VISION & VALUES: America’s Challenges and Responsibilities in the 21st Century

February 1, 2001 | by | Topic: The American Story, Vision & Values MailingsPrint Print

Introduction
In 1941, on the eve of our entry into World War II, Time, Inc. publisher Henry Luce delivered a speech in nearby Pittsburgh entitled “The American Century.” In this speech Henry Luce spoke of America’s opportunity for worldwide leadership, in both strategic and economic terms, based on expansion of our free enterprise system, our democratic principles and the rule of law. He called upon the United States to behave like a leader and attacked those who would adopt a posture of isolationism. Looking ahead, he prophesied an American Century during which our principles would guide the postwar world.

No sooner had World War II ended, however, than visions of “The American Century” fell victim to the Cold War. Two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, confronted each other for the next 45 years as our former wartime adversaries, Japan and Germany, grew to be bulwarks of defense for the free world and, in time, formidable economic competitors as well. Meanwhile, wars in Korea and Viet Nam enmeshed American military power abroad in inconclusive conflict. And from the 1960s onward, the discontent of the deprived and the dispossessed promoted unrest at home.

As we begin a new century, this picture has dramatically changed. The Cold War has been over for nearly a decade. Throughout the world, Communism has been discredited as a guiding philosophy in both the political and economic realms. America remains the sole superpower with an opportunity and, I will suggest, a responsibility to assert our worldwide leadership in military, political and economic terms. Through expansion of the free enterprise system and our democratic principles, we can today, indeed, look forward to making this 21st century a true “American Century.”

But we must also ask: How well equipped are we to deal with this opportunity? I will try to propose some answers to that question on the basis of my own experience – 25 years in public life at the state, federal and international level as governor, cabinet member and, most recently, Under Secretary General at the United Nations. My travels in these positions have taken me across this nation and to over 40 countries around the globe, helping to shape my own personal views about our opportunities and obligations in this increasingly complex world.

Law, Democracy and Markets
First, it is important to appreciate that we still stand throughout the world as a significant role model. We are the prime exemplar of the rule of law, of a democratic political system and of a thriving market economy. We are the envy of most other nations and their people for characteristics of our system that, frankly, we all too often take for granted. Consider, for example, what our Constitution guarantees to every citizen. Our Bill of Rights ensures to each of us:

* The right of free speech, no matter how unpopular the views expressed may be.

* The right to peaceably assemble and petition our governments for the redress of our grievances, real or imagined.

* Absolute freedom of the press, to spread its views among the populace, regardless of whether or not they hew to the “party line.”

* The right to worship if, and as, we please.

* Equal opportunity for advancement, regardless of race, religion, creed, gender, ethnic origin or, most recently, disability.

* Due process of law to ensure that our property is free from unlawful seizure and our persons are protected from the arbitrary exercise of police power.

Sustaining and supporting all of these is an independent judiciary, part of a legal system which is designed to enforce all these rights on a neutral basis – the very essence of the rule of law.

Our political system is also distinguished from the majority of those in force around the world. We have the absolute right to vote, to elect and un-elect those who hold public office at all levels of our government. It has been said that the beauty of our system is not that it is always right, but that it is usually responsive. Indeed, there is built into our system, as in no other, a high degree of accountability of public servants to those whom they serve.

On the economic side, we enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living and a quality of life superior to all but a few of this planet’s citizens. Modern methods of communication and transportation have tightly knit our society together, creating in many ways that true “national village” only dreamed of in the past. Our educational system provides for unparalleled opportunities for upward mobility and the realization of the “American Dream.”

In each of these areas, what we enjoy in our nation is looked upon with covetous eyes by most of the world’s peoples – especially those still living under despotic rulers, fearful of the knock on the door at night, unable to speak out against injustice, mired in poverty and laboring within backward economies which are often corrupted by their leaders. Worst of all, too many of the world’s peoples today are denied the means to effect necessary changes in their political and governmental systems.

