Building Another American Century
We’re more than halfway through the first decade of the new century and everywhere we look are challenges beyond anything most envisioned at the close of the prosperous and comparatively peaceful 1990s.
Open the newspaper, log on to the Internet or turn on the television and the news isn’t good. Even the optimist has to admit that the challenges facing us in the new millennium are as great as any we’ve ever faced.
If the 20th century was the “American Century,” what will the future hold for us? We can learn a lot by first quickly looking to the past.
In May thousands will gather at Jamestown, Va., to celebrate the anniversary of the first permanent British settlement in the new world. In the four centuries since the initial colonists stepped off the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, America has changed the world time and time again.
The era of colonization in the 1600s gave way to a century in which Americans charted a new direction for themselves and many millions to come both here and abroad with revolution, independence and the concepts of modern democracy and liberty.
In the 1800s we witnessed exploration, growth and expansion. Our borders reached the Pacific Ocean and we looked beyond our shores to tap new markets and form new partnerships. We survived a horrific civil war that would have been a death blow for lesser nations and we rebounded and entered the 1900s stronger than ever – and the world hadn’t seen anything yet.
Over the last 100-plus years, we’ve put men in flight, developed the automobile and modern mass communications, cured diseases, changed the way people live and interact and vanquished three brutal superpowers to the trash bin of history. We put men on the moon, overcame social unrest and have emerged as the most powerful military and economic force the world has ever known.
At the dawn of the 20th century, America was a second-tier power. As the sun set on the 1900s we were the sole surviving super power and a bright beacon of hope and liberty for people around the world. To quote Ronald Reagan: “All in all, not bad, not bad at all.”
The cynic will tell you there’s only one way to go at this point: down. He’ll tell you we’ve done all we can and tomorrow will be worse than today. He’ll tell you the challenges we face are insurmountable and that in a shades-of-gray world America can’t replicate the great successes of decades and centuries past.
But he’s wrong.
There are certainly daunting challenges before us, but there are also numerous possibilities and many great dreams to fulfill. There’s so much more to do. American exceptionalism is not dead and will not die if we’re willing to work to perpetuate it.
Over the balance of this century, America won’t be defined by settling new territory or toppling evil empires. We’ll live or die by our ability to navigate a dangerously complex world; grapple with serious problems on the home front; and provide moral, political and economic leadership on issues of global importance. It will not be easy, but we can be comforted by the knowledge that helped carry past generations through difficult times: America’s best days are yet to come.
War and Freedom
After more than four years of bloodshed in Iraq, it’s time to accept the limits of our military power. We can decimate any army and defeat any enemy, but we cannot implement our way of life in distant lands at the tip of a sword.
The Iraq War is quickly becoming one of the greatest blunders in American history. We’ve lost more than 3,200 of our bravest soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in someone else’s civil war. Among our stated pre-war goals was spreading freedom to an undemocratic region. While Iraq has had elections, it’s hardly the poster-child for western-style democracy – and the sad truth is Iraq will not magically become a proper, pluralistic, democratic country.
It doesn’t matter whether we stay or leave. Substantive, lasting change must come from within. We can topple a thuggish dictator, but we cannot force those who have never known real liberty to accept it and embrace the responsibility that comes along with it. Ultimately Iraq will succeed or fail on its own.
We know this is true. When one looks at President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” the greatest successes aren’t in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but instead former Soviet republics like Georgia and the Ukraine, where the American government lent political and diplomatic support to those fighting for free and fair elections. Today, after more than a decade of post-Soviet chaos, Georgia and the Ukraine are building the institutions of democracy and we didn’t have to fire a shot or even deploy a single troop. While they’re a long way from the advanced democracies of the Western world, they are moving in the right direction, at their own pace and with their own leaders.
The terrorist attacks of that terrible September morning more than five years ago jarred us from a period of quasi-isolationism. No longer can two great oceans and a massive and powerful military protect us from foreign threats. While we must step up homeland security measures and vigorously pursue the global terrorist networks that seek to destroy the civilized world, we must do so in a responsible manner.
We cannot shun the international community. Terrorism isn’t just an American or Israeli problem. It’s a horror that has confronted the entire world. It will require international cooperation to defeat the new threats facing all of us.
We must work with bodies like the United Nations to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cut the flow of money to groups like al-Qaeda. And we must remain open to dialogue with our enemies, as well. Just as we talked with the Soviet Union during the darkest days of the Cold War, we must also have a free flow of communications with state sponsors of terrorism, like Iran and Syria, and weapons of mass destruction proliferators like North Korea.
Ending the threat posed by international terrorism will also require us to re-center our moral compass. We cannot on one hand speak out against injustices the world over, while on the other hand stand idly by while so-called friendly regimes like Saudi Arabia oppress their people, export violent Islamic philosophies and produce a new generation of anti-American radicals.
Of course we cannot start holding all countries to equal standards until we change the way we live at home. And we can’t defeat the great evil facing us as long as we’re funding both sides of the war on terrorism.
Oil Politics and the Environment
Our reliance on foreign oil is a crisis that directly affects our national security. We cannot hold to account countries like Saudi Arabia when we depend on them for the life-blood of our economy.
Even countries like Iran, which we don’t do business with, benefit from our oil consumption. It’s basic supply and demand. We consume massive amounts of oil and the price goes up worldwide – all producers benefit, even if their product never makes it to a Shell station near you.
If not for its oil reserves and our dependence on them, the Middle East would be a forgotten region, forced to either modernize and liberalize or crumble and perish. Regardless of what one believes about the Iraq War, it’s an indisputable fact that we wouldn’t be so dangerously involved in the Middle East if we didn’t need the oil buried under its desert sand.
