Toward an Agenda: An Overview

Henry J. Aaron,
Henry J. Aaron The Bruce and Virginia MacLaury Chair, Senior Fellow Emeritus - Economic Studies

James M. Lindsay, and Pietro S. Nivola
Pietro Nivola
Pietro S. Nivola Former Brookings Expert

December 1, 2003

The reality shock of September 11, 2001, reminded Americans that the federal government’s first order of business is to protect the nation from its enemies. Keeping a steady focus on that primary obligation had often proven difficult in recent years, as national politics dragged an ever-expanding governmental agenda in many other directions. The United States today, as after Pearl Harbor, is having to straighten out its priorities. And that means mustering the resources and determination to confront grave threats to our citizens and civilization.

But while Washington is facing up to this bedrock responsibility, plenty of additional challenges remain. For one thing, honest men and women can differ about how best to advance U.S. security interests in today’s treacherous international environment. Meeting the interrelated threats of tyrannical states and stateless terrorists, not to mention a host of other destabilizing global forces, will require an ingenious mix of strategies and tactics. Exactly what the mix must be is a question much debated. For another thing, although domestic issues of secondary or tertiary importance can be given a welcome rest under the circumstances, several policy debates pertaining to the home front still need to be joined, and presumably resolved, sooner rather than later. How these questions are addressed will reflect on the character, the values, and the moral footing of our society.

With these considerations in mind, the Brookings Press will be releasing this spring a collection of essays called Agenda for the Nation. A volume by that title was first published here a generation ago, when the nation confronted racial tensions at home and an increasingly unpopular war abroad. With America at another historic crossroads, now is a suitable time to map and explore paths that national public policy should take in the years ahead. This issue of the Brookings Review previews the book. A small sample of its contents, each essay greatly abridged, follows. Some of these essays are short on prescription. Readers are invited to stay tuned for the unabridged versions in the forthcoming book, which will not only analyze problems, but offer solutions.

The first article, by Pietro Nivola, provides an overview of American politics before and after September 11. It inquires how deeply and durably U.S. political institutions have been sobered since that fateful morning. Clearly, momentous decisions regarding foreign affairs and the national defense have taken precedence over the past year. Although, in this context, the deliberations of government have become more serious, Nivola wonders whether this heartening change will endure over the long haul without broader adjustments in our political process than those to date—adjustments he sets forth in Agenda for the Nation.

Next, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay take on the tall order of how to recalibrate American foreign policy. They stress that the “sustainability of American power ultimately depends on the extent to which others believe it is employed not just in U.S. interests but in their interests as well.” The authors see much of the foreign policy debate in the United States as a dialectic between two camps. On one side are so-called Americanists who give primacy to the pursuit of U.S. interests and who contend that the United States can, and often should, “go it alone.” On the other side are “Globalists” who are uncomfortable with U.S. unilateralism. Who’s right? Both have merit, according to Daalder and Lindsay. To see why, read on.

Of the numerous worldwide feats Americans are striving to perform, none is more pressing but perhaps also intractable than vanquishing global terrorism. A distinctive, and daunting, characteristic of terrorist movements like al-Qaida, explains Steven Simon in his fascinating account, is their religious motivation and zeal. The messianic element means that much conventional wisdom about how best to moderate extreme Islamic militancy may be wishful thinking. Addressing such supposed “root causes” as economic stagnation, failing infrastructures, and environmental degradation in various Muslim societies seems unlikely to quell the “jihadists.” Against these deadly fanatics, a diverse, but not soft, set of instruments will be required

Among them, arguably, is a better balance between deference to civil liberties and the imperatives of homeland security. Stuart Taylor weighs in on this difficult subject. While remaining mindful of the fragility of constitutional protections, policymakers would do well to recall Justice Robert H. Jackson’s famous plea for “a little practical wisdom” in interpreting the Bill of Rights, lest we risk making it “a suicide pact.” There is more than a little practical wisdom in Taylor’s refreshing thoughts on the roles of rights and responsibilities when waging a war on terrorism.

The link between economic development and counterterrorism is far from clear, argue Lael Brainard and Robert Litan in this magazine’s fifth article. Nevertheless, American efforts to raise living standards around the world are essential. Not only do such efforts serve a humanitarian purpose that is worth pursuing as an end in itself; they may also build good will. Aware of these payoffs, President Bush has pledged significant increases in bilateral development assistance. And thanks to a long-awaited renewal of trade promotion authority, the administration is now in a stronger position to negotiate further welfare-enhancing commercial agreements among nations. Brainard and Litan applaud these promising steps, but also urge that they be carried out fully and boldly and stress that other measures—ranging from improvements in financial markets to reform of corporate governance—are needed to stimulate both the U.S. and global economies.

While international issues prevail in the following articles, domestic challenges comprise more of Agenda for the Nation. Contemporary American society confronts internal challenges with implications so far-reaching they deserve undivided attention here and now. Not the least of these is how to assure, first, that the limitless potential of modern medical science is realized and, second, that it is made available fairly and affordably to all Americans. In the final two articles, the first of which does not appear in Agenda for the Nation, William Haseltine, a leading scientist, biomedical entrepreneur, and Brookings trustee, and Victor Fuchs and Alan Garber address these questions.