In the absence of geopolitical leadership and stability, talented, experienced people outside of office can play a vital role
For all the best wishes for a Happy New Year we are sending each other, few of us are looking ahead to 2017 with much optimism.
Alliances are under strain. Pax Americana looks like a thing of the past. Civil wars most fuelled by outsiders are consuming the Middle East. Europe is facing a series of crises. And terrorists continue to wreak havoc wherever they can.
Meanwhile, markets will be driven up and down as much by Donald Trumps impulsive tweets as by economic reality. President Putin will continue to exploit signs of weakness or western disunity. China will react as China always does to perceived or real slights.
In the UK, Brexiters are still enjoying bayonetting the corpses of their opponents, but know that they too will have to face reality in 2017. Resolving the contradictions within the governments various positions, and preventing backbench revolts destroying its slim parliamentary majority, will be all-consuming.
Elsewhere in Europe, France and Germany will be consumed by their own elections while in Hungary and Poland respect for democracy and the rule of law is under threat.
So, at a time of worrying global instability, there is unlikely to be much focus on international affairs by what we used to call the free world and if that sounds like overreaction to the events of 2016, take a look at what the losing Republican governor of North Carolina just did to prevent his successor getting on with the job when he takes over in January.
But its precisely because governments are distracted or incapacitated that there is a role for non-state actors. America always has a wealth of talented people waiting in the wings, or in thinktanks, while a president of the opposing party occupies the White House. Out of office, they undertake specialist missions, sometimes solo and sometimes in bipartisan groups, to address the big foreign and security policy issues of the day.
Congress does the same thing, invariably obtaining high-level access for traveling congressional delegations (CoDels), as do the UK parliaments select committees.
The private channels established in this way can be of great value. The first two years of negotiations with Iran culminating in the 2015 nuclear deal, for example, were conducted below the radar by US officials and then senator, later secretary of state, John Kerry. For years, Track Two diplomacy of this kind has helped ensure that the US and Russian governments understand each other even when official relations are strained.
Today we have to confront uncertainty and unpredictability, fear, populist nationalism being whipped up and exploited by so-called strongmen, and the use of social media described in a recent Washington Post editorial as a neutral host body for parasitical insanity to spread fake facts. This would be a dangerous combination even if America was not in transition and other governments were capable of pulling together to manage the risks. But it is, and they arent.
Political figures could help too, though like the financiers whose greed brought the worlds financial system to its knees in 2008 and left others to pick up the tab, some might do better to keep their heads down and carry on making large sums on the lecture circuit. Here in Britain, a large minority continues to believe that calling and then losing the EU referendum last June was the greatest act of political irresponsibility of modern times.
The need for other players to help take the strain is clear enough. But it shouldnt be left to the United States. America has immense reserves of talent, but it also has baggage, like the other once Great Powers.
There are businessmen, academics, retired generals and former diplomats from many other countries with long experience and trusted relationships built up over many years who can and should come together, in a genuinely transatlantic or perhaps global way, with a view to looking strategically at the facts, assessing trends and risks, and warning the public and political leaders when danger lies ahead and how to avoid it.
Respected policy centers and thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic are beginning to think along these lines. Their work will be all the more valuable if governments come to realize how absorbed they are with their own domestic concerns and that they could do with a helping hand.