Lit By Lighting
What has not America lost by her want of character with foreign nations and how many errors and follies would she not have avoided, if the justice and propriety of her measures had, in every instance, been previously tried by the light in which they would probably appear to the unbiased part of mankind?
—Federalist Paper #63
Politicians are fond of saying that we live in unprecedented times—as if the challenges of today are somehow greater and more important than those of the past. By definition, today's challenges have great consequence for tomorrow, but that has been true of every "today" going back to the beginning of time. What is different about our modern world is that the combination of weapons of incalculable destructive power and an interdependent global society mean that history will not be as forgiving of mistakes and foreign policy blunders as it has been in the past. There is little margin for error in a point-and-click world.
The stakes are higher—but what it takes to play and win remains the same: leadership, strength, and the willingness of our nation to work together with others for our common interests. Those interests, shared by all mankind, have not changed in ten thousand years. All people want peace, security, food on the table, a future for their children. Even though the twenty-first century's problems may look bigger or more challenging, I think we can take heart from our track record as a country. So far we have survived and, by and large, we have prospered. True, we never seem to solve one problem without creating another, but the point is we do solve them. Sometimes it is not without great pain and sacrifice, but we should never forget that no matter how difficult our current challenges may look, America has always risen above the greatest dangers and, in so doing, we have helped to build a better world.
Throughout history there have been nations that have been leaders. For the last one hundred years, America has filled that role. The strength of our economy, its tremendous productive capacity shaped by entrepreneurship, the openness of our political system, and the spirit of cooperation and citizenship among our people have brought us to a position of immense power and influence. Does this make us better than other countries? Probably not, but it does mean—given our overwhelming power—that today's challenges squarely confront this nation as they do no other.
I have always been fascinated with the historian Arnold Toynbee's theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. "Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor," he wrote as he considered the fate of the world's great civilizations. In other words, a civilization is like a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every great civilization has succeeded because it has organized the energies of its people to meet a challenge. For the ancient Babylonians the challenge was harnessing the power of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. For the church of the Middle Ages it was offering order to communities terrorized by chaos and anarchy. For sixteenth-century Spain it was tapping the seemingly inexhaustible riches of the New World. For America it was "e pluribus unum," creating one nation out of a melting pot of peoples.
Earlier civilizations declined because there came a time when they became complacent about their power and could no longer meet the challenges of the day. For example, the mighty Roman Empire fell apart when the legions it depended on for public order were "outsourced" to barbarian mercenaries. The traditions of service and sacrifice that defined Roman citizenship and led it to greatness disappeared as the citizens grew fat and happy on the spoils of empire. Rome was just one more case of a universal principle according to Toynbee: "Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder."
Challenge and response, rise and fall, these have been the unchanging laws of human history . . . so far. For if they were truly as constant and immutable as the speed of light or the pull of gravity, then I would not be talking from such a positive perspective about America's next chapter.
We Americans are not born better than those ancient empire builders. We probably have the same proportion of go-getters and, balancing the equation, the same proportion of laggards. What America has that is different is an open political, educational, and economic system that in the space of two centuries has time and again proved itself capable of generating ever-increasing amounts of wealth and ever greater opportunities for people to better their lives and those of their children.
The difference between America and the preeminent powers of the past is that our continued success is not at the expense of the rest of the world. The great scientific advances of the last sixty years have meant bigger markets, greater progress, and more prosperity and opportunities for more people everywhere. A wealthy and powerful China or India or Europe does not have to mean a corresponding decline in the quality of life for America. Instead, the advancement of other nations as they join the world's free-market community creates a rising tide that, for the most part, lifts us all. True, some jobs have moved overseas, but as I will argue in chapter fourteen those jobs, which were a heritage of an early industrial era, were always destined to leave. The challenge is to create new jobs to take their place.
Counterbalancing this story of progress are new, more global threats: Terror, religious extremism, nuclear proliferation, the scourge of new and virulent health pandemics, poverty and despair, and the specter of ecological collapse through climate change are not challenges that can be met and overcome through the imposition of one nation's will and unrivaled military power. What will be required are enhanced and strengthened multilateral relationships and institutions, expanded trade, and more cultural, educational, and scientific exchanges. In this way we can nurture those things that bring people together. This must be our twenty-first-century frame of reference: one that accepts, in fact demands, American leadership. But we can lead only to the extent that we are trusted and respected in the world—not feared. Our goal must be inspirational leadership, moral authority, and confidence that America's purpose is noble and that its interests are shared by the rest of humanity.