America’s Deficiencies
What then are the deficits within our society that might inhibit our efforts to fashion an “American Society”? First of all, most of us acknowledge that we have not yet reached the stage where all Americans enjoy equally the blessings of those rights which I have spelled out. Too many of us today continue to be denied the full exercise of our rights because of our race, religion, gender, ethnic origin or disability. And this gives rise to significant dissatisfaction and unrest. It was Alexis de Tocqueville, that pioneer observer of democracy in America, who noted, over 150 years ago: “The desire for equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete.” Ironically, that is, the more progress made in expanding the enjoyment of our rights, the more unrest we must expect over the remaining deficiencies in their full availability. Thus, a first responsibility for all our leaders should be to seek to ensure the full extension of the rights of citizenship to all of us, not only because it is just and proper, but to forestall further unrest and dislocation in our society.

Unfortunately, the present condition of our educational system contributes to the shortfall in the full realization of our rights, especially as we move toward the information-based economy that will characterize the 21st century. That “rising tide of mediocrity” noted in our public schools nearly two decades ago has not abated. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 90 million Americans today can barely read or write; and fully one-fourth of today’s fourth graders cannot master material appropriate for their grade level. Of perhaps even greater concern are recent findings by the National Science Foundation that only one of four adults gets passing grades on questions relating to basic science and economics and that American 12th graders today rank below 80 percent of the world’s industrialized nations in math and science. Many schools, meanwhile, have become so regimented and bureaucratized that recognition of the superior teacher, let alone the superior student, is well nigh impossible. These shortcomings should be inadmissible for a society with all that we possess. Excellence in our educational system should be a prime concern for us all – students, parents, taxpayers and citizens alike.

Moreover, if our economic prospects are to remain positive, we need to assure that our workforce remains competitive and that our technological edge is not jeopardized by rapid progress in other fast-growing parts of the world. To sustain our leadership in advanced technology growth, we need to increase the number of Americans equipped to man the cutting edge in research and development efforts. Yet today we find that over 50 percent of the engineering doctorate degrees awarded in our universities go to foreign students, a clearly ominous sign.

At the same time, we need the best and the brightest of all of our workers to exert their utmost in keeping America competitive. An across-the-board rejuvenation of the work ethic and a sustained commitment of excellence are clearly in order. Stanford’s John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, and one of our most thoughtful citizens and leaders, once put the imperative for excellence this way:

An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

This means we all have a responsibility to preach and practice the dignity and fulfillment of hard work and the pride of accomplishment in the workplace without denigrating particular lines of endeavor which, however seemingly humble, are just as deserving of respect and reward as those more prominently featured.

A Void of Values
But life is not all dollars and cents and, at the risk of being unfashionable, I would like to address an even more serious shortcoming in the responsible exercise of our rights – the lamentable jeopardy in which we find our basic values today. Important traditional values respecting family, faith and community all face formidable challenges. Drug and alcohol abuse, we are told by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, costs this nation nearly $170 billion a year in lost productivity, medical outlays and criminal justice costs. And, after a long term of decline in overall drug use, we have seen a recent 28 percent increase in the uses of illegal drugs by those in the 18 to 25 age group – among the most likely, incidentally, to be involved in criminal activity. A staggering total of 15 million Americans are current drug users. And drug abuse, together with sexual promiscuity, has loosed the terrible AIDS epidemic upon our society.

Meanwhile, so-called sexual freedom has eroded the family unit in many cases almost beyond repair. As recently as 1960, for example, only one in 20 American births occurred out of wedlock. Now that figure stands at one in three and sadly, among African-Americans, at over two in three. Moreover, we lead the industrialized world in rates of teenage pregnancy and childbearing. Is this responsible conduct? What kind of family values can be transmitted within communities dominated by such statistics, particularly when we see an increasing number of these illegitimate births flaunted by role models who seem to regard marriage as an inconvenience? Is it any wonder that so many young people adopt similar attitudes when given the example of movie stars, rock performers and leading athletes who disdain the traditions of marriage and family?

