The American Century – What Should It Mean To Be No. 1?

by George Kennedy on October 16, 2011


The American Century What Should It Mean To Be  1 The Sunday Review section of the NYT (Oct. 9, 2011, page 1) included a thought-provoking opinion piece by David Rothkopf “Redefining The Meaning of No. 1.” I thought Rothkopf raised several critical considerations regarding what it means to be No. 1 again and I felt compelled to reference his piece in my last blog post. I then set the article aside.

Around that time, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered a foreign policy address in which he spoke of the 21st century as the American Century. As President, he said, to give definition to this concept, he would also strengthen our armed forces by an additional 100,000 troops. That undoubtedly resonated well with conservatives but I do wonder about its salience to the average voter.

I saw a connection between Rothkopf’s article and part of Romney’s comments because each addressed America’s future. If there is a topic of conversation that galvanizes public opinion today, it is the future or the lack of faith in a future that inspires hope.

When I think of the myriad ways we could give meaning to the idea of an American Century, or reclaiming the mantle of No. 1, adding another 100,000 troops to our overall troop strength during a time of economic turmoil did not rank in my top three or four priorities. For Romney, it did and that is instructive with regard to his policy priorities as a presidential candidate.

Rothkopf’s opinion piece is germane to today’s public discourse about national priorities because, while it does not make specific reference to an American Century, he does question what our national priorities are. “Here in America”, he wrote, “We seem to be more interested in finishing first than we are figuring out what race we ought to be in.”

The President and others urge us on “to build or educate or invest or cut the deficit so that ‘America can be No. 1 again.’” Rothkopf then asks the question we should ask the Republican presidential candidates and our current crop of elected officials: “we want to be No. 1 – but why, and at what?” How would they give greater meaning to our national identity? The convenient sound bite for a response is “American Exceptionalism.”

I would argue we are beyond the tidiness of a bumper sticker slogan that may have less meaning today.

We are 65 years beyond WW11, 60 years beyond the Korean War, and 35 years beyond the Vietnam War. To the generations that fought in those wars and their survivors, “American Exceptionalism” and the defense of liberty summoned them to arms; it was why we fought. In two of those wars, these twin ideals gave meaning to our victories.

The greatest generation returned home to build a free, civilized society; the world’s greatest economy, a manufacturing base of extraordinary capability, and a middle class without parallel in human history. Veterans of two successive wars picked up that mantle and continued the tradition while giving us an American century.

Arguably, this is not the America confronting the second decade of the 21st century. Individual freedoms are in jeopardy and the unlimited opportunities that fulfilled the dreams of countless waves of new entrants to the economy are now a relic of the past.

Are there other measures of national success, American greatness we might aspire to today? Were we not the society to emulate since the end of WW11? Is this not a conversation worth having? We packaged and marketed “American Exceptionalism” and sold it like War Bonds of WW11 and the world lined up behind our leadership for over 60 years.

This is 2011 and, in spite of the failures of American leadership over the last decade, I do not feel there is a universally accepted substitute for the leadership we provided. However, I do feel the American model needs an overhaul – especially on the role of government to ensure social well-being. In many respects, the rest of the world has caught up to us “when it comes to things that matter more to people” and no longer accepts being “framed in our rear-view mirror.”

Granted, it might be disconcerting to conservatives – and perhaps others – that we are seen as partners and, on quality of life issues, we are no more than a new student; not a particularly eager one, I might add. As we have learned, other societies (friend and foe) are ready, willing, and able to say “No” when we come calling.

Again, by what metric will we measure our success in making this the “American Century?” From whom will we seek validation? I raise the question because inherent in the concept of an “American Century” is the notion that, here at home, there will be supporters. Ours is an intensely polarized society, not a precondition for what may lie ahead. Here at home, there is the insulated and financially fortified 1-percent.

Then there are the millions of unemployed, those without healthcare, a devastated middle class, the elderly, the poor, minority populations, the millions of soon-to-be-disenfranchised, and a metastasizing cohort of college-educated unemployed. And this is just within our territorial borders. What foreign partners will respect us enough to validate this new “American Century”? The new generation that brought us the “Arab Spring?”

Good luck with that, especially if we revert to the muscular, bellicose, militant “you’re either with us or you’re against us” rhetoric that was the hallark of the recent Bush administration. Although President Obama eschews the swagger and frontier language of his predecessor, he is no less militarily adventurous. On this front, there was a seamless extension of Bush policy.

Rothkopf writes “choosing metrics to measure our society is not a value-free process. As a country we have consistently relied on indicators that keep us focussed on the interests of business, financial institutions or the defense industry whereas equity, quality of life and even social mobility metrics are played down.”

A vibrant economy is the bedrock upon which we survive as people, but, is that it?…along with a rapacious Wall Street that is socially worthless, defense R&D that produces ever more costly military technology with few civilian applications, more wounded and surviving veterans from our current conflicts with inadequate employment prospects and a lifetime association with their local VA hospital, and once the world’s most envied middle class now economically devastated.

Our elected leaders – and those who aspire to join their ranks – should wrap their considerable intellectual mass around what it means to them to again be No.1 and let us in on the plan. A bill to construct this new American Century is inevitably attached and we already know the expense will not be shared, and certainly not the benefits. We will elect someone in 2012 that will chart this nation’s course for a minimum of 4 years and in the process will also mortgage the future for generations unborn.

The goals he establishes will define us as a people with the concomitant impact on our lives and ramifications unforeseen. If we choose to flout our G.D.P. as the prime metric, we are less credible for reasons many of the protestors on Wall Street can cite from their graduate theses, the multiple jobs they work to survive, and hopes that will not die for a more equitable and civilized society.

Conservatives are deaf and dumb to wealth distribution but the lack of it leaves this country hollow at the core. Carol Graham, the author of a recent book called “The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well Being”, (cited in the Rothkopf article) is one voice among others “who suggest the time has come to rethink how we measure our performance and how we set our goals.”

I believe Americans will always take considerable pride in their identity because, heretofore, they could live what it meant to be an American. Yes, they could be boorish on occasion, but their pride, their sense of “specialness” meant they were reliable economic partners and, when called upon, were prepared to forfeit their lives in defense of freedom – if necessary. Over the last 30 years, our leadership destroyed the collective American persona and in the process weakened America’s soul.

By what standards will we reclaim the mantle of No. 1?

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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