WASHINGTON, February 6, 2012–Each night, the stars overwhelm the sand at Sijilmasa, beneath the arid coast of Morocco, below the towering Atlas Mountains, on the road to the heart of the African continent.
Nothing remains of the market town that thrived centuries before America was even an idea, but once its people flourished. They got rich trading salt, beads, gold and slaves. We can only imagine what their lives were like, for nothing is left of them. No records survive, no monuments stand to honor their lives.
Many other places, once mighty, have vanished in the sands of time.
Today, America is a world leading nation. It wasn’t always so. Forged in an imperfect union by exceptional men and women, it was a huge leap forward from anything that came before.
Eighty years later, it was nearly destroyed.
On 16 June 1858, a self-educated giant of a man declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The United States did stand, and Abraham Lincoln deserves credit for drawing a commanding majority to recognize an eternal truth, that “right makes might,” but it took enormous sacrifice to lead our nation closer to a just path where each citizen could fairly hope to pursue happiness, enjoy life and exist in liberty.
Americans have come to understand that all persons are, indeed, “created equal,” but we live in nations that are not. Some are sparsely populated, control large stores of essential living resources like arable land and fresh water. Others sit atop treasure chests of mineral resources. Some have educated populations well equipped to compete in the global marketplace. Others are burdened under imprudent financial decisions made on their behalf by elected and unelected officials.
No nation is guaranteed greatness or doomed to failure; nations rise and decline. People in great nations succumb to the comfortable routine of practical pursuits, like their next meal or home decor. Men and women who are no longer easily humbled make the rules, write the laws and order the lives for the rest of us. Mired in practicality, the silent majority follows their lead wherever it may take them.
But sometimes those in declining nations awake and lift their thoughts to a higher plane.
Which are we?
For America and the world, 2012 will be a defining year. Elections in key countries, warring ambitions, and widespread frustration with the status quo mean that change really is coming to many places on earth. But to what ends?
Since 1999, economic forces have been building to a punishing crescendo, beyond the control of nations and multi-lateral organizations. Easy money and irresponsibly financed governments continue to savage the real value of accumulated wealth. Jobs and incomes in the U.S., Japan and much of Europe remain under relentless assault. Investors are not happy and workers outside the emerging nations are even less happy.
Most national leaders remain dedicated to noble sounding policies that have had financially ruinous consequences. While hundreds of millions of workers in emerging nations stand ready to perform jobs at cut rates, policies in the U.S., Japan, and Europe push the local cost of private sector employment towards the stratosphere. As a result, the crucial base of income derived from private sector activity in these leading economic powers is either stagnant or shrinking. Meanwhile, over-indebted nations with aged and aging populations are paying too many expensive public sector workers and retirees too much money to perform tasks of suspect benefit.
America’s fortunes are in decline. We have no clear and re-assuring answers regarding how we’ll address the grave problems facing us. But just answers will be found among the lessons learned in history.
During his Farewell Address on 11 January 1989, President Ronald W. Reagan made the case eloquently for history’s relevance:
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in the erosion of the American spirit.
“Let’s start with some basics-more attention to American history and a greater emphasis of civic ritual. And let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: all great change in America begins at the dinner table. So tomorrow night in the kitchen, I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American-let ‘em know and nail ‘em on it. That would be a very American thing to do”.
I miss 1989—so much promise was evident inside and especially outside the United States of America. And on the occasion of the anniversary of President Reagan’s birth, I must admit that I miss the only giant man in my lifetime to lead the free world.
Back then, financial security was neither a reach nor a stretch; jobs were there for the taking. In the private sector, entrepreneurs were seizing opportunities to serve customers with groundbreaking products and services while managers were “right-sizing” previously stagnant behemoths to extend their reach into burgeoning international markets. The public sector was growing too, but government spending was closer to balance and the dollar was, in fact, “sound”.
Abroad, decades of sacrifice finally yielded stunning results. After the brutal end to pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Who imagined on 12 June 1987, when President Reagan implored Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” that the people of Eastern Germany would rise up two years later and do just that?
Sitting here in 2012, do we really believe Americans have triumphed in the unipolar world that temporarily emerged after 1989? For that matter, are the allies truly better off who stood with us against evil, totalitarian rule?
Our reach has not yet exceeded our grasp. Unintended consequences in the temporary humbling of communist alternatives, addiction to borrowing and refusal to acknowledge the profound threats posed by fanatical Islam and rogue nation-states have placed the United States and the secular, materialist nations it defends in peril. But just as we survived a war that tested whether a nation conceived in liberty could endure, we can survive the perils that threaten our decline.
We must re-dedicate ourselves to grounded inquiry of “stubborn facts”, remembering the power of adhering to great truths and the catastrophes that come from being seduced by “sophistical contrivances”—the inherent contradictions so wisely identified by Abraham Lincoln during his Cooper Union speech—or worse, by abject error.
For the sake of the world, we cannot fail. American military might today is what deters naked aggression throughout the world. An equally charitable rival will not replace a humbled America. And, look no further than this past weekend’s U.N. vetoes by China and Russia to understand what life might be like in a world where the U.S. retreated to focus solely upon internal national concerns.
Months of rising uncertainly will pass before America will find her feet in the November 2012 elections. Voters may elect a team that will hasten America’s retreat from its entangling foreign commitments and re-double our dedication to the re-distribution of wealth and income, by government diktat. Alternatively, voters may embrace a renewed commitment to spurring economic growth through encouragement of responsible, free enterprise. In either event, and in a muddled result, one thing that is clear now is that Americans are tired of leading wars against indistinct foreign enemies. Five percent of the world’s population is not solely charged with leading the cause of liberty in responsibility for us all.
We owe an incalculable debt to those who came before and those who will follow. Nothing less is due now then the full measure of our devotion to the dreams of the giants who preceded us. The perilous moments in front of us are moments when each of us must choose: Shall we learn from history, embrace a foundation set in eternal truths and stand on the shoulders of giants?
Or will we fail to summon the required courage, and slip forever into the sand, just like Sijilmasa?
Graduated from Horace Mann School, Yale College and Harvard Business School, Charles tries to learn each day.
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