's in our DNA to always ask ourselves "Are the best, can we be better?" And frankly, it helps us to drive our renewal. To borrow from the great political scientist Samuel Huntington, "The United States is unlikely to decline, so long as its public is periodically convinced it's about to decline. The declinists play an indispensable role in preventing what they are predicting." Now, Dr. Kissinger had valid concerns, at the same time he wrote those words, the U>S> economy was struggling to grow its way out of recession, the Soviet Union had launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit, the nation went into panic, thinking we had fallen behind in technological innovation, and would soon be outspent and outmatched by Moscow. And yet in a decade and a half, there was a subject of Dr. Kissinger's worst fears, and from the end of the World War II until the end of the Kennedy administration is now seen by most historians as an era of unparalleled economic growth, the decade that followed was even more prosperous, ending with the united states, not the Soviet Union, making the first lunar landing.

None of this is new. Just in my lifetime, and a lot of our lifetimes here, every ten years or so, we have a new bout of profound pessimism that sweeps the nation. In his fine new book, "The Myth of America's Decline," the German journalist and author, Josef Joffe, documents roughly five waves of declinism, from when Sputnik went into orbit to today. And let's go through it decade by decade. Declinists in the ‘60's asserted that the cost of Vietnam and the social and racial tensions would bring about what one prominent historian called "the unraveling of America." In the 1970's, declinists signaled the end by point to inflation, oil shocks, and unemployment, an ally fell in Iran, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In the 1980's, we feared Japan's growing economic strength, and historians were saying we would soon become one of history's forgotten empires. But in each instance, the sky didn't fall, the United States didn't sink into the ocean, and we're still here, the most prominent nation on earth. I think this shows there's a tendency to underestimate America's staying power, its enduring strengths, which I want to talk about today, but also our need to be humble in our ability to predict the future with any precision.

Now, today, the declinists are back, arguing that China will soon overtake us, or that our gridlocked politics, long-term deficit and decaying infrastructure will prevent us from playing the same global role that we've played since World War II, and I take these concerns seriously. And we should not assume that America will retain its primacy simply because the declinists have been wrong in the past. Leadership is not something the United States has by happenstance; it's something we have to earn over and over again. How do you actually quantify this power? A predecessor of mine as National Security Advisor, one of the finest minds on foreign policy, Zbigniew Brzezinski, recently assigned the United States a strategic balance of assets and liabilities, like you would any business. And I think his framework sets up a useful way of analyzing where we stand today. And, indeed, in his book, strategic vision, he has a page where he sets out assets and liabilities like you would on a business balance sheet. How do we quantify this power? And he talks about exactly what the assets and liabilities are, and I want to talk about that balance sheet today.

Now, we certainly have some strategic liabilities we can't ignore, but what is sometimes lost in the periodic wringing of hands is how extraordinary America's assets are. First and foremost, our ability to deal with whatever challenge has come our way. Measuring power in today's globalized world is a complex task, a country's strength and influence go beyond the old one-dimensional quantifiers that we used to use like steel outputs and troop numbers. And while our military might is tremendous and essential, power today is more often exercised through economic vitality, the capacity for innovation. A vibrant stable political system, and a resilient society. It is not measuring strength in one or two that captures a country's true position, but rather the accumulation and interaction of all these assets. So today, I'd like to talk to you about five of those assets. Five unique and enduring strengths that are the foundation of America's leadership in the world. Our economy, our military might, our geography, our people, and our leadership.

First, the economy. More than anything else, the American economy is the wellspring of our global leadership. There are not a lot of iron laws in history, but one of them is that a nation's power is directly related to its economic strength. President Obama said in a speech at West Point several years ago that no nation has been able to maintain its political and military primacy without maintaining its economic vitality. Now the 2008 financial crisis tested our resilience, dealt a real blow to our national prestige and authority, and long-term challenges remain. But the fact is that no country comes close to matching our fundamental economic strength. The United States is built on a strong structural foundation, combining entrepreneurial orientation, deep and efficient capital markets, highly experienced managers, strong technological leadership. By every measure, the United states has the largest economy in the world today, generating nearly seventeen trillion dollars in GDP. Our economy is double the size of the second largest, China's, and our stock market is five times bigger than China's. We lead the world in attracting foreign investment, and we're also the world's largest single investing economy. And economy's most important asset is not its sheer size, and that I think is very important to underscore. China's enormous population base will at some point put it on a path to become the world's largest economy at some point in the future. But history shows that size alone is not the most important factor in determining the most powerful nation. At the peak of Great Britain's global power, it was China that had the world's largest economy, even though the country was a middling power in the throes of what China refers to as their "Century of Humiliation." As opposed to size, I'd argue that a far better measure of economy's health is its quality and sustainability. We have the wealthiest large economy in the world, as well as the most diversified and technologically advanced. By way of comparison, China has a very large economy, but a very poor one. The United States Income per person is more than $50,00, whereas China sits at about $6,000. That provides, I think, and important perspective. As we look for our prospects in the future, it's critical that the United States is in a position to maintain its leading position.

