The Home Stretch – Is This a Great Country, Or What?

Once I left the Lincoln Boyhood National Monument in Indiana, I became progressively melancholic, for two reasons.

First, fatigue, both physical and mental, was setting in.  Due to the interlude in Liberia, I had compressed especially the return half of my journey, resulting in only a day off the handlebars from otherwise continuous riding since I had left California nearly two weeks prior.  At that breakneck pace, it was harder for me to keep up with this blog – something that I had decided to attempt only a few days before the start of the journey.  By this time, I had resigned myself to allowing greater time for qualitative reflection, taking the pressure off to gather my thoughts after the trip but surrendering the simultaneity of the experience – a “reality ride” for readers.  For those of you among the  disappointed, my apologies, as well as my thanks for hanging in there with me.

But life is full of tradeoffs, isn’t it?

The other reason for my mounting funk was the realization that this lifetime adventure was coming to an end.  As the last few hundred miles piled up on the odometer, I struggled to navigate between simply getting this over with and the desire to make the most of the last part and end the trip on a positive note.  Then there was the safety factor:  As with combat deployments, the most challenging and dangerous part can be the home stretch, because your mind is elsewhere and you’re tired.  Lack of attention to detail and situational awareness is the reason for most casualties.

Even hillbillies have a sense of humor. The sign on the barn in front reads: "Orlando Disney World Left Lane".

The scenery in Kentucky and West Virginia was nice, but not breathtaking.  There were no surprises.  West Virginia featured both the tawdry elegance of the hillbilly lifestyle, with trailers and cheap homes amidst wonderful Appalachian vistas, as well as the new, large and plush single family homes of the encroaching suburbs of the greater Washington area.  After leaving the hills of West Virginia, from Winchester, Route 50 continued through remarkably picturesque horse farms and colonial villages.  Yet, I took no pictures, as I had traveled these roads – and compared to the bigger experiences of the West, it was all becoming anticlimactic.  Somehow, it seemed the trip was already over.

The last 60 miles of the home stretch took more than two and a half hours, as traffic and traffic lights proliferated in 100-degree heat and humidity.  Twice I sought refuge in an air-conditioned convenience store and re-hydrated, conscientious I had survived heat stroke in Iraq.  The last stop was near the State Department, as the afternoon traffic jamming into the George Washington Parkway made the path of least resistance into the District, where I took another break to wait for the gridlock to sort itself out.

Welcome back.

When I finally eased the Wide Glide into the parking garage of my apartment building in Alexandria the evening of the first full day of summer, at the same spot where I started 49 days before, the trip odometer read a tenth of one mile short of 8,061.  For ten minutes, I stared at it, wondering what sense I would make of it all.  Rather than the two questions I started out with, only one loomed in my mind.

Is this a great country, or what?

Of course it is, and there’s no better way to gain comprehension of that than by going out and taking a look yourself.  You can read about this country, but until you’ve gone out and seen its immense richness, experienced its diversity, met some of its people, and traveled its roads, you haven’t experienced it.  As Goethe said:  “Go to foreign countries and you will get to know the good things one possesses at home.”  The detour to Liberia reinforced that.  However, I also had to take a look at what I had spent 20 of my last 30 years on away games helping to secure, and thus truly understand what I constantly tell other Americans – that most of them have no clue how lucky they are.  But that’s a conclusion each American must come to.  When John Steinbeck drove Rocinante around “a galaxy of states” in search of America the autumn of my birth year,  he also realized you can experience America only on a personal level, but because America in and of itself is a journey whose signposts are frontiers and whose destination is ultimately that of the world’s and therefore uncertain.

It is this uncertainly that plagues Americans more than anything else.  Americans are more worried than ever.  Sure, every generation seems to think the place, for one reason or another, is going to hell in a hand basket.  This time, however, it’s because they sense the country is in decline and that their way of life is changing for the worse.

Of course, America is in decline, at least in relative terms.  That’s to be expected, though, considering where the psychological point of reference is for most Americans – 1945, when “the greatest generation” had just won the greatest of wars, an anomaly in both scale and moral texture, leaving America as dominant in practically every measure of national power in a fairly predictable world, until 1989.  Even after the U.S. got rid of the Soviets, there was still no other place to go but down from the pedestal, because the world wouldn’t have it any other way.  Nature seeks balance, even in tumult, and the irregularity of a unipolar world would seek, as they say in the stock market, “correction”.

