I usually try to keep my blog posts short. Today I have failed in this endeavor but urge you to please read through to the end of this important post. The current issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine features an excerpt from Leslie Gelb's new book, Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. This essay is exceptionally good, and, in my view, Gelb's thesis should be applied to all forms of statecraft and to promote the resolution of both newly emerging and long stagnating public policy debates.
Gelb accurately diagnoses the "weakening fundamentals of the United States. First among them is that the country's economy, infrastructure, public schools, and political system have been allowed to deteriorate. The result has been diminished economic strength, a less vital democracy, and a mediocrity of spirit."
Several paragraphs in this powerful essay deserve highlighting:
"The bases of the United States' international power are the country's economic competitiveness and its political cohesion, and there should be little doubt at this point that both are in decline. Many acknowledge and lament faltering parts here and there, but they avoid a frontal stare at the deteriorating whole. It is too depressing to do so, too much for most people to bear. … The United States is now the biggest debtor nation in history, and no nation with a massive debt has ever remained a great power. Its heavy industry has largely disappeared, having moved to foreign competitors, which has cut deeply into its ability to be independent in times of peril. Its public-school students trail their peers in other industrialized countries in math and science. They cannot compete in the global economy. Generations of adult Americans, shockingly, read at a grade-school level and know almost no history, not to mention no geography. They are simply not being educated to become the guardians of a democracy.
These signals of decline have not inspired politicians to put the national good above partisan interests or problem solving above scoring points. Republicans act like rabid attack dogs in and out of power and treat facts like trash. Democrats seem to lack the decisiveness, clarity of vision, and toughness necessary to govern. This tableau of domestic political stalemate begs for new leadership. The nation that not so long ago outproduced the rest of the world in arms and consumer goods, the nation lionized and envied for its innovation, can-do spirit, and capacity to accomplish economic miracles, has become overwhelmed by the tasks it once performed competently and with relative ease."
This is the most succinct and gut-wrenching summary of our national predicament that I have read. Gelb puts his finger directly on the jugular vein of America's innovation ecosystem and diagnoses the multiple layers of dysfunction that have launched our country into such a deep crisis. I share his fear of a new global reality developing along the following lines:
"The real danger in this universe of primitivism and plenty is not new wars or explosions among major states, or a world war, or even a nuclear war. It is the specter of nations drowning in a flood of terrorism, tribal and religious hatred, lawlessness, poverty, disease, environmental calamities, and governmental incompetence. Many nations are going under because they are simply unable to cope, and they will drag others down with them."
Gelb closes this essay with an impassioned plea for action, and most important, he retains a strong sense of hope and pride in our country:
"Every great nation or empire ultimately rots from within. One can already see the United States, that precious guarantor of liberty and security, beginning to decline in its leadership, institutions, and physical and human infrastructure, heading on the path to becoming just another great power, a nation barely worth fearing or following. It is time to send up flares signaling that the United States is losing its way and its power, that it is in trouble. But it is even more important to reaffirm the belief that the United States is worth fighting for both across the oceans and at home. There should be no doubt that the United States, alone among nations, can provide the leadership to solve the problems that will otherwise engulf the world. And for all the country's faults, there should be no doubt that it remains the last best chance to create equal opportunity, hope, and freedom. But to restore all that is good and special about the United States, to rescue its power to solve problems, will require something that has not happened in a long time: that pragmatists, realists, and moderates unite and fight for their country."
I've been sending out flares to other realistic moderate pragmatists on this and other topics that demand a "common sense" approach for years. Through groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institute's Socrates Society, the Working Group on Director Accountability and Board Effectiveness, and, most recently, the Security Innovation Network, I have joined and helped forge communities of interest bound together by empowered individuals who are thoughtful and constructive agents of change. As Gelb points out, we have a lot of wood to cut, but I remain energized and, most importantly, hopeful that we can make a difference because we have to. Given where America stands today, fomenting pragmatic and realistic change is not an option, it is a requirement.