I'd like to talk about three elements of our economic strength. Innovation, energy, and higher education. First, innovation. Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, are all synonymous with American economic vitality, but only one of those companies existed fifteen years ago. The largest eight technologies in the world, by market capitalization, are based in the United States, And when it comes to the next frontiers, and extraordinary breakout technology: 3D manufacturing, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, cloud computing, robotics, big data, advanced material sciences, entrepreneurs and companies and universities are leading the way. We also lead the world in research and development, we have a project 465 billion dollars in spending this year, that's thirty percent of all global R&D Now, like so many of our strengths, there's a point I want to stress today. Our innovation advantage did not happen by accident. It stems from an accommodation of a risk-taking culture, significant investment by the American government and research- which I want to come back to, because it's absolutely a critical part of the American system- the best universities in the world churning out good ideas, and the kinds of regulations and easy access to capital make it possible to turn ideas into businesses. And all those strengths come together in places like Silicon Valley, which represents to the world our spirit of creativity. I recently spent some time in Silicon Valley, I went to one venture capitalist's office, a prominent venture capitalist, who told me he had seen three thousand ideas presented to him in a one year period. The speed of innovation and ideas and the way it comes together. Again, to take ideas and turn them into businesses, very cheaply right now, by the way, it's never been cheaper to build a business in the United States than it is today, its really extraordinary.

A second, and frankly unexpected U.S. economic asset is our national energy outlook. For most of the past forty years, the United States thought of itself as a nation dependent on oil, and energy events beyond our shores. Now, U.S. innovation and technology allow us to tap unconventional sources, and nearly every prediction about our energy futures has been turned on its head. When I came into office with President Obama in 2009, we were briefed by the various intelligence and economics services, and said in five years, the United States is going to have to double its import of natural gas. That was the Prediction we were presented with. Completely turned on its head in a five year period, and today, the United States is the number one producer of natural gas in the world, and the price of natural gas here is a fraction of what it is elsewhere in the world. The international energy agency projects we'll be the largest producer of oil by the end of the decade, and unconventional energy will propel our economy and support American jobs, nearly 900,000 will come in by next year just from shale gas. Meanwhile, our new energy security is allowing us to engage the world from a position of strength. It gives us latitude to support allies, and, if need be, to punish adversaries. The success of our Iran sanctions effort, for example, was made possible because we were confident that increased American supply enabled us to afford removing one million barrels of Iranian oil off the market each day, without increasing gasoline costs to U.S. consumers. And you can imagine the conversations that took place in the situation room in the white house, when we were considering putting these very intensive sanctions on Iran, and the questions were arose "what's this going to mean in terms of the U.S. consumers?" And we had a lot of confidence at that point given our increase in oil production that we would be able to handle that, and that's what happened. And it was the bite of those sanctions that ultimately brought the Iranians to the negotiating table last year.

Now, like our success and innovation, this energy renaissance did not happen by accident or because of luck. It is truly an "in the U.S. only" story. Many other have promising shale deposits, and many may have far greater deposits than the United States does, but the reason the United States has seen such dramatic and fast-paced energy changes, is because decades ago we made wise, significant investments in key technologies, and we have the right balance of an open climate, an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit, environmental safeguards, infrastructure and property ownership rights. And today, the wide availability of cheap gas in the United States has become a major competitive advantage for our energy-intensive manufacturers, particularly when compared to Europe and china. And meanwhile, our energy-reduction imports has brought our trade deficit to a four year low, and allows a greater share of that money Americans would spend on energy to remain in America. We also now have the opportunity for both the export of natural gas and crude oil to the world, which will allow us to support our allies, stabilize the world's energy supply, and expand our own prosperity.

