Let’s face it, there are so many unsettled issues as we enter the 2012 election cycle that it sometimes seems overwhelming: the sluggish economy and staggering public and private debt burdens here and in Europe; the decaying infrastructure—both human, and capital—throughout the United States, and its relative decline in comparison with China and other nations; the continued demographic evolution of the United States, and its impact on society and politics; the proper role and size of government at all levels in the United States; the impairment of Japan’s economy and the political vacuum that is creating in Asia; the emergence of new centers of economic and geopolitical power, as well as competing models of governance, in Asia and South America; the long-term conversion of the world economy away from reliance on oil and coal as fuel sources; the moral and intellectual schisms within Western societies and the continuing friction between Western and Islamic societies; and the continued U.S. engagement in military conflicts throughout the Islamic World just as much of the Arab region is engaged in civil rebellion—just to name a few of those issues.
I don’t pretend to have an answer to all of these specific issues, or to the myriad of sub-issues that they spawn, and it’s getting clearer by the day that none of our current political leaders have these answers either. But I am certain of one thing: we won’t find the answer to these issues until we confront the most fundamental of issues—that is, we must decide what our “national interest” is. So, I am going to throw caution and humility to the wind for a moment and give you my take on this fundamental issue in an effort to start the conversation.
I believe that any formulation of our “national interest” must focus on what the United States is, and what it hopes to be. To understand who we are and who we hope to be, we must reflect on our history and understand how we got to this point in time.
Americans, through most of their history, viewed themselves as being at once exceptional in the history of the world and indispensable to resolving the problems that had afflicted mankind, while also believing that to continue to be exceptional and indispensable, America must hold the other nations of the world at arms-length. America would be the world’s lighthouse, providing light and guidance to the ships of the world—a light for some that they would use to find their way to our shores and join our community, and for others, a light that they would use to navigate their own course through history. Sometimes, when in distress, we would send rescue ships to assist the travelers who needed more help than our mere light could provide (as we did in Europe twice in the 20th Century, and as we did throughout the world during the Cold War), but we were never to interfere with their own journey.
To be that lighthouse, and to maintain that constant beacon for the world, America, itself, had to remain strong—internally and externally; socially, economically and politically—because a lighthouse becomes useless if its light is allowed to dim or go dark.
The light we were to provide the world was, as John F. Kennedy described it in his Inaugural Address, “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” And the strength of that light came from the society our Settlers created, our Founders institutionalized, and succeeding generations expanded and preserved: a society of free men and women who built lasting relationships through families, neighborhoods, and local governments; a society protected by successive levels of governments delegated with limited powers to protect our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—states to provide a basic infrastructure for our communities and for the protection of our property and our person, and a federal government to provide for a commercial infrastructure and for our national defense.
Through the best of intentions, we have allowed that light to dim. The paradox is that the light has dimmed not because we tried to do too little, but because we tried to do too much. Whether it was the creation and expansion of social programs designed to accelerate and institutionalize public charity, or the insertion of our military into countries in order to force an evolution toward liberty, we sapped the very energy that fed the light. By delegating the role of families, neighborhoods and local private institutions and governments to the state and federal governments, we destroyed the local relationships that are needed for charity to work, while we simultaneously overburdened governments at all levels to the extent that they now do nothing very well, and they do it by spending money they don’t have. Meanwhile, by inserting ourselves into every conflict around the world and making each conflict our own, we diminished the value of the very principles we have fought for, ignored the need for different societies to navigate their own courses to liberty, and further depleted our own resources.
It is time to re-energize the beacon—that must be our “National Interest” over the next generation. To brighten the light, we must recognize that we can only be a beacon for liberty if we re-commit ourselves to liberty and economic strength at home, and to a defensive engagement with the world to secure that all people can journey toward liberty through their own history and culture. This re-commitment is not a retreat from charity or into isolationism, but rather a re-invigoration of the relationships needed for true charity to work among free people, and of our commitment to light the way to liberty for all mankind. It is not an abandonment of our fellow citizen, or of our commitment to bear the burden to support our friends in the survival and success of liberty. Instead, it is a renewal of the proper role of each individual, and of our nation, in these timeless efforts going forward.
Seen in this way, our national interest requires us to realign the role and responsibility of governments at all levels toward returning responsibility to individuals and local private and public agencies, and for everyone to live within their means; to modernize our infrastructure through public coordination of private investments, which must include the total re-structuring of the way we educate our children and how we pay for that system; and to re-orient our foreign policy and defense structure to promote liberty through defending our system and our way of life for all to see, and by promoting trade and relationships only with those who seek a course toward liberty for their people, while still maintaining the ability to swiftly and effectively come to the rescue of our friends when the survival or success of liberty truly hangs in the balance. If we adopt these general principles as our “national interest,” I think you can see that the many intractable issues we face begin to answer themselves.
Ok, now I’ve started the conversation—what do you think?