Many Americans are coming to grips, albeit not easily, with the fact that they are no longer clearly Number One – that the Chairman of the Board of Planetary Management may soon be unemployed (and that job too may be eliminated).  They increasingly realize they are less in control of things around them, because someone other than an American may have something to say about what Americans took for granted as sovereign decisions.  For many, that is a highly uncomfortable if not frightening thought.  Thus, an understandably natural response is to persist in denial and seek refuge in the “good old days”.  Even, for some, to be angry or throw a tea party.

The irony of America is that it has globalized the world but not itself.  9/11 and the Great Recession are seismic reminders of shifting tectonic plates in geopolitics – the end of America’s “splendid isolationism”, along with its dominance, in installments.

On the 11th of September 2001, two-thirds of my career was over.  The first ten years prior to that saw us all grappling with the sudden and unexpected end of the Cold War, searching for the next “Mr. X” and the big idea that would help us understand America and its place in the world while, by default, the United States became the world’s superpower.  So Americans had no sense of urgency about that conversation, even though things were changing more rapidly than realized – until then.

That evening, as the civil affairs team I led in an exercise in Germany stared in horror with scores of other dismissed soldiers at the science fiction like pictures of collapsing towers on the television in the dining hall, I filled a pregnant pause in the broadcast:  “Welcome to the 21st century.  The world has come to America; now America must come to the world.”  What I meant, however, was not with the clenched fist as much as the open hand.  It was our soft power that had ultimately defeated Soviet communism and cemented our alliances, and our hard power that underwrote it.  Instead, the U.S. went out like cowboys and cavalry looking for Indians.

Since 9/11, America and the world have been changing much more rapidly than the old paradigm’s ability to process it, compounding the anxiety brought on by the unintended consequences of our boundless reach for connectivity.  The world has become complex and interconnected, yet Americans still like their solutions simple and clear-cut.  They have yet to have that long-needed conversation.

My Political Science 101 instructor at New Mexico Military Institute noted that “true power is when you don’t have to care what anybody else thinks, says, or does”.  He was right.  When you’re at the top and have the (mis)fortune of American geohistory and a surplus mentality based on an abundance of natural, human, and financial resources, you can afford to be ignorant.  Now Americans can longer afford it, because of globalization and because, for perhaps the first time in its history, they will have to increasingly operate from the standpoint of resource scarcity and the need to compete head-on with others for those resources essential to maintaining its standard of living.  When one gentleman I met along the way told me he didn’t care about what was going on in Greece, I explained to him that he ought to because the contagion there could bring down the whole worldwide financial House that Jack Built.  And we were Jack.  (He didn’t get it.)

The relative decline of the United States has been well underway for some time, set in motion by forces Americans themselves largely unleashed and mainly through technology.  The U.S. has been, in many ways, an incompetent imperial power – because it really isn’t imperial and because it has also, as I like to say, “screwed up in reverse”.  Just as the U.S. (more than anyone else) put an end to the cycle of great powers and great wars in Europe predicated on nationalism, making what happened in the 20th century nearly unimaginable in this one, it introduced a global “system of systems” that has encumbered a dominant power.  During its tenure at the top, it acted as the fulcrum of the sway of the global economic center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific basin, changing the rules of international interaction along the way.  Yet, in many ways, contemporary Europe may be a model for international cooperation at the regional level.  What seems to be missing is a unifying concept with which individuals can identify that is the moral foundation, which is where America may come in.  Joseph Campbell was right – the organizing idea for a truly globalized and multicultural world is indeed the concept of the United States.

This is where Americans can take heart that they have much more to say whether their country is in real decline.  A good start is by knowing what you’ve got before trying to figure out what you might not have.  Play your strengths, then marginalize weaknesses.

As I recounted in Liberia, Americans are no better than anyone else, but they are luckier, beyond their geography and material treasures such as the national parks that preserve its “environmental power”.  While the United States still leads in many empirical measures, and while many of those advantages will be diminished regardless of the best efforts to maintain them, it will not be by these ways and means that the United States will most remain a leading nation when it is no longer dominant.

The foundation of America’s strength has always been moral.  Unlike most countries, America is about an idea, not a human category.   That idea of individual freedom is simple and universal, especially in its American format.  (Or, again to quote Goethe:  “Common sense is the genius of humanity.”)  In short: national values.  Values are what define national interests, which inform policy and strategy, which shape operational doctrine, which provide guidance to tactical decisions and individual actions.  At least that’s what I learned at the Army War College.

