Will America Lead?

With the just concluded meeting of President Obama with Chinese President Hu /Jintao, it’s worth thinking about the costs, and requirements of leadership.

Paul Kennedy, in his monumental Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, examined military conflict over the past five centuries. He demonstrated that national power was rooted in and preceded by the growth of the economy.

America has been a dominant world player for a long time but there is nothing automatic in strength or leadership. Our strength was not based on our genes which come from the same pools as everyone else.

Our strength was partly based on the two oceans that long protected us from other world powers.

Our strength was partly based on our creation of one of the largest unified markets in the world, a market that the EU now tries to emulate and only a few countries could exceed by virtue of their size.

Our strength was partly based on our freedoms, and the ability of Americans to innovate.

Our strength was also based on government investment, investment in our transportation, banking and educational systems, which began in the eighteenth century, investment in our public health system, beginning a century later, that rid the US of many diseases that have continued to scourge other countries, and investment in our people through measures like rural postal delivery and electrification, that put a floor of opportunity under most of America. Even the emergence of radio had a strong government stamp beginning during World War I.

And yes, our strength was based partly on wise regulation and laws that made us accountable for our behavior, despite persistent efforts to get our legal system to look aside.

In many areas we were among the first. We improved our infrastructure before most countries did. Being among the first, means that our infrastructure is now among the oldest and least tailored to current needs. If you have been in the New York City subway system, you’ve seen those old mosaic, picture and artistic tiles on the subway walls that speak to the pride of the once new system. Now unless you stop to reflect on the that still vital subway system, you’re likely to see a system that just looks old and often loses by comparison to subway systems encountered elsewhere.

There is a lesson here. It is that laurels are not good to rest on. For decades, America has been disinvesting in our infrastructure, letting roads, rails and bridges age and sometimes collapse. Collapsing infrastructure will not support our dreams of continued greatness. For too long Americans have been convinced that if it was good enough for our parents, it would be good enough for us. We have lost the national sense of progress through collective effort. We are coasting, but coasting we will come to a stop and watch enviously as other nations, China among them, rush past us.

World leaders do not simply cite past achievements, and they don’t just pray for private investors to make the investments that the public needs. World leaders act. If we have lost the capacity for action, we have lost the will to lead. And there is no better time to start than when we need to put people back to work.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 25, 2011.

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