Strategy is all about setting priorities: Deciding which problems merit the most attention and allocating the right level of resources to each challenge. It is about not letting the urgent overwhelm the important, and not getting blown off course by random events or unexpected surprises. Whether we are talking about a country's overall policy menu, a corporate business plan, or a military engagement, success requires first identifying what really matters.
So when I read James Hansen's op-ed about climate change yesterday, my first thought was: "Boy, do we have our priorities screwed up." Here in America, we spend endless hours arguing and debating trivialities, like who is going to get to run Afghanistan (a country whose entire GDP is about one-third the size of the municipal budget for New York City). We turn issues of personal freedom and preference (like marrying whomever you want) into Grand Moral Challenges. We kvetch about a single blind dissident in China, and work ourselves into a lather over not-very-powerful countries like Iran that pose no serious threat to any vital U.S. interests. Like a paranoid nation of sheep, we accept an increasingly onerous set of security restrictions in a futile attempt to drive the probability of a terrorist attack on an airliner down to absolute zero, no matter what the cost or the inconvenience. (And some people now think the current level of TSA madness isn't enough!)
Meanwhile , we merrily go about finding new sources of hydrocarbon-based energy -- like Canada's tar sands -- and get excited about the possibility that "fracking" will free us from dependence on "foreign oil" and allow us to keep using energy at our current profligate levels. Instead of orchestrating a gradual increase in the cost of hydrocarbon-based fuels -- to discourage consumption -- politicians search instead for ways to keep the cost low (and our SUVs running).
If Hansen is right -- and his track record is pretty good -- this behavior is utterly myopic. I'm not saying that we shouldn't devote some attention to other issues -- and if you're been reading this blog, you know that I'm as guilty as everyone else of doing just that -- but I wonder how much of Barack Obama's time and attention has been spent thinking about what his administration could do to advance a sensible agenda of long-term environmental protection, as opposed to the time he's spent on things that basically won't matter a damn in a few years. Remember that big climate-change summit back in 2009? Haven't heard much about that agenda lately, have you?
When historians of the 22nd century look back on our era, I suspect we'll take a lot of heat (sorry for the pun) both for what we did, but also for what we failed to do. Especially if a lot of places that are dry land today are under water. The only good news: China and its various Southeast Asian neighbors won't be squabbling over all those bits of rock in the South China Sea that are barely above sea level now.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.