Saturday, January 03, 2009

Future Dominance

Neil Howe and Richard Jackson write in the Washington Post that
All told, population trends point inexorably toward a more dominant U.S. role in a world that will need us more, not less. ...In 1950, six of the top 12 [most populous countries] were developed countries. In 2000, only three were. By 2050, only one developed country will remain -- the United States, still in third place. By then, it will be the only country among the top 12 with a historical commitment to democracy, free markets and civil liberties.

Their premise is a scary one: exploding population in the Third World overwhelming Western values and ideals held dear by aging societies no longer able to defend those values. Only one nation may survive--the United States. It certainly sounds like a cry for help that only America can provide.

The authors' facts sound impeccable. they marshal sociological studies of violence,crime and demographic trends. They project population changes and offer data on fertility and birth rates. I'm not in a position to verify or dispute the facts but they certainly sound true based on what I do know about demographics and economics.

What doesn't sound impeccable to me is the sense of mission that the authors impart. I certainly believe that America has a unique role in history as the incubator of popular democracy. I further believe that, as a nation we have an obligation to share our wealth--financial and intellectual--with the world. That much of the authors' mission makes sense. In fact, only three words--"more dominant rol"--give me pause. What I hear in those three words is "Forget any idea that America can retreat into isolationist safety. America must become more dominant if Western civilization is to survive." In the world of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where the authors are research analysts, dominance equals force. The CSIS board is a pantheon of American hawks, intellectual home of the National Security State. When I hear "more dominant role" from that quarter, I expect missiles to fly and bombs to fall.

Since I don't dispute the authors' facts, what is my answer to the dire future they predict? First off, I would not assume that American military power can change the demographic or economic trends that give rise to the poverty,instability and violence. Second, I would not assume that the rest of the world will welcome a "more dominant role" for America. This nation may have much to offer but that is only me, born and raised in America, projecting my values on the world. Instead, I would demonstrate the utility and advantages of American ideas by addressing directly the causes of poverty and despair, marshaling a variety of public, private and non-profit initiatives to create a sustainable economy for the nation and the world in the 21st century.

If the world will be changing in ways that threaten us and future generations, then we have a duty to deal with those changes in ways that preserve our fundamental liberties and economic security. For CSIS, force and dominance will protect America and by extension Western democratic values. For me, utility and results will be America's strength in competing with other values and ideas even as those societies out race us in population. Let's face it, the world is constantly changing--always has and always will. If not for constant change, America would not have emerged as a powerful nation. So nothing in history guarantees that this country will always retain that position.

The United States was fortunate to acquire a large land mass with vast resources and protected by great oceans. These days that land mass is well occupied, its resources depleted and no longer protected by the oceans. In much of the last century, the US was banker and manufacturer to the world. Now we are deeply in debt, devoid of industry beyond the manufacture of a vast arsenal and rapidly aging. Howe and Jackson correctly describe one key challenge Americans will face in the coming years. The only "more dominant role' that will succeed for America will be one where our ideas demonstrate real results, not simply project force.

Perhaps the most truly American trait has been an unwillingness to accept limits; when confronted by an obstacle, Americans typically find a way to work around it. Elsewhere in the WP another article invokes Alex de Tocqueville
"Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations," he wrote. "In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others."

In the 170 or so years since that was written, Americans have demonstrated an amazing agility in overcoming problems, not just because of our economic and resource advantages but also because of our ideas, ingenuity and ability to cooperate toward common goals.

This is the "more dominant role" I would like to see for my country, not more bullets, bayonets and bombs. This is a legacy of hope we can leave for future generations. I hope we are up to it.



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