Author Stephen Carter reminds us in his book, The Culture of Disbelief, that religion has also been relegated to secondary status as a contributor to our traditions. The “trivialization” of religion, undertaken in the cause of keeping church and state separate in our diverse society, has, in fact, denied us the richness of our religious beliefs as a spiritual underpinning for responsible efforts to solve some of the vexing problems of modern-day life.

Needless to say, all of these shortcomings have contributed to the lamentable incidence of crime and violence in our nation. And it is violent crime, after all, that most threatens the first civil right of every citizen: the right to be free from fear in our homes, on our streets and in our communities. I was impressed in this regard by an observation by Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, one of the leading African-Americans in our law enforcement establishment. He noted on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. not long ago: “[C]rime is generated by a lack of values…[s]oaring unwed birth rates, absentee fathers, an aversion to work [and] an unwillingness to embrace societal standards and time honored discipline.” It is hard to argue with such a straight-line connection.

Dysfunctional families, it should be noted, play a particularly disturbing role in juvenile crime-70 percent of those in reformatories today come from homes without a father and 75 percent of today’s violent juvenile offenders have themselves been abused by a famly member. Meanwhile, criminologist John DiIullio notes that one of the best indicators for young people turned away from a life of crime is involvement with a religious congregation.

One other answer to the problem of youth crime is clear. As noted by the National Crime Prevention Council: “We need…strong adults who refuse to cede their value-setting responsibilities to a popular culture awash in shameless, gratuitous violence in videos, computer games, movies and music.” In the words of Walt Kelly’s comic strip character, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

The Decline of Civility
On top of all these substantive problems, our efforts at fashioning solutions are hampered by a noticeable decline in civility – the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. The critic Robert Hughes has noted, for example: “In America today…hysteria over feminism, gay rights and abortion has filled the discourse of politics with a rancor that has few parallels in other Western democracies.” Long ago, Voltaire was said to have established the marvelous principle that he could “disagree with everything you said, but defend to the death your right to say it.” How would he have coped with today’s “in your face” attitudes which stunt civilized discourse? Or with the concept of political correctness which seeks to impose a deadening uniformity in the name of sensitivity?

No, we must be able to discuss our shortcomings as well as catalog them. Free speech and civilized discourse are not just guarantees that exist on paper. They are living principles that must be fully exercised lest they rust into disuse. We pride ourselves on being “a government of laws and not of men.” But we must reaffirm that it takes good men and good women, exercising their rights and realizing their full potential as human beings in a free society to make that society work. And, we must continue to search for, recognize and reward those good men and good women who are actively committed to engaging evil in all its forms in our society today.

One institution that has suffered particularly from a lack of civility is the one to which I have devoted most of my career – the practice of law. Cultural critic Gertrude Himmelfarb has noted: “The litigious temper of the times is a consequence of the decline of civility and the concomitant proliferation of ‘rights’ – legal rights in place of the manners and morals that once arbitrated disagreements and disputes.” Despite Judge Learned Hand’s oft-quoted admonition that “litigation is to be dreaded beyond almost anything short of sickness or death,” the United States has become by far the most litigious society on earth. Our citizens seem to seek a virtual risk-free environment and when anything goes wrong, the first question commonly asked is “whom do I sue?” As a consequence, litigation has become increasingly complicated, expensive and lengthy. Its direct costs now exceed $150 billion a year, productivity and innovation in industry are threatened, insurance rates go up and more worthy causes suffer harmful delays in the courts.

