After a relapse into isolationism in the 1920s, rearmament for World War II delivered the country out of severe economic recession. Clark argued that U.S. involvement in these two world wars gave the American people a sense of national purpose that had been previously lacking.
However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the disappearance of a distinct U.S. national strategy based on opposition to an adversary.
The decade that followed saw the ascent of China, the beginning of financial instability at home and the emergence of widespread international terrorism, culminating in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The 2001 attacks defined a common anti-terrorism strategy for Americans, said Clark. However, he argued that America needs to define its national purpose apart from countering serious threats.
Specifically, he recommended an approach that President Dwight D. Eisenhower adopted during the 1950s. “The strategy was about pulling Americans together,” said Clark; it focused on confronting long-term threats without resorting to military action.
Eisenhower recognized that the real source of American power resided not in its military capacity, but in its economy and ability to produce and innovate. Clark argued that the post-World War II president unwittingly constructed a military industrial complex by passing the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which created research and development tax credits and funded technology investments for the defense community.
Drawing his inspiration from Eisenhower’s policies, Clark prescribed a new national strategy for America centered on economic development. He accordingly argued against cutting military spending, lobbying instead for funneling resources back into the armed forces. Clark contended that the United States must maintain its technological edge through military spending, while also growing its economy.
Five major challenges
According to Clark, the United States faces five central challenges: terrorism, cyber stability, the stability of the financial system, the ascent of China and climate change.
“Each one. . . is big enough to really impact the country,” warned Clark. “Together, they're as severe as the existential threat of the Soviet Union and Marxism-Leninism [were] more than a half century ago.”
These challenges are long-term problems that are not easily solved without the involvement of the private sector, the U.S. government and the international community.
It is difficult to address these issues today because America has reached what Clark called an “inflection point” — a point of momentous change at which it is unclear whether American influence will decline or ascend. This moment of uncertainty, Clark claimed, is due in part to the 2008 financial crisis, inadequate economic growth and an appearance of “fumbling” in world affairs.
“We've got high debt, we've got fractious politics and we’ve got people around the world who don't quite believe in the American dream the way they did a decade and a half ago,” said Clark. “So, we've got to deal with America first — or simultaneously — as we address [these] challenges.”
The key: Oil production
Clarke's solution for how to rebuild the U.S. economy? Energy production. “This country is sitting on an energy bonanza,” explained the speaker, “all it has to do is take it out of the ground.”
Instead, America spends three hundred billion dollars each year to import foreign oil. This money could allow the country to address education, healthcare and unemployment needs. “Most importantly,” added Clark, “you'd stop this horrible divisive partisan politics because you'd [pay] down the national debt.”
Enacting a carbon tax on domestically produced oil would also allow the United States to emerge as an energy exporter and global environmental leader.
“This twenty-first century could be America's century. If we focus on natural resources, use what we have, put the government to work with the private sector in the most constructive way and systematically deal with these five long-term challenges,” asserted Clark “we could. . . bring this country back together again.”
ISIS and the American response
In dealing with ISIS, Clark recommended a formula of air power, troops and a plan for post-conflict governance of the territory.
He warned, however, that putting the American troops on the ground would turn Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic extremist group, into an anti-American hero and fuel ISIS recruitment. Instead, Clark suggested that the United States provide air cover and military resources to the moderate Syrian opposition troops on the ground in northern Syria.
“Of course, it [will] mean war with Bashar Assad,” observed Clark, “[and] it'll be a fight to the finish.”