Third, our higher education system, something I know people here know a lot about. Our universities are the envy of the world. We're home to seventeen of the top twenty research universities. By the way, that assessment was done by a Chinese university. Our scientists publish far more papers in prominent journals than any other country, and despite what you may hear, the fact is that we graduate more engineers per capita than either China or India. Foreign students compete to study at universities like this one, and last year we enrolled a record 820,000 foreign students in U.S. universities. So, the combination of our size, our wealth, these enduring strengths that we have, and in innovation and in energy, our higher education system, all make us really an economy that positioned to be dominant going into the future. But don't take my word for it. There's an Omaha-based investor by the name of Warrant Buffett, who had the following to say in his latest shareholder letter. "I've always considered a bet on ever-rising U.S. prosperity to be very close to a sure thing. Indeed, who has ever benefited during the past 237 years by betting against America? If you compare our country's present condition to that existing in 1776 you'd have to rub your eyes and wonder. The dynamism embedded in our market economy will continue to work its magic. America's best days lie ahead." I'm probably the first national security advisor to quote Warren Buffett, but on the issue of the economy, and our future, I think he has a lot of standing.

Next, I want to address our military. By any measure, our military is unmatched. That's not likely to change any time soon, in terms of shear size, the U.S. military spends more each year on defense than the next ten nations put together. Our defense budget is more than five times bigger than that of our nearest competitor, China, and despite that country's rapid military buildup. Even after thirteen years of war, the longest period of continuous conflict our armed forces have ever seen, we remain capable of defeating any adversary. But frankly, these measurements understate our true advantages. Our navy owns eleven of the world's twenty aircraft carriers, making it the only country on Earth with a truly global power protection. With more than a decade of experience fighting terror, our special operations forces have become a unique American asset. The president mentioned this, the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, over 7,000 miles away from the United States, was only visible example of how our battle-tested operators successfully execute complex missions in dangerous places across the globe. No other nation has anything like the ability to project power with the precision that the United States can. And I experienced this very directly for almost five years. And by historical measures, by the way, there's these conversations that we have empire overstretch, whether we're too stretched in terms of our expenditures. The current U.S. defense burden is not excessive in the share of GDP. With the Iraq War over, the war in Afghanistan winding down, the military now stands on a more sustainable footing, with no sign of the kind of overstretches that some have worried about.

We also possess a network- and this is not commented on enough when you compare us to other countries- we possess a network of over formal fifty alliances, the largest in human history. For over a century, on a bipartisan basis, the United States has built a global network of alliances around the world, in Asia, and in Europe. And no other nation in the world can look to anything like this. These enduring partnerships are an unique American strength, and we continue to depend on them particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, but also, given the events of the last sixty or ninety days, in Europe as well.

Next, our geography, and this is one that is not commented upon enough in my view either. Our geography and resources are our most natural advantage. These enduring strengths are rarely discussed, but they have provided for the safety and prosperity of the American people from the days the first settlers arrived here. We're an Atlantic and Pacific power, and an Arctic Nation. We are protected by oceans and peaceful borders, we live in a hemisphere of mostly stable democracies, and we enjoy friendly productive relations with our American states. The bottom line is this: the United States does not face any real threat in its own hemisphere, in addition to our energy resources, we have other diverse and valuable sets of natural resources. We have the largest deposits of rare earth metals at a time when competition for those resources is on the rise, and we're the world's largest exporter. No other nation in the world, no other big power in the world has the same kind of blessed geographic situation and fertile landmass that the United States has. You look at our competitors around the world. We don't have disputed borders with Canada or Mexico, we don't have any threats in our hemisphere, and we're not a dependent power, we're not dependent on others for food, and energy, and other resources to maintain our prosperity.

Next, leading to the fourth enduring strength I want to discuss with you today, and that one puts us in a position that's a structural strength to lead in the 21st century: our people. We're blessed to have a bright demographic future; our workforce is relatively young growing. From now and 2050, the population of the United States will grow by more than 100 million people, expanding our workforce by forty percent. This is not the case elsewhere in the world. This is not the case with respect to our peer competitors around the world. The populations of other developed nations in Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, are aging and shrinking. By 2050, the median age in China will be fifty. By 2050, the median age in the United States will be forty. A big part of the reason that our democratic profile looks better than the rest of the world is we are a nation of immigrants. Immigrants are both younger than the population at large, and participate in the workforce in larger numbers. They're also a source of creativity, and the United states has the distinct advantage over other developed nations when it comes to attracting highly skilled immigrants. Foreign entrepreneurs and scientists choose to make the United States their home because it's easier to enter our labor markets and move within than any other developed country. Our open society allows for more seamless integration than elsewhere. That's why, by the way, it's important for congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. It's not just a domestic issue, it really is a strategic issue, about an advantage that we are going to have, and the competition in the 21st century, a distinct demographic advantage.

