The Fear Response

There are numerous theories about why societies rise and fall, proffered by even more numerous scholars who attempt to connect the dots of evidence and massage them with nuance into coherent narratives.  Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jeremy Black’s Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony, and Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? offer some interesting and varied approaches to the question.  They are each well researched and include reasonable arguments to a complex question.  However, in my seemingly endless search for simplicity—to understand the American condition—I have settled on one question, ignored by most studies, that I believe explains a great deal about how societies “rise and fall.”  The question is: How do they respond to fear?

The fear response is related to Stephen Flynn’s theory about resiliency as a measure of national power: “a society that can match its strength to deliver a punch with the means to take one makes an unattractive target.”[1]  But resiliency has at its core a cognitive component that emanates from societal IBCs (ideas, beliefs, and convictions), which contribute to our collective character.  It is this character, which evolves continuously, that determines how we respond to fear like the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, or the attacks of 9/11.  It is fair to say that fear brings out the best and worst in a society no matter how strong the collective character is at any particular time.

After Pearl Harbor, American society demonstrated both its cohesion and determination in defeating Hirohito and Hitler, but it also interned Japanese Americans.  After Sputnik, Kennedy committed the United States to sending a man to the moon, but he and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, also over-imagined the Soviet and communist menace and nearly started a nuclear war in the Caribbean and did, unfortunately, convince Americans that if we didn’t stop the communists in Vietnam, a contagion would spread that would threaten the lives of every American for generations.  After 9/11, American flags waved from anywhere we could attach them, but our fear produced the worst of us as American Muslim mosques were burned, and our leaders became willing fear mongers engaged in falsifying intelligence, and even color-coding fear for systemic consumption.  And, while the jury is arguably still out on Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest if we had a chance to do it over we wouldn’t have troops in either place today. The more interesting question, however, is what tips our fear response from best to worst?

This is admittedly a tricky question, but the worst fear response appears to have an inverse relationship with prosperity, measured by wealth and power; that is, the more prosperous we have become, the more likely a fear event produces the worst of us. In the three events mentioned above, our fear response was best when we were the least prosperous in 1941, and significantly worse in 2001 when America’s power and wealth were at an all-time high.  This seems counter-intuitive; after all, isn’t a wealthy and more powerful nation less fearful and more cohesive?  Apparently not.

Wealth and power provide their own toxic effects.  In 1941, fear inspired patriotism and produced self-sacrifice, discipline, diligence, and enterprise.  In 2001, our patriotism expired even before the flags faded; fear spawned hatred, jingoism, isolation, and hubris.  We have lashed out at the world and stand divided and vengeful at home.  We want to build walls at the border and persecute those who don’t think like we do, worship our God, or even look and speak like us.  And, we wag our fingers at each other and our government demanding our unfair share of what pie remains.  In our relative prosperity we have become poor of character.  FDR was correct in his day to claim, “all we have to fear is fear itself.”  Today, all we have to fear is ourselves.

I would like to argue, as Tom Brokaw has, that the “Greatest Generation”—those who stood tall after Pearl Harbor—were possessed of an intrinsically generous and courageous character, but I see too many of them screaming into the microphone at anger rallies today.  Their well-shined image has suffered with the rest of us, subject to the same toxicity of prosperity.  To add a further irony, our current national security complex is the largest most extensive security system ever developed with “1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies [that] work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.”[2]  Yet, we feel less safe than ever.

Maybe it’s not prosperity’s fault.  Maybe prosperity isn’t about wealth and power.  Maybe its about humility, responsibility, and self-restraint.  Maybe it’s about respect.  One thing becomes clear: if America is to retain its position in the world, we cannot afford our current sense of entitlement and certitude.  Personal responsibility and mutual respect for each other and the precious resources we enjoy deserve our better selves.  We must face fear with resolve, not color-coded fear mongering, lest we allow our worst selves to prevail.  It’s time to turn off the noise and recapture our greatness.  It’s time to stare in the mirror and ask more of ourselves.  The path we’re on will otherwise produce an unwelcome and painful poverty of economy, power and dignity.  It is time to rebuild our collective character.

[1] Stephen Flynn, The Edge of Disaster (New York: Random House, 2007), p. xxi.
[2] Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, “A Hidden World Growing Beyond Control,” The Washington Post, July 19, 2010.
By |2017-05-27T18:36:51+00:00July 29th, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments

The New Realities Part II: Referential Power

While mega-trends are producing hyper-freedom (see New Realties Part 1), the nature of power—how it is acquired and deployed—is changing as well.  Traditionally, power has been viewed as exclusively coercive—primarily through negative induction—to serve what the Athenian leader Pericles called “the most fundamental of human motivations: ambition, fear, and self-interest.”  Metrics of demographics, geography, and natural resources dominated.  As Thucydides observed during the Peloponnesian Wars, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”[1]  Hard power dominated in a world considered zero-sum, where every winner was matched with a loser.  In the latter twentieth century, Harvard’s Joseph Nye introduced the concept of soft power that includes both positive and negative influence by non-matériel means in a plus-sum (win/win) interdependent world.  Today, the world is changing further still, moving toward new processes that recognize the disaggregation and diffusion of power in a global, as opposed to state-centric, framework.  At the center of this phenomenon are the relative decline of U.S. power and the rise of free agency that enables a third form of power: referential power.