Moreover, some plaintiffs’ lawyers, reaping fees in the millions, if not billions, of dollars recycle those funds into the political process to discourage efforts at effective reform of our civil justice system. These lawyers, I suggest, might better heed the advice of a 19th-century Illinois practitioner, Abraham Lincoln, no slouch as a trial lawyer himself, who once observed: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser in fees, expenses and waste of time.” Efforts to bring common-sense reform to our civil justice system by reducing frivolous lawsuits, restricting class action litigation, capping punitive damages and introducing some kind of “loser pays” consideration into legal fees are deserving of widespread support.

Promoting American Values
Finally, we must recognize that there are those today who would have us confine within our own country any efforts to create an “American Century.” They argue that we should address our own problems to the exclusion of those confronting the rest of the world. These are the neo-isolationists – the progeny of those about whom Henry Luce warned us 50 years ago. Indeed there is much wisdom in the observation of George Kennan, one of the original “cold warriors” who authored the containment doctrine that guided our foreign policy during that period. In his recent memoir, Kennan notes:

The greatest service this country could render to the rest of the world would be to put its own house in order and to make of American civilization an example of decency, humanity and societal success from which others could derive whatever they might find useful to their own purposes.

But surely, more will be required, indeed demanded, of this nation in this century. We must come to grips with our new role in the changed world community as well. We must identify our own vital interests and pursue them relentlessly. These surely must include the expansion of those tenets identified by Henry Luce in 1941 – the free enterprise system, the rule of law and our democratic principles. These concepts now have the field to themselves with the worldwide discrediting of the old Communist totalitarian and socialist models.

To be sure, many of these efforts could well be pursued within a revitalized United Nations if it were to properly define its own role in peacekeeping, peace-making and economic and social development around the world. But many of these tasks must be undertaken by our nation on our own, especially where our vital interests are concerned. And here many Americans find themselves confused today.

* They see an America increasingly isolated from its neighbors around the world. The rock-solid coalition fashioned by President Bush to face down Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf in 1991 is but a memory. Today, we are obliged to retail our responses to such threats to grudging partners on a case-by-case basis.

* We spent precious years in the last decade arm-wrestling the United Nations over payment of our dues while we continued to complain about a lack of vigor in the UN’s response to the world’s needs. We came very near to forfeiting our participation in this organization over petty differences between the White House and Congress before a suitable compromise was reached at the last minute.

* And while we have committed our troops, often under the UN flag, to deal with the frustration of free elections or the denial of human rights in places like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, we have yet to deal effectively with the absence of free elections and the systematic denial of human rights 90 miles off our own coastline, in Cuba.

A new and consistent American foreign policy, embodying our vital national interests, has yet to be defined. Nor have we rationalized the establishment of an appropriate force level for our military, keeping in mind that, while we face different kinds of threats in today’s world, we still must deal with vast nuclear arsenals in the volatile former Soviet Union and in other trouble spots around the world.

Conclusion
No, the achievement of “An American Century” will not be an easy task. But history is surely on our side. We have not survived these more than 200 years, only to back away from today’s challenges. At home and abroad, we will be called upon to exert ourselves in a wide variety of endeavors before we realize our goals. But, as we have seen, our advantages are great. And by their judicious and determined application, our challenges can, and must, be subdued. If we so conduct ourselves, we can achieve our goals in this 21st century. We can see the creation of a true “American Century” beginning in this year 2001. More than that, we dare not fail to respond to such a glorious challenge.

Richard Thornburgh

Richard Thornburgh

Governor Richard Thornburgh was elected twice as Governor of Pennsylvania, in 1978 and 1982, making him the first Republican to serve two successive terms. After his unanimous confirmation in the U.S. Senate, Thornburgh served three years as Attorney General of the United States (1988-1991) under Presidents Reagan and Bush, where he played a leading role in the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He became the highest ranking American at the United Nations, serving as Under Secretary General (1992-1993) and was in charge of personnel, budget and finance matters, capping a public career that spanned more than 25 years. Thornburgh graduated with an engineering degree from Yale University and earned his law degree at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He is currently counsel to the national law firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart LLP.

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