U.S. Risks World-Leader Role

9/11 Tribute in Light

As the symbols of our nation’s economic and military strength (or prowess) came under attack 10 years ago today, my first thought: “This is the second Pearl Harbor.” As I told a reporter that day, “I don’t think I’m overstating it.”

The initial shock slowly receded and was replaced with a sense of national purpose, resolve and unity that probably had not been seen since that other infamous day, Dec. 7, 1941. For a time, partisan and ideological differences shifted to the background.

But only for a time.

I remembered the admonition I received from my 1964 Columbus St. Bonaventure High School classmate, Kathy Kearns Murphy, on Jan. 3, 1997, the day I took my oath as Nebraska’s 34th U.S. senator. “History will measure your success as a senator, not only by the number of political campaigns, but rather how you utilize your knowledge, integrity and honor to make our society a better place for the next generation.” Kathy captured the essence of America in a few simple but elegant words. I had pledged to defend the Constitution of the United States. My allegiance was to a nation and its future; not a political party, political movement or special interest.

Unfortunately, in the decade since 9/11, the message of Kathy’s words has faded from the nation’s consciousness.

That morning of 9/11 is defining our world in the 21st century along with three other standout developments: the destruction of the Soviet Union, the advent of wireless information technology and instant global communication, and the 2008 global financial crisis.

Each set in motion powerful dynamics that are rapidly realigning the world order. The resulting global instability has confused a world that has seemingly come loose of its moorings. And most disconcerting is instability in the world’s most stable, powerful and developed countries like the United States. This is producing societal shifts that come during times of historic global disruption and transformation.

We live in a constellation of constant change. But what remains the same is how societies respond to their great challenges. New frames of reference are required to analyze and respond to our new 21st century challenges. Today, America engages a different world than the ones of Eisenhower, JFK, Reagan and Clinton. All nations are maturing, developing, emerging in new and unpredictable ways. With our partners, we can help shape, manage and lead this new global emergence. This will require America to reorient its frames of reference and take inventory of its own problems and progress over the last 65 years.

Most of the 310 million Americans alive today were born after WWII. We have lived in a world where America has been unrivaled by any measurement. But Americans feel that greatness slipping away. They are gripped by a fear they have never known. An uncertainty about America’s future — their children’s future. It is real. Our great power has somehow become disconnected from what made America an exceptional nation — its people and its values.

This power comes from a culture that produces people with great ideas and the freedoms to build on those initiatives and dreams. Great power requires immense responsibility … from its leaders and its people. This responsibility includes leading and governing with civility and respect for all opinions and political views. It also requires making tough choices and setting priorities. We have in too many instances allowed ourselves to become captive to ugly intolerance. We are better than that. Americans need each other … just as the world needs us and we need the world. Americans are angry today because they believe their country has failed to stay on the steady course it has always followed to make a better life and world for ourselves and future generations. They expect their leaders to work together to fix their problems. Too often today they see forces of division that dominate much of our political debate, bogged down by superfluous nonsense. To raise a nation above this folly requires leadership traits that never change — character, courage and competency.

This period of uncertainty forces us to ask where is America’s national purpose? Is the fabric of our national unity being lost to the lesser social order of the individual strands? We are each products of our own experiences and environment. But in a broader sense we are also each products of our cultures and societies. We are shaped by societal values, standards, prejudices and expectations. No generation is ever exempt from this reality. In Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” he noted, “The greatest generation was born of sacrifice, not entitlement.” He did not mean bleak austerity, but rather a balanced life that enjoyed the fruits of hard work, discipline and acquiring an education and skills that produced both personal and societal growth and national prosperity. This also included responsible stewardship of our nation’s institutions for future generations. It represented a larger purpose than just our own immediate individual self-interests. This required a national unity of purpose. America has lost confidence in its leaders and institutions, especially its government. This reality is reflected in every recent survey taken by Gallup and others. Trust and confidence are a society’s only currency.

America dramatically overreached during the last 10 years. We committed to foreign and domestic obligations well beyond our capacity to finance and successfully implement. There was little strategic and critical thinking applied to our policies during this time. We paid no attention to the historic reality of great power limitations. We made commitments and decisions with little regard to long-term consequences. Hence, we ran up record debt and did great damage to our nation. Our government’s debt went from $5.8 trillion in September 2001 to $14.6 trillion today. A $9 trillion increase over the last 10 years.

We failed to recognize that America’s security is not just predicated on strong military and intelligence capability. A nation’s security is anchored by its economic strength. We have taken our eye off a fundamental responsibility of society and government — keeping a nation economically competitive and fiscally responsible. Like investing in education, skill sets, research, technology, infrastructure, balanced budgets and other foundational pillars of a nation’s future. America is now facing the realities of these neglected priorities and deferred decisions at the most competitive time in the history of man. This global competition is just beginning. New, innovative thinking and programs, like a new federal infrastructure bank (which I introduced with Sen. Chris Dodd in 2007) that brings together private investment to finance public infrastructure projects, are the kinds of new ideas this country is capable of and will require for our future.

The challenges faced by billions of people living together in an interconnected world are more complicated and dangerous with less margin of error than ever before. But we also have historic capacity to find solutions to these difficult problems.

America is still the one nation on earth that represents freedom, hope and possibilities for all and that values human rights and rewards human initiative. We are risking all of this with our self-absorbed drifting.

This is all leading to a predictable new governing political center of gravity in America, which will produce a new governing coalition. It will marginalize the disproportionate influences of the political extremes. This will be a coalition secured by the consensus and compromise required for a democracy to work. It will be built on a sense of national purpose committed to fixing our nation’s problems. This unity has been the glue that has always held together a magnificently diverse and talented nation of good people.

Faith in each other is critical for any society, for it anchors belief, which presents possibilities, fosters cooperation and builds mutual respect and unity. And in the end, as my classmate Kathy wrote, we will have made a better world.

Senator Chuck Hagel is Chairman of the Atlantic Council. This column originally appeared in the Omaha World-Herald.

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