America’s values are what make the United States the exceptional, if not the indispensable, “nation-of-nations”.  This, more than anything else, is its enduring trump card – if the country carefully maintains it.  Beyond personal freedom, American national values are codified in three words, another simple yet sophisticated inspiration:  e pluribus unum, the unique amalgamation of both an immigration and assimilation culture, underwritten by the American ideal.  Even if China were to have twice America’s gross national product, it will never be able to pirate this societal code that has allure beyond shores and permeates America’s ability to constantly re-invent itself, its economic comparative advantage of innovation, or even its military as the largest, most successful multicultural institution in the world.  It is what differentiates “quality of life” from “standard of living”.  That doesn’t mean that America’s moral power has no competitors, or that other forms of power will no longer count, but if it nurtures it, the United States in this respect can have no peer.

It is this kind of American exceptionalism that will maintain America’s moral leadership in the world – not the kind that says it can set the rules that govern global interaction and then not have to follow them because it is somehow “special”.  Arrogance, after all, is a substitute for confidence, for which humility is its most sublime expression.

There are two ways to foster this moral power – and they begin at home.  One is that Americans renew their commitment to civility, treating others with respect, exercising more tolerance, and reinforcing its democratic societal values.  (More public opinion leaders could certainly help out here.)  The other is to learn more about civics and history, so that Americans better understand the founding principles that govern the relationship between the individual and the state and the society at large – responsibilities as well as rights.  Freedom, indeed, is not free and not everything is an entitlement as it is an earned privilege.  Serving your country is more about being a good citizen than donning a uniform.

And why history?  Because it helps us think more strategically, take the longer view, see the bigger picture, and thus help us to contextualize and process the overwhelming information battering us each day.  How can you know where you are or where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been?

It’s also time to hit the “refresh” button on the social contract in America and the relationship between the individual and the state.  Americans say they hate all the mud-slinging in Washington and the media and want better leadership, but they respond to negative messaging more than any other form.  It’s also hard to get good governance on behalf of a people who don’t show up at the polls, don’t want to pay taxes, want to keep their entitlements, and still want to reduce the national debt.  The Project on National Security Reform has it right:  It takes a nation to fix a government.

Americans can’t have it all, and they and their elected leaders can no longer afford their outsize self-indulgence.  While change must happen at the grass roots – another inherent strength of America being the democratic process of change from the bottom up more than the top down – the government’s role, for example, in education reform, is thus critical.  Steinbeck’s discussion of the presidency (and I would add, Congress) as being mostly about moral leadership, particularly in extraordinary times, is a relevant as ever.  As with most important questions of policy in America, it’s not either/or, but both.

By doing these things, the United States will become more of the country its worst enemies hate (but can’t compete with morally) and marginalize its greatest critics who assert that it doesn’t practice what it preaches.  Re-establishing moral credibility will also prevent the U.S. from diplomatic marginalization when more tangible means of power become less feasible – as long as U.S. policies reflect its national values as much as possible and are just as consistently explained and communicated.  Despite its reputation for Madison Avenue and Hollywood, however, “public diplomacy”  and “strategic communications” have not been hallmarks of American foreign policy.

Another major comparative advantage of the United States has been in what the Project on National Security Reform calls “human capital”, again with respect to national security but also in a larger sense.  Americans are still among the most productive and innovative people in the world.  Unfortunately, they have less and less the cognitive tools to compete with the rising rest.  In a word:  education, which can no longer be seen as a cost but an investment, as much in political vibrancy through renewed emphasis on what used to be called a “classical education” as in economic competitiveness through math, science, and technology.  America must generate creative as well as critical thinkers – artists as well as builders.  The good news is that much of the answer to the problem is in organization and approach, not in fiscal resources – as with health care, the United States practically outspends the rest of the word person for person on education, yet sees diminishing results.  Like many large and complex challenges, it’s more a matter of will than wallet.

That will not be easy.  Beyond mass denial, there are other obstacles to a more managed approach to America’s transformation to a multipolar, globalized world, albeit more in the American span of control.  They are again mostly psychological, but history gives other clues.  Consider this:  Since about the War of 1812, the American people did not have to care much about the rest of the world – they could afford to be ignorant; since 1865, the U.S. has won its wars, deterred its adversaries, and assured its allies through overwhelming industrial and technological superiority predicated on an abundance of cheap resources, cheap labor, cheap energy, and cheap capital – it could afford to be wasteful; and since 1945, it has been clearly the dominant power in the world – it could afford its 19th century view of sovereignty while everyone else became more internationalist.  All of those things have been coming to an end, converging in this first half of the nation’s third century and serving as the undercurrent to America’s emerging mid-life crisis.