We must adopt “man on the moon” urgency in alternative energy research and development. Ethanol, biodiesel and related products are clean, renewable and can be produced here. We wouldn’t allow our food supply to be held hostage by foreign interests, yet our energy policy is almost entirely predicated on the whims of friendly countries like Canada and less-friendly regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Just because this has been the case for 70-plus years doesn’t make it right.
The burning of fossil fuels is also poisoning our environment. The consensus of the scientific community is “inconvenient” and inescapable: global warming is real and its chief cause is increased emissions of carbon dioxide.
Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen warmer temperatures, shorter winters, glacial melting and an increase in diseases like malaria.
The United States must ratify the Kyoto Protocol and work with the international community on beyond-Kyoto measures. Today we’re the leading polluter, but as China and India, home to 2.3 billion of the world’s 6.5 billion inhabitants, move from bicycle-driven societies to automobile-powered economies, the global climate situation will only get worse unless we assume a real leadership role.
Finally, developing a post-oil source of energy will be a boon for America’s economy. When you fill up your tank, would you rather be creating an American job or a Saudi job?
Farmers in the Midwest are enjoying a windfall from corn ethanol. Maybe that’s the wave of the future, maybe it isn’t. Either way, we have to press ahead on the research and development front. This is not a time for timidity. The country that controls the world’s energy supply in the 21st century will be in a good position to take the wheel – no pun intended – when it comes to the global economy. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be us.
Poverty, Education and the World
Today 37 million Americans live in poverty. The largest group in the dreary figure is children under the age of 18. In the wealthiest country in the world, this is simply unacceptable.
While some poverty is inevitable, a 12.6 percent poverty rate – and 17.6 percent for children – in the United States isn’t.
Since 1960, we’ve nearly cut the poverty rate in half, but since 2000 it has remained relatively stable. While it could be worse, it should be better.
To win the “war on poverty” President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated more than 40 years ago, we have to build on past successes and develop new solutions for the 21st century.
For many millions of people poverty has become a way of life, an unbreakable cycle. Reform movements have cleared welfare rolls, but haven’t beaten back poverty. To do so today will require investment in people and results.
It’s one thing to say “no child left behind,” but it’s another to adopt education policies that actually leave no child behind. For many children living in poverty, school is the only refuge from a difficult life and education is the only option for a better future. We need reform that empowers states and local governments to react to the needs of their communities.
For some schools this may mean extra pay to attract good teachers. For others it can mean more money for after-school activities. Some might need extra programs to help parents become better involved in their children’s education. The best results will come not from federal mandates, but from federal support for local programs that work. This isn’t throwing money at a problem and calling it a solution, it’s supporting programs that produce results.
Education is perhaps the best investment any government can make. Good schools can break the cycle of poverty. Educated children become adults who rebuild communities. Strong communities will in turn produce an empowered generation of children and the cycle of poverty is broken and a culture of hope and opportunity is born.
Poverty is also a global problem. Nearly 3 billion people worldwide live on less than $2 a day and half the world’s 2.2 billion children live in poverty.
While there’s a moral imperative to fight global poverty, there are also economic and national security motives to consider as well.
As people move out of poverty they become producers and consumers, creating jobs and perpetuating trade. And where poverty is defeated, breeding grounds for extremism are eliminated. Terrorists don’t win converts with logical arguments. They prey on the hopeless, providing a sense of worth to people who previously had none.
Rather than helping people fix their problems, terrorists tell people who to blame and the answer, more often than not, is us.
While America is often the target of scorn, we’re also the ones who can do the most to advance solutions. We can provide the political, moral and economic leadership to make region- and continent-wide poverty a thing of the past.
By addressing poverty at home we create a stronger country. By addressing poverty abroad, we create a more prosperous, hopeful and secure world, fulfilling the words of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone: “We all do better when we all do better.”
While one can’t be blamed for looking at America and the world today and saying all hope is lost, we can overcome again. But it’s going to take courage to confront the challenges ahead and it’s going to require a new approach.
We have to get beyond the news-cycle-to-news-cycle thinking that has poisoned American politics. We have to advance beyond a culture of fear and to an era of constructive consensus and results-oriented solutions. And we have to move beyond a mindset that says all good solutions should fit on a bumper sticker. The world is way too complicated for that and the American people are too smart for that.
Late in their respective lives, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “My friend, you and I have lived in serious times.”
Adams was right. He and Jefferson were in Philadelphia for the Declaration of Independence, they were in Europe as diplomats during the Revolutionary War and after the war they played leading roles as statesmen in the newly independent United States.
They stared down great crises, developed strong solutions and lived to see a better, stronger and freer America.
Today, more than 180 years after Jefferson and Adams both died on July 4, 1826, we live in serious times of our own.
Whereas they waged a war for independence and developed a political process to help keep the peace and increase prosperity, we struggle to remain strong amid a complicated, dangerous and increasingly interconnected global community.
The only question is whether we will look back in 50 years and lament missed opportunities and failures of vision and initiative, or will we, like Jefferson and Adams, be basking in our successes, relatively pleased with the world we left to the next generation?
Americans are once again being called to greatness. Will we answer? Will we build another American century?
We can – and we must. We have never failed and this is not a good time to start.
Christopher Truscott can be reached at email@example.com. He’s reading a good book about Franklin Pierce, a president who didn’t rise to confront the challenges facing America in the years before the Civil War.