This has been a tough spring for national cohesion in the United States. Automatic federal spending cuts called sequestration kicked in after Congress failed to agree on how to manage the federal budget. The Senate voted down a bill that would expand background checks for gun purchasers, despite strong support around the country. And bombings at the Boston Marathon committed by young men hovering between foreign identity and American citizenship confused any clear idea of American identity.
This makes it a good time to mark the two year anniversary of A National Strategic Narrative, published in April 2011 by authors Captain Wayne Porter, USN and Col Mark Mykleby, USMC under the pseudonym Mr. Y.
The document grabbed the attention of politicians and pundits here in the United States, and foreign ministers in Europe and the Middle East. Perhaps most important, it garnered attention from everyday citizens for proposing a reinvigorated American identity and role in the world.
In this new story, national security and prosperity are achieved by embracing, rather than fearing of seeking to dominate, the open, dynamic and connected international world of today. As the authors suggested in the document:
It is time for America to refocus our national interests and principles through a long lens on the global environment of tomorrow. It is time to move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion to a proactive posture of engagement.
Earlier this spring, I had the opportunity to speak with Wayne, who is the Chair of Systemic Strategy and Complexity at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. I asked him how the narrative has progressed, in his view, since in the two years since its publication and why he thought it sparked such a strong response: “Because,” Wayne told me, it was “an opportunity for Americans to understand who we are and open a dialogue and let their representatives know what they think.”’
And Americans took that opportunity: Betty Sproule was inspired when she heard of the dialogue, to sponsor a website dedicated to the site, National Strategic Narrative. That website is still going strong. Teachers taught it, community groups discussed it. Iraq veteran and international relations student Owen Casas was so persuaded by the Narrative’s message that he created a booklet out of it and hand delivered it to all 100 U.S. Senators at the US Capitol. The U.S. Department of Education referenced it in its own first-ever, fully articulated international strategy, Succeeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement. That strategy argued that an educated and engaged citizenry is a cornerstone of a strong democracy.
I was intrigued that a narrative about the future of the United States also found its way into the hands of those such as former UK Foreign Secretary David Millband,
“The message isn’t just about America,” Wayne told me:
Every audience I have had an opportunity to address, even if they ask me questions about the United States like, “Why would anyone want to follow your lead anymore,” I respond, ‘If not us, then who?’ –to be honest—and second of all, they could learn from all of the trials and lessons we [the United States] have learned from creating a model of economic growth that is now being emulated by the world that is no longer sustainable.
The United States designed that [model] at a time when we were little mindful about the finiteness of resources, or a population explosion in the next hundred years. So now all of the countries who want to raise their their middle class, they’re all pursuing the model and they are doing it effectively, but it is completely unsustainable, and they are doing it at all of our risk. The planet can’t sustain that model of growth.
In other words, the United States could lead by being humble about what it has learned. “Yes,” Porter says, “My sense is if we could design the first one, why can ‘t we design the second?”
Two years later, would he change anything in the Narrative?
Nope. “ We crafted it very carefully … it captures honestly what Puck (Mykleby) and I decided needed to be said, that was the primary thing. While we were writing I’d call my wife every day and she told me ‘Americans will understand that.’ That was my sanity check…”
The National Strategic Narrative can be found online at: the National Strategic Narrative website or via the Wilson Center, the think tank that published it. It’s a terrific read and a serious provocation at a challenging moment. It offers a vision of cohesion through the practical expression of shared values:
We must seize the opportunity to be a model of stability, a model of the values we cherish for the rest of the world to emulate. And we must ensure that our domestic policies are aligned with our foreign policies. Our own “smart growth” can serve as the exportable model of “smart power.” Because, truthfully, it is in our interest to see the rest of the world prosper and the world market thrive, just as it is in our interest to see our neighbors prosper and our own urban centers and rural communities come back to life.