What is America's Story for the 21st Century?

We rarely had to question our place in the world during World War II or the Cold War when good guys and bad guys were easier to identify. A clear narrative, whether in the form of opposing Hitler or containing the spread of "The Evil Empire," fueled our sense of global mission. Sure there were disagreements, but the big picture (and the big enemy) loomed large.

Our sense of realities, large and small, begins with the stories that frame our understanding of the events around us. The fall of the USSR took the wind out of the sails of our mythic sense of purpose. We were still "us," but we now lacked a "them."

A security narrative often emerges from our collective sense of threat assessment. It's not only about what we stand for, but also what we stand against. On that fateful day of September 11, 2001, many believed that we had found the enemy that would provide the story lacking from our national security narrative since the fall of the Soviet empire. But an ill-defined foe lacking a nation-state home has only contributed to our post-Cold War drift. When we ask ourselves why we are committing military might in Libya (or Afghanistan, or Iraq), we're really asking bigger questions. What is our purpose in the world? What is the story that defines our friends and our foes? And what does that story tell us about when to sit back or step up? When to watch or when to act?

The lack of a storyline also gives those who hate us the opportunity to define us as evil. So it becomes ever more urgent to start the conversation and to provide a non-partisan forum for what is bound to be a difficult deliberation. When Jane Harman left Congress to accept the leadership post at the Wilson Center, she brought her sense that toxic partisanship prevents Congress from addressing the biggest questions facing the nation in a productive and nonpartisan manner. Under her leadership, the Wilson Center has begun the National Conversation series to tackle the toughest issues.

The recently held inaugural event showed great promise. Two active military officers, Captain Wayne Porter (USN) and Colonel Mark Mykleby (USMC), writing under the pseudonym, "Mr. Y," provided the framework for the discussion. Their vision for a new U.S. security story was presented in a white paper titled, "A National Strategic Narrative." Their stated purpose is to provide a framework through which to view policy decisions well into the 21st century.

The encounter was lively and challenging, sometimes provocative, but always civil. I can summarize the immediate outcome by reporting a consensus that a narrative is missing and needed. It was a good start, but the discussion needs to continue until we reach a national consensus and not just one among five panelists and a moderator. I will not go into great detail in recapping the arguments and ideas presented, but will instead offer a contribution from each participant to whet your appetite.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor and former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. Department of State began the session with a summary of the white paper, A National Strategic Narrative by Mr. Y, describing the changing nature of power and influence:

We were never able to control international events but we had a much better possibility during the Cold War when you essentially had a bipolar world with two principal actors than we do in a world of countless state and non-state actors. Nobody controls anything in the 21st century, indeed it's just not a very good century to be -- it's not a good time to be a control freak. [Laughter] Whether it's your e-mail or global events it's sort of the same problems. What you can do is influence outcomes. So we have to start by saying it's an open system; you can't control it but you can build up your credible influence.

Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to two U.S. presidents, provided an historical framework for the discussion:

I think we're facing a historical discontinuity. The Treaty of Westphalia recognized the existence of the nation-state system codified it and so on. That was a replacement for the feudal system where our sovereignty was vague, divided between kings and princes and landowners and religious leaders. It created a new system and I think the epitome of the nation-state system was the 20th century. I think that globalization writ large is changing that system and globalization is eroding national borders. The financial crisis of 2008 showed us we've got a global economic system, what happened in one country spread immediately around. It also showed we don't have a global way to deal with a global economic situation. Now, this force of globalization to me the best way to look at it is akin to the force of industrialization 250 years ago. Industrialization really created the modern nation state with a lot more power over its citizens to deal with issues than the earlier Westphalia state system had. And it brought the state together. It made it more powerful. Globalization is reacting the same way but in the opposite direction. It is diluting the power of the nation state to deal with the important things.

Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer-prize winning columnist for The New York Times, described the difference between virtual and real action:

Exxon Mobil, they're not on Facebook, they're just in your face. [Laughter] Peabody Coal, they don't have a chatroom. They're in the cloakroom of the U.S. Congress with bags of money. So if you want to change the world, you gotta get out of Facebook and into somebody's face whether that's in the U.S. Congress or Tahrir Square. You'll say, why I blogged on it. I blogged on it, really? That's like firing a mortar into the Milky Way Galaxy, okay. [Laughter] There is a faux sense of activism out there that is really dangerous. The world, your world, may be digital but politics is still analog and we've kind of gotten away from that. Egypt changed. Yes, Facebook was hugely important in organizing people, but the fundamental change happened because a million people showed up in Tahrir Square.

Steve Clemons, founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, added this thought on the essence of globalization:

What globalization really is, is the disruption of cartels. What blogging is, individual blogging is saying is, I'm not gonna wait for The New York Times editor to tell me no any more or [laughter] to say yes three weeks from now. You know, it is the disruption of cartels and that is happening in every sector of society.

Robert Kagan, senior fellow with The Brookings Institution and a former State Department Policy Planning Officer, cautioned against rushing to utopian conclusions about the impact of our new levels of interconnectedness:

Let me just give you an example of how even something new doesn't necessarily change things the way we want them to or the way we expect them to. I'm positive by the way that human nature is not new. So you're kind of dealing with the same beast, and I use the term advisably, as you've been dealing with for millennia. Let's talk about the fact that everyone can communicate with each other on the internet. You know, when people communicate with each other especially across national boundaries sometimes it makes them grow closer. Sometimes it makes them hate each other more. If you read the Internet in China now it's hyper nationalistic. Now, you can argue that because that's where the government channel said and because they don't let anybody else or anything else or you could say the Internet is a great vehicle for the Chinese people to express their hatred of the Japanese people. It certainly is doing that now. So does that mean the Internet is going to bring nations closer and solve problems? Not necessarily.

Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), talked about the expectations of youth and how demographics will be a key consideration when defining a narrative:

The Middle East is on my mind a lot these days, what it means if you have all these societies where 50 percent of the population is under 18 years old? You know this is--this has big implications. I mean, this is a demographic reality that is going to have vast implications for the United States. So one thing is it's not going away because lots of these people who are 18 years old, their cohort just moves through. You know, they're going to be there a long time and they have demands, they're going to have needs, they're going to have expectations. You mentioned justice. They expect us to act justly. And I, when people talk about anti-Americanism, for me part of what's going on is unmet expectations not just 'we don't like it.'

For this abbreviated summary of the discussion, I give the final cautionary word to Steve Clemons, who had this to say in response to an audience question about how to begin the process of constructing a new narrative:

This is a town of risk-averse institutions, a town of inertia, a town of vested interests. It's not a town that really embraces the notion of how do you pivot very quickly and rapidly in a different direction. So, fundamentally you need to begin putting out narratives like this.

If you'd like to read Mr. Y's white paper, watch the entire event, or read a complete transcript, please click here: The National Conversation