During the Cold War, there was a popular theory called the China Syndrome (later made into a movie of the same name – 1979). The China Syndrome hypothesized if a nuclear meltdown occurred, molten nuclear material would penetrate the earth’s crust and burn a hole all the way to China. It was conceived on the back of fantasy and fear—of the unknown capacity of nuclear reactions and the menacing prospects of communist China. Today, such a silly notion would not even make it as a Hollywood sci-fi attraction; yet many of our leaders and pundits continue their embrace of our Cold War heritage: that American power is secured by our capacity for coercion.
The neo-cons had it half right: liberty is the elixir of man. Once humans enjoy freedom and independence they will never settle for oppression again. And, free societies do generally make more peaceful ones. However, the establishment of liberty cannot be achieved through coercion—the delivery system of choice for the neo-cons. At best, coercion produces short-term effects. Destroying an adversarial government via military power—destabilizing a society—produces a vacuum that is more easily filled by new tyrants and forms of oppression (security, economic, ideological, and/or theological) than by the principle of liberty. Nor has the deployment of economic coercion proved effective—dollars tethered by political contingencies can be equally destabilizing and supportive of oppressive regimes, no matter how well intentioned (see Haiti, before or after the earthquake).
What we should know now is that liberty requires a fertile base of education and prosperity. What Americans must realize is that a peaceful and prosperous future lies in our capacity to empower societies upon whom we depend in an inextricably interdependent world. We must shift our disposition from coercion to attraction, secured by our greatest capacity of all—to develop and deploy IT. “IT” is creative and critical thinking realized through education. Fortunately, America dominates the world in producing IT as much as it dominates the world in military power. But, we need to wake up and realize it/IT.
While there is plenty to be concerned about our secondary education system, particularly in math and science aptitudes, our universities are the best in the world. According to the Jiao Tong University (Shanghai) ranking of universities based on scientific research, 17 of the top 20 are in the United States and the remaining three are at Cambridge (#4), Oxford (#10), and Tokyo (#20). And, as James Fallows points out in his recent article, the US remains a magnet for foreign minds: one-quarter of the members of the National Sciences Academy were born abroad. But we should refrain from lamentation (like that often offered by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman) that American educated foreign students return to their native countries—that is nearly as shortsighted as the bigger-bombs bunch. Each student who returns has the capacity to educate his or her countrymen, which inevitably leads to greater prosperity and the quest for freedom and independence.
America’s future is best assured by its projection of IT rather than regimes of coercion. Above all others, this is the niche we must continue to dominate. That is not to say we won’t need to deploy coercion to meet short-term objectives, but the world has learned how to subvert our military domination asymmetrically. While they may read a different religious text, they all understand the leverage of David’s sling as he faced the giant Philistine, Goliath. The new China Syndrome suggests education and prosperity may be our best weapon to check the nationalistic impulse of China, and/or others. Mobilizing 1.3 billion people to seek their own liberty is a better long-term bet. Being the font of liberty is better served by empowering others with IT.