What Washington is Saying

By Lee Hamilton
Feb 12 2008

 If you're ever in Washington, there's no need to buy lunch. Come noontime, there are enough catered panel discussions, lectures and conferences to feed plenty of visitors.

But these meetings serve a purpose beyond nourishing their loyal participants. They can be one of the best places to look for the Washington zeitgeist — the issues on everyone's minds at a particular moment. And these days, whether you are talking to a Republican or a Democrat, a businessman or a diplomat, the same issues come up over and over again.

Every major discussion of U.S. foreign policy begins with China. Whether it's Beijing's double–digit economic growth, its increasing involvement in Africa, or even the symbolic importance of the Beijing Olympics, speculation about China's long–term trajectory is never far from anyone's mind.

And China's rise — and that of several other countries — is going to change a world order that has proved relatively stable since World War II. The question the participants are asking is: Are we witnessing the end of the Pax Americana?

They wonder about the impact on the global economy. There is greater competition from abroad. Trade and investment transcend borders like never before, and London and Hong Kong are emerging as global financial capitals, eroding New York's once–unrivaled status. These debates also are occurring amidst an economic downturn stoking fears of a prolonged decline in the U.S. economy.

Sovereign Wealth Funds — government–run investment funds operated by countries like China and Saudi Arabia — are quickly popping up on everyone's radar. A meeting a couple of weeks ago with the principal Chinese official who controls more than $200 billion of investment packed the room with Wall Street financiers. Does the massive infusion of foreign government–controlled capital into our markets undermine our economic system, or even our sovereignty?

It is no comfort that many of these funds belong to opaque regimes in the Middle East and Asia.

The participants wonder about our ability to deal with rising Social Security and Medicare costs, and some fear a rise in protectionism would further stifle our economy.

With no apparent ceiling on oil prices, the future security of our energy supply amid increasing demand for oil and gas in the developing world causes anxiety. And at our present consumption rates, the damage we are doing to our environment is severe. Confronting global warming is a growing concern even among those who were once skeptics of its existence. They ask: What are realistic alternative sources of energy and in which new technologies should we invest?

Participants invariably talk about their unease with the re–emergence of a more assertive Russia on the international stage, which will demand cooperation between Moscow and Washington on a host of issues.

Unease with our continued dependence on Middle Eastern oil has grown as U.S. policy in the region has gone astray. Our popularity in Arab countries has declined and our regional diplomacy has stagnated. The revival of the peace process should be applauded, but a daunting amount of work remains to be done from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.

None of the participants wants a nuclear Iran, and the suggested military alternatives to robust diplomacy leave much to be desired. Iraq inspires frustration with its continued human and financial costs, and many inquire about how our involvement there will end.

Terrorism remains a grave threat, but it seems to be getting less attention. Closer to home, calls for tough and visible measures to combat illegal immigration span the partisan divide, but questions of what to do with the 12 to 13 million illegal immigrants remain unanswered.

But even the most serious participants can't resist talking about the upcoming presidential election. There is recognition of the challenges ahead and a cry for leadership that will unite the country. There is an unspoken anxiety about unknown threats lurking beyond the horizon and whether or not we are equipped to handle them.

Washingtonians can't get enough talk of primaries and polling data around the water cooler. Who will win and in what direction will they lead the most powerful country in the world? As I think about these discussions in Washington, my guess is that they are not really all that different from the foreign policy concerns Hoosiers are talking about around the courthouse square.

 (Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)