Finally, the last that I want to talk about is our global leadership role. There is no other nation that can replace the United States with respect to this. For generations, Americans have taken up the mantle of leadership in a world torn by war and scarred by oppression. We've repeatedly put American blood and treasure on the line to defend our values and advance universal rights. And the world still expects the United States to do this today. People everywhere look to America to protect global commerce and ensure the free flow of energy, and control the spread of dangerous weapons. Now, plenty of countries have leverage, but there's a qualitative difference, and you see that around the world, countries have leverage, particularly in their regions, but there's a big difference leverage and leadership. We bring to bear more than just resources, we have an unmatched ability to convene countries, and coordinate international efforts. That's because of the attractiveness of our ideas, our style of leadership, and the fact that we've nurtured such a successful international system. Former secretary of state, Madeline Albright, calls America the indispensable nation. That's because few global problems can be solved without American involvement. Our allies in Europe and the Middle East and Asia clamor for active U.S. engagement in those regions. The concern in the world is not that the United States is overbearing and leaning in too much, the concern in the world is the United States might not lean in enough, and that's a testament to the attractiveness of U.S. leadership. Although American power is occasionally resented, there is everywhere strong attraction to our values of democracy, free markets, respect for human rights, and it's impossible to imagine any other country assuming the global leadership role we currently play.

Now, I told you I was going to give an optimistic speech, but I also think we need to be clear about the liability side of this balance sheet wHich I described. And I just want to talk very briefly about five challenges that we have to address in the next decade. One, getting control of our long-term budget deficit is one of the first orders of business. Our fiscal position risks undermining our economic foundation. Now, despite the general impression out there, the fact is that over the last several years, our deficit has dropped precipitously. In fact faster than any period since the demobilization after World War II. But it is just in two years that the deficit will begin rising again, driven mainly by mandatory entitlement spending. As a result, we'll have less flexibility to make useful investments in the future of our country for science, technology, and national defense, and take not our deficit, economic growth should be our priority. My friend, the former treasure secretary Larry Summers estimated it was just one fifth of one percent in annual economic growth would address the projected long-term budget gap.

Third, we can no longer take our advantage in innovation for granted. China and Japan have already surpassed us in number of patents filed each year, and China is quickly catching up in terms of R&D spending. That's why it is a critical national priority for our government to continue to invest in advancing scientific knowledge, especially in basic research, which really has been the foundation of a number of great innovations that we've seen in the last twenty-five years in the United States. And at the same time, our failure to overhaul immigration system blunts our natural edge in the global competition for talent. Forty percent of the people receiving advanced degrees in science, technology, and engineering and mathematics in American universities are foreign nationals that have no legal way to stay here and contribute, even if they chose to. And American business leaders regularly express frustration that our current laws make it harder for them to hire individuals from abroad. We really need change here. Similarly, we need a wake up call to with respect to primary and secondary education. Our universities are the best in the world, but we rank seventeenth on Peterson's well regarded education index for grade school. That's unacceptable, and if we're going to prepare Americans for the jobs of the future, and restore the American middle class, we have to reeducate the world.

Now, overcoming these liabilities will take time and difficult choices, but here is the point I wanted to make on the challenges. Here's the key point. None of these challenges is insurmountable. None of them is some inherent challenge that can't be addressed. Every one of them has a policy solution in sight that is feasible and affordable to our nation, and addressing them in each case is a case of mustering political will, just as we've done the past two hundred years. So, with the worst of the economic crisis behind us, the war in Iraq over, the war in Afghanistan winding down, now is the time for smart choices and wise investments that will sustain American power and leadership for generations to come. That means taking all the necessary steps to enhance economic growth, ramping up our investment, science technology, repairing our infrastructure, undertaking more thorough political reforms to help restore the health of our democracy. As we continue to renew our nation, our fundamental strengths propel us forward. Our open society and democratic institution set us apart. Our military remains the strongest in the world. We will continue to lead on the international stage. Our institutions allow us to pursue the kind of just and sustainable growth our changed society needs, and we are younger than our competitors, and our economy will continue to be more vibrant.

I was reminded a few years back during my time in the White House when I called Henry Kissinger, who I talked about at the outset of this talk, and I asked him what he made of all of the renewed talk of American decline. I'll never forget his reply, he said, "Well, Tom, let me ask you this, is there any other country you'd rather be National Security Advisor for?" And the answer is self-evident, of course not. Our power goes beyond a snapshot of individual metrics, above all, it lies in the ability of our society, and time and time again to meet problems head on. The next century of American power is within our reach, yet we challenge ourselves, especially our young people, to meet it. Thanks for your attention, I really appreciate it. Thank you.

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