Not having to care much about anything than the here and now also goes far to explain the mentality of my Australian friend’s “galloping consumption” and the expectation that the socioeconomic curve would always generally go up.  Thus, at all levels, Americans have increasingly lived beyond their means and asked their government to do more and more, its politics involving less and less of what the 41st President called “the vision thing” and lurching instead from crisis to crisis.  If Americans want to be more control of their destinies, they have to do a better job of keeping the big picture and the long view in mind in order to manage their expectations – and the most important way is to become a society that saves more and consumes less.

As anywhere, in West Virgina, one person's junk is another's treasure. This arrangenent if old rail cars, tractors, and other farm equipment looks like a sculpture garden.

Consumers think of the present, want instant gratification, and worry only about what’s in front of them; savers think both bigger and longer, i.e., more strategically.  Books more than bumper stickers.  They become more interested in what’s going on in the larger, more globalized world that affects them.  Thinking versus reacting.  If there’s one thing the government can do, it can introduce both financial and regulatory incentives that, at all levels, create more balance between consumption and savings and investment.  Get our businesses (and their shareholders) to go beyond the quarterly profit-and-loss statements so that they (and the country at large) can compete better in the global economy.

Despite the onward march of connectivity for which the U.S. has been the world’s engine, it’s become harder than ever to think globally and act locally, whether in national security or even economic life.  Instant communication and information overload, its latest manifestations in the Blackberry and the I-Pad, along with 24/7 media have flattened decision cycles.  Because there seems to be little time to process all this information (and Americans have less the cognitive skills to do that), as with their food, Americans now find it more convenient to have their news and information, like their food, processed.

But the greatest of all obstacles is America’s growing and paralyzing angst:  We have met the enemy and he is fear.  For a country whose founders and greatest personalities displayed remarkable moral courage and foresight, the United States, whether at home or abroad, has become a status quo country – more afraid of the future and nostalgic, perhaps in part because of its aging population.  At home, reform of any kind is nearly impossible because too many people have a vested interest in keeping things as they are.  Its foreign policy, in turn, is driven by an obsession with security over strategy, looking for “bad guys”, and preserving U.S. preeminence.  Many of my friends and colleagues from abroad tell me, whenever they have visited the United States in the past few years, they see a country less optimistic and more anxious – less characteristically American.

America cannot long remain the land of the free if it is no longer the home of the brave.

Feeling similarly overwhelmed and in need of perspective, as the civil-military and public affairs officer of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a job I held as young captain with a small staff with responsibilities equating to those of two senior majors on the staff of division headquarters, I drew and hung a cartoon on my office wall that read:  “You can eat an elephant a bite at a time; but, you cannot eat a whole herd of elephants a bite at a time.”  As a civil affairs officer later on, that became understanding that managing expectations is the first order of business, and to do a few things well rather than many things halfway.   It took the United States a few generations to descend into its emerging predicament; it will take some time to get out of it.  But you have to start sometime and somewhere, and today and where you are is just as good a place as any.

One of the reasons I joined the Project on National Security Reform is that it takes this sober, long-term approach to a central issues than will determine the fate of the United States in the 21st century – revising the national security system to more effectively position the United States to maintain its leadership role in the world and secure its way of life while more effectively using precious resources, as “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-nation”.  By doing so, it believes this can help lead to better and more effective government generally.  The margins of error are too narrow, the stakes and consequences too high, and the opportunities too great to keep doing business any other way.

I decided to contribute to that cause not just because of its gravity, but because I feel that I was fortunate enough to have led the kind of career, in my first 30 years, that gave me insights that should be more commonplace among our national security professionals and, indeed, many Americans in general in the next 30 years.  I have taken many journeys and will no doubt take many more – and the thing I have learned more than any other is not to fear the journey because I am not sure of its outcome.

If past is indeed prologue, then Americans should have little to fear than their own unwillingness to embrace and navigate this future.  We fear what we do not know, so we must learn more about ourselves through knowing more about the world around us – real connectivity.  The ultimate frontier is internal.  And that entails a journey, for each and all of us, as Joseph Campbell advised:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone.  For the heroes of all time have gone before us.  The labyrinth is thoroughly known.  We have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.  And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god.  And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves.  And where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence.  And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Get out and ride.

After walking the labryinth in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. It was fascinating that, while I seemed to be walking it randomly, it turned out to have an order and symmetry in the end. I don't know about you, but that's how a lot of things in my life have worked out.

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One Response to The Home Stretch – Is This a Great Country, Or What?

  1. Lisa P says:

    Thank you for sharing. Can we get this in every class (define as you wish) across the country? Beautifully expressed, passionately felt, lovingly agree. It’s up to us to make a new statement — “What’s past is IMPROVED prologue.”

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