For good or ill, myths are endemic to the human condition. We develop mythologies around our leaders and our foes to fit expectations, emotions and egos. George Washington, for example, never told a lie and hurled a dollar coin across the Potomac.
Communists were inherently evil until interests forced a detente with China and the Soviet Union.
A disturbing myth is that nearly one-in-five Americans, if the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life is correct, says that Barack Obama is Muslim (although what is wrong with being a Muslim?).
That said, two current myths are more pernicious. Defeating these myths is a central challenge for America and Americans.
The first is the canard that America is in decline. The extension of this myth is that this decline portends the end of the American era. As most myths have some small basis in fact, so too does this one.
Exhausted by two wars, an economy that is fragile and could become recessional and a rising China and India, the United States is following the trajectory of other great, spent powers who have exceeded their sell-by dates. Reinforcing this myth of decline is the reality of broken government unable to address the nation’s economic and financial crises.
Tragically, both political parties, dominated by their more extreme wings, see compromise as political weakness. And indeed there is truth to these last observations.
The second myth is the failure of the United States to lead. A corollary of the first myth is that the absence of American leadership makes the world more dangerous. The often-repeated charge of “leading from behind” that slipped out during last year’s military campaign in Libya to oust Moammar Gadhafi and was never repudiated by the White House is Exhibit A in making this allegation.
The assumption is that stronger American leadership can magically alter events; bring peace to the Middle East; stabilize Syria; and in a single bound or two, resolve the euro crisis.
What makes these arguments specious is that, believe it or not, the world has profoundly changed not just since Obama took office in January 2009 but does so almost on a daily basis.
Events in the Middle East in Libya and Egypt have been accelerated by what is happening in Syria. The discovery of huge deposits of oil and natural gas including shale oil not only in the Western Hemisphere but in the Eastern Mediterranean, if handled appropriately, will profoundly alter the energy balance and dependence on Middle East and Russian oil. And the release of the Stuxtnet cyber virus now means that cyber too easily can be turned into a real weapon of mass destruction.
Suppose that the fierce storms several weeks ago that disrupted electrical power for millions on America’s East Coast hadn’t been the culprit. Instead, cyberattack was. How would that drive the magnitude of our response as Sept. 11, 2001, did, when a new and highly dangerous threat to society was no longer merely a theoretical contingency?
As to the myth of American decline, if one’s neighbors suddenly gained wealth or success, would that automatically be diminishing to us? The natural diffusion of all forms of power and information is inherent to globalization and the growing interconnectivity of societies. The United States still has, by a factor of two, the largest economy in the world. It is the leader in entrepreneurialism and forming new businesses. And its established businesses have become models of productivity and efficiency irrespective of the failure of its government to govern.
China is building up its military. But would we exchange Chinese for U.S. weapons? If we are smart, we won’t fall into the same trap we did during the Cold War of grossly exaggerating the Soviet military threat for many reasons including the most cynical of swaying domestic politics.
Regarding leading, real action and not rhetoric is needed. The United States should take a page out of the unofficial motto of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: “Never send a man where you can send a bullet!” The point is that indirect, subtle and thoughtful leadership in which one can get other people or actors to do the heavy lifting is a crafty and essential way of ensuring that American interests are kept safe.
Such an approach is highly rational. Hence, it is risky because the political system too often punishes rationality and certainly limits its application.
What is needed as much as leadership is applying our brains constructively and innovatively to resolve these issues. Thinking and not emoting or wishing our way clear of danger mandates a brains’ based approach. Such an approach will slay these myths. Most importantly, brains will keep America great.
Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council and Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI. Photo credit: AP Photo