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The Beginning of the End of Empire

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As the news continues to feature stories of frustration with our country's ability to do anything right, I'm reminded of a time when the U.S. was indeed the "can do nation." After WWII we were feeling our oats, having kicked the bad guys' butts and being hailed as heroes by most of the world. We stood tall and proud of having saved much of the world from fascism. We congratulated ourselves for a job well done. That was three generations ago.

More recently we have failed to demonstrate any great degree of consistency in fixing things, at home or around the world. As British economist John Gray queried in The Economist a couple of years ago: Is America on its way to being "just another country"?

In a recent commencement talk, a Princeton professor wondered how much time the U.S. has remaining in its turn as "top nation." He noted that throughout history a succession of countries have taken turns at being top nation. But if we follow the pattern, he contended, our turn should be up within fifty years.

Hard to swallow as an American.? Perhaps. But let us take a brief look at history.

Through the ages empires have crumbled under their own weight. Their failure has usually been the result of their own arrogance and complacency; i.e., they destroy themselves! They start thinking they are infallible and become filled with national hubris, or ego. Economic historian Arnold Toynbee observed, "An autopsy of history would show that all great nations commit suicide."

What are the signs that this might be happening here in the U.S.?

Take our mighty military: despite the most sophisticated weaponry money can buy, we aren't nearly as dominating in armed conflicts as you would think we should be. Our disproportionate reliance on technology to carry out our killing on the battlefield continues to result in the death of non-strategic innocents. We blame it on mis-information, dismiss it as "collateral damage" and continue doing it! From Asia to Iraq, we seem to have messed things up more than fixed things. Yet we continue. And what about Americans torturing prisoners and avoiding international prosecution for war crimes? Weren't we supposed to be the world's good guys? It used to be the other guys who invaded countries. It used to be the other guys who committed war crimes and killed innocent people and tortured prisoners. Have we become "the other guys" for much of the world? .

On the domestic front, our lack of responsiveness and inability to aid the people of New Orleans has been downright shameful. And the Twin Towers memorial? Going on five years and we still can't agree on what to do with the Manhattan site of the 9-11 terrorists attacks. Our education system has become so eroded our kids graduate without the ability to spell. Remember when Americans were the best educated students in the world? And what about our rapidly accelerating national indebtedness? We're in hock up to our bottoms; other countries own us!

In discussions with American friends I hear how we "won" the Cold War. Are they nuts? We didn't "win" anything. The Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight. Many factors and people contributed to it, some visible and some not so visible. So what did we do? We took victory laps and claimed we did it, all by ourselves! Green Cross founder and former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev, a major player in ending the half century long nightmare, has urged the West to "get over your 'winner's complex' and attend to challenges of our time." Nationalism in any form, he states, "is an evil from which humanity has already suffered enough""
Since 2000, our nation has steadfastly enforced a foreign policy based upon world domination. Drafted prior to the 2000 presidential elections, Project for a New American Century calls for the U.S. domination of cyberspace and outer space as well as maintaining our military "superiority" as the lone Super Power.

This plan is quite a reversal from what FDR said in his pre-WW II inaugural address: "I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor: The neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others; the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors." That was the philosophy of America that helped defeat the bad guys in WW II.

This inability to see our own warts, this unwillingness to admit our faults, this denial about our not-so-good-guy-ness and this confusion between fact and spin suggest that we may have fewer years as top nation than the professor estimated. Our hubris may be igniting the fuse for our own implosion as a great nation, just as it was for the Greeks, Romans, Spanish, British and others before us.

Economist Gray's question is still nagging at me. We are on our way to becoming "just another country," but there is still time to take corrective measures and restore our country as a beacon for hope for a better future for the whole world. We are, after all, a nation founded on some pretty lofty principles. The heart of our "can do nation" is still beating and there is still time to restore a sense of neighborliness and win back the respect of the rest of the world. We can begin by taking a close look at ourselves as a nation, admitting our failings and building on our strengths. We can start paying more attention to the facts than our own press releases. We can reclaim the integrity of our heritage. Let's stop the rhetoric, get over the "winner's complex" and restore alignment between our walk and our talk, as a country and as a people.

I am not bothered by my country losing its status as "top nation." I'm a bit uncomfortable with that label anyway. What bothers me is the possibility of our squandering the opportunity which our nation's founders offered "the world of neighbors" and the loss of hope such a squandered opportunity will mean to so many people around the globe.

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John Renesch is a San Francisco businessman-turned-futurist. His background includes over thirty years experience as a business owner, CEO and Managing Director. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing. He?s (more...)
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