The decline of U.S. power, even if only in a relative sense among other state powers, causes much debate and consternation. After the Soviet Union collapsed the U.S. stood as a unipolar power, unrivaled in hard and soft power.  Following 9/11, U.S. foreign policy entered a period of hubristic overreach that caused a self-inflicted degradation of power.  For many, even suggesting decline is profoundly unpatriotic and inherently foolish.[2]  If we are smart, however, it should not matter.  It is a waste of words and worry.  The paradox of power is that both too little and too much prove to be undesirable.  As foreign policy scholar Michael Mandelbaum recently illustrated, the “power problem” is similar to what economists call the “resource curse,” which occurs in countries that dominate a particular resource, like oil.  They invariably, as do countries with too much power (like the U.S.), adopt policies that weaken the state by over-reliance on the resource, or pernicious use of their power.[3] But again, this should not matter if we recognize our errors and master the concept of referential power.

So what is referential power? As an admittedly exaggerated illustration, consider what it would be like if all NFL football players immediately became unrestricted free agents and were allowed to form new teams without the influence or control of the NFL, team owners, or the players union. Alliances and teams would be formed around particular interests and capabilities without the constraints imposed by the deposed oligarchy.  Disaggregated and diffused ‘power’ in this sense would be recognized, accumulated, and realigned through negotiation by each player based on how they complemented each other’s skills and capacities—to win the next Super Bowl.  Power in this sense becomes referential, granted by and between participants who rely on one another’s skills and capacities to realize the highest and best application of their own.

In a much more gradual and constrained fashion, referential power is being deployed in the global system today, negotiated by both state and non-state actors around specific objectives that may be targeted at security, economics, or other social aims.  Actors are perfecting the art of coopetition, of competing to cooperate. China competes very effectively with the International Monetary Fund to cooperate with African political and business leaders on many industrial development projects.  According to Howard W. French of The Atlantic they do so without the heavy-handedness of the U.S. such that they are perceived as “our friends” throughout Africa.[4] As the metrics shift from demographics, geography, and natural resources towards intelligence-based metrics, so does the nature of power.  If the U.S. is to continue to enjoy a differential power advantage over the long term, our leaders must recognize this changing power paradigm. And, this model of networked, referential power can also be applied locally; you are your own free agent.

On the local level, following the mantra of think globally, act objectively, one must reconsider how to align with resources and authority to accomplish cherished goals.  Identifying like-minded people (through relational networks) and forming a special-purpose, objective-specific network that defines the objective, designs the solution, and drives implementation is the basis of transcendent objectivism; ad-hoc, organically formed alliances where power is granted referentially and resources and authority follow the solution to its realization.  Attraction, not coercion.  Government in this process is not a headliner.  It plays a supportive role.  Transcendent objectivism is a design that is scalable, up or down, locally or globally, among individuals or states.  At its core is referential power.

[1] John Baylis, and Steve Smith (eds.), The Globalization of World Politics (3rd ed.), (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 50, 167.
[2] For a recent argument against ‘the declinists,’ who question the enduring primacy of American power, see Josef Joffe, “The Default Power: The False Prophecy of America’s Decline.” Foreign Affairs, (September/October, 2009): 21-35.  See also, Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987); and Jeremy Black, Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony (London: Routledge, 2008).
[3] Michael Mandelbaum, “Overpowered: Questioning the Wisdom of American Restraint.” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2010): 114-119.
[4] Howard W, French, “The Next Empire.” The Atlantic (May 2010): 59-69.
By |2017-05-25T21:25:11+00:00April 25th, 2010|The New Realities|0 Comments

From ‘Super’ to ‘Default’ (and Back?)

Scholars and pundits love to spar over the nature and magnitude of American power in the global system.  In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, Josef Joffe, co-editor of Die Zeit and senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies takes up the side of American prowess against those he suggests subscribe to “declinism.”  He argues “every ten years, it is decline time in the United States.”  He makes his case for continued American unipolar dominance by pounding the keys of his calculator against traditional metrics of military spending, gross domestic product, and demographics—although he leaves the pesky issue of debt out of his analysis.  (Apparently his calculator doesn’t have a minus key.)  He dismisses “false idols” like China suggesting it is no more a threat than Japan was in the 1980s.  He wades somewhat clumsily into elements of soft power claiming America’s “unmatched research and higher education establishment,” “warrior culture,” and “convening power” (the capacity to call a meeting and have people show up) provide additional evidence of power.  In the end, just in case these arguments don’t stick, he anchors his case with the default concept: whom else would any of us want “to take over as housekeeper of the world”?  His case reads like an evangelical running out of prophecies: from boisterous to breathless.  What he succeeds in, if anything, is surely unintended.  He paints a picture of a nation that is still winning a game that many simply are not playing anymore, and those that are play by different metrics. Maybe the world doesn’t want or need a housekeeper.

The question Joffe ignores, or doesn’t see, is what does it mean when the player who is still winning is doing so from a position of both relative and absolute decline?  Is it possible that both the game (the model) and the way score is kept (the metrics) are what are really changing?  Is the United States the “last man standing,” as Joffe argues, because others don’t want to stand there anyway?  Is the state-centric model where power is measured by guns, money, land, and headcount, passé?  Is there anything about the Cold War bipolar vernacular that still applies in an asymmetric networked world where many of the key actors are neither elected nor bejeweled?  Joffe may be locked in an argument he may win and still lose, simply because it’s the wrong argument—on both sides.  He and the ‘declinists’ may be wrestling over the last claim on a mountain without gold—the right to win nothing.

I’ll wager that what is ahead for the global system and the way power is acquired, expressed, and distributed has little to do with historical models or calculations. Guns, money, land, and headcount may not matter as much. The rules of attraction and persuasion are changing.  America is well positioned to play this game.  But it needs to decide to play, and in so doing shift its priorities and resources away from old-school metrics.  It needs to set its sights on innovation and inspiration where intelligence gains primacy and empowerment at home and throughout the global system brings America back—from ‘default’ to ‘super’ again.

By |2017-05-27T16:39:17+00:00October 5th, 2009|General|0 Comments
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