If you read or watch the news these days, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the United States is a nation in decline. The economy is lousy, our military is over extended, our leaders – both in government and in the private sector – all too often seem to be only focused on their own wealth and power, and a portion of the American populace seems hellbent on preventing our government from taking any steps whatsoever to address our many problems.
On the face of it, we seem to be following in the footsteps of other great powers like Great Britain or the Soviet Union. Some have even suggested we’ve already become a banana republic. The world has changed and many of our leaders, either unwilling or unable to adapt and guide us through this change, appear eager to grab whatever they can while they still can.
But maybe, blinded by outmoded ways of understanding the world, we’re not seeing things as they really are. Maybe all the chaos and commotion we’re going through isn’t a sign of decline…maybe it’s a precursor to a potential rebirth.
This thought came to mind after reading David Brooks’ column The Crossroads Nation in today’s NY Times. Starting with the idea that creativity is a wellspring for economic growth, Brooks suggests:
…economic power in the 21st century is not going to look like economic power in the 20th century. The crucial fact about the new epoch is that creativity needs hubs. Information networks need junction points. The nation that can make itself the crossroads to the world will have tremendous economic and political power.
Brooks was apparently inspired in this view by an essay in Foreign Affairs by Anne-Marie Slaughter, now director of policy planning at the State Department. In “America’s Edge” Slaughter describes today’s interconnected world:
We live in a networked world. War is networked: the power of terrorists and the militaries that would defeat them depend on small, mobile groups of warriors connected to one another and to intelligence, communications, and support networks. Diplomacy is networked: managing international crises — from SARS to climate change — requires mobilizing international networks of public and private actors. Business is networked: every CEO advice manual published in the past decade has focused on the shift from the vertical world of hierarchy to the horizontal world of networks. Media are networked: online blogs and other forms of participatory media depend on contributions from readers to create a vast, networked conversation. Society is networked: the world of MySpace is creating a global world of “OurSpace,” linking hundreds of millions of individuals across continents. Even religion is networked: as the pastor Rick Warren has argued, “The only thing big enough to solve the problems of spiritual emptiness, selfish leadership, poverty, disease, and ignorance is the network of millions of churches all around the world.”
As Albert-Laszlo Barabasi observed in his book Linked, in such a world the key is to be a central hub of the network. A web site like Google will be much more important and influential than a tiny site like this blog. As Barabasi puts it, “popularity is attractive.” Those web sites/people/etc. with the most connections are likely to be the most successful.
Brooks suggests this creates an American advantage:
…the U.S. is well situated to be the crossroads nation. It is well situated to be the center of global networks and to nurture the right kinds of networks. Building that America means doing everything possible to thicken connections: finance research to attract scientists; improve infrastructure to ease travel; fix immigration to funnel talent; reform taxes to attract superstars; make study abroad a rite of passage for college students; take advantage of the millions of veterans who have served overseas.
However, I suspect some will be reluctant to join in the chorus of “It’s a small world after all.” As Robert Wright observed in an essay reflecting on our networked world: “Interdependence theory has a reputation on the right for being a namby-pamby doctrine for naive lefties.”
So Brooks may be right about America’s potential advantage in a networked world. But will his opinion have any influence on those of his conservative brethren who seem consumed by a rabid individualism that “refudiates” any suggestion that all of us – even those who may not “look American” – are in this together? And will their actions keep us from cashing in on this advantage?
The fate of America may hang in the balance…