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America's Relay Race: With Great Privilege Comes Great Responsibility

by Frans Jager, published

Foreign Affairs Magazine wrote in an editorial for its September/October 2014 edition:

“For such a strong, rich, free, and favorably situated country, the United States is remarkably testy and out of sorts these days — and falling far short of its enormous potential.” - Foreign Affairs Magazine

That is exactly the conclusion I arrived at. The way I would word it is:

America is like the smart kid that is so convinced of its superior talent that it is no longer interested in applying himself to get straight A's.

Like this kid, America is grossly underperforming to its capabilities. It is performing like an A+ student that turns in F grades. It should not be that way. As Bill Gates reminded the 2007 graduating class of Harvard, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

My critics are quick to point out that America is still the greatest nation in the world. They point out that everyone wants to come here and that no one is leaving to go elsewhere. They are mostly right, but this is beside the point.

They should have higher expectations of a country that is blessed with the best of the most vital resources any nation could ever wish for: people, location, space, nature, water, minerals, and hydrocarbons.

America has, unlike most of its rivals, enviable traditions in democracy, tolerance, freedom of thought and pursuit, entrepreneurial spirit, and self-reliance. With all of these assets, there is no question that America should be the top performer among nations. But the nation has allowed others to come a lot closer and it has proven incapable of addressing the big challenges of the 21st century.

There is a broad consensus that the generation now growing up in America may be the first since the Second World War to be worse off than their parents and grandparents. It happens at a time of relative peace and prosperity in the world. If that is not an indictment of America’s performance, I don’t know what is.

Surveying the field today, the question keeps coming up: are the best times behind us? Is America going the way of the Roman and the British Empires?

We all see tell-tale signs of trouble around us, from persistently high unemployment, increasing income inequality, lost or unfinished wars, a skyrocketing national debt, a sub-par infrastructure, an ideologically divided voting public and — resulting from it — a dysfunctional political system.

We see the unraveling of family structures and values, the proliferation of guns and drugs, the (relatively) poor academic performance of our youngsters, and the prevalence of obesity.

It does not have to be that way. It is in no way an inevitability that America will be the next great power to lose its dominance. The American spirit has a natural capacity to step back from the brink and find another, safer way ahead. It is quintessentially American to believe that, when it comes down to brass tacks, America will do what it has to do to avoid hitting the slippery slope.

America is not facing a challenge it cannot meet. But it will have to be galvanized into action. It is engaged in a world championship relay race that, by all accounts, it should win convincingly.

But look what’s happening: the first two legs are easily won, establishing what looked like an insurmountable lead; the third leg consolidates the lead, but does not add to it and the baton is nearly dropped in the hand-off; now in the fourth and final leg it is struggling to regain the pace and the competitors are nipping at its heels. It needs to pick up the pace and finish with a flurry. It will have to dig deep and find in itself the championship talent it has been bestowed with.

We can be grateful to be living in the greatest nation on Earth, but as the French say, "noblesse oblige (with the privilege comes responsibility)."

That is what Bill Gates reminded us in his 2007 Harvard commencement speech (at the brink of the great recession). We can’t rest on our laurels. As Will Rogers so famously said, “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

The resources are there. America has it all. But having it all does not mean anything unless these resources are all brought to bear.

What is needed is leadership and engagement. Leadership on the part of our top public officials and engagement on the part of the American people. We need to rally behind a cause and the cause should be the enhancement of our leadership position in the world in terms of wellness, productivity, social justice, moral superiority, and creativity. We need to have high expectations of ourselves and our nation if we want to win the relay race.

Photo Credit: justasc /

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