Category Archives: American Values
I am a Zero Generation American. Born abroad, I became a citizen at the age of 14. For me, America has always been first, both before and after coming to our country. For a young boy from Austria, America was a magical place, vast and full of people who live great lives and do great things. My mother used to remind me that during her childhood, as the Third Reich was being defeated, Austrians rushed to the western part of the country expected to be occupied by the American forces rather than by Soviet soldiers streaming across the border from the east.
Once a citizen, I became more eloquent but no less emotional in my love for our country. Ultimately, as an American diplomat for more than three decades and as a U.S. Ambassador, I consistently articulated both abroad and here at home the true meaning of America first. America is first when it comes to building a nation of strong, successful, self-reliant, and community-minded men and women. America is first in building strong and lasting alliances and acting at home and abroad in defense of freedom and justice. And America is first in seizing no-nonsense initiatives to change the world for the better and to push the boundaries of human achievement, no matter the obstacles or the cost. America and Americans are not perfect by any means but we are also first in facing our imperfections and correcting our mistakes.
Despite our historic weariness of foreign entanglements as we have grown to be a superpower, we have found that the world is a better place when we are fully engaged in it – diplomatically, economically, and militarily. We do great things and we right great wrongs, both at home and abroad — as Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
In our current electoral battle two individuals are competing for our vote in leading this country in a violent, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. One candidate defines an America locked in conflict with not just our adversaries but also with our friends, allies, and neighbors. I am a former U.S. Ambassador to Estonia, a country that fully meets the NATO defense spending guideline of 2% of GDP. It does serious and lasting damage to our credibility — our global currency as a superpower — when a candidate for our highest public office suggests that the security of an ally, whose soldiers have fought and died alongside our own brave men and women, is not worth defending. The same candidate also paints America as an apocalyptic cartoon landscape and treats our global challenges as a game, forgetting that the characters in this game are real American men, women and children, not action figures. Sadly, some of our countrymen and women are allowing themselves to be seduced by the perversely entertaining nature of this deadly serious — anything but — game.
I had the opportunity to get to know the other candidate personally in my role as a professional diplomat. Hillary Clinton was my boss as Secretary of State. I did my best to live up to her high expectations and the seriousness of her approach to protecting our country’s interests abroad. I used to sit across from her in staff meetings at the State Department when she consistently demonstrated that she was the best prepared person in the room. She gave clear leadership guidance. She allowed opinions other than her own to be heard and to be considered. And she demonstrated the temperament, humanity, and class of a true leader. In settings with foreign counterparts she tenaciously represented the interests of our country and used her constructive personal relationships with friends as well as adversaries on our people’s behalf. She took her job most seriously, always putting America, not herself, first. As a foreign policy professional, I am with her.
Since I cast my first electoral vote in 1972, I have seen our nation lose a hot war, a President resign from office, and our country landing on the moon and winning the Cold War. We have emerged stronger from these experiences, both good and bad, because of the courage and basic goodness and decency of the American people. This November will be my most important vote so far. It may well be the most important vote for all of us in our lifetime. The choice is not simply between two candidates. It is a choice of how we define America first: A wounded country that defensively sees itself as weak globally, short-hanged by its allies and trading partners, beset by terrorists, and ready to build a wall around Fortress America? Or are we a confident nation that has never met a challenge it could not overcome, that stands as a rock of strength for its allies and against its enemies, and as a people who treat each other and the world with decency, respect and humility becoming of Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City Upon a Hill.”
Our choice this fall is not simply “binary,” as some have argued. It is fundamental.
Propelled, or rather held back by our overwhelming national rejection of acting in Syria or elsewhere outside the United States, we Americans are taking another step toward a new world order of our own making. In this new order, Russia and China set the standards for international behavior and the Syrias, North Koreas, and Irans are empowered by Russian and Chinese rules. The United States meanwhile voices the occasional world opinion and even sets some redlines when it comes to unacceptable behavior, but accepts that our full national power will not be used unless our homeland itself is once again directly under attack. This new reality is not the result of comments by our Secretary of State or by the decisions of the President of the United States, but a direct consequence of the vast majority opinion of the American people. Historians will of course remind us that we have been exhausted by foreign entanglements before before, since our very founding in fact, and since both after WWI and WWII, and at many other junctures of history. They will also acknowledge that the times we have gone to war and lost precious blood and treasure, have made us justifiably weary of the next hostile engagement.
I am among the apparent minority of Americans who do do not wish to accept such a new world order. I am proud that we engaged in and won both WWII and the Cold War. I am proud that we fought Communist totalitarianism and global terror. I am delighted that we threw Saddam Hussain out of Kuwait and that we dislodged Slobodan Milosevic and brought him to Justice for his crimes against humanity. Our country paid a price for its victories as well as its failures. Clearly not every one of our engagements was wise. But our intentions and our principles were. There used to be a time when the U.S. set international parameters for acceptable behavior, and both our friend and foes paid very close attention. The 20th century was the American Century and I firmly believe that the world will be a better place if the 21st is so as well.
On Syria we are now reduced to being lectured by an autocratic Russian leader on peace, democracy and international law! And rather than standing forcefully against a regime that has taken to kill its own people, we are breathing a sigh of relief that Russia has offered us a way out of acting on our convictions by engaging in Russian/Syrian “diplomacy” instead. In the end, the most serious consequences of this sad state of affairs are not the loss of credibility of the United States or our President or even the message our inaction conveys to repressive regimes around the globe. The real tragedy is that we seem to have lost something that we Americans have long stood for: the conviction that the whole world is entitled to certain inalienable rights and that we are the champions of these rights.
Today, our leaders are delivering to us, step by step, the America we are asking for: a nation that looks inward, that is less confident, that feels economically pressured, and just no longer sees itself as that exceptional, indispensable nation. We will not like the world we are allowing to be built by others who don’t share our values.
Imagine the headline: “Breaking news: The sun came up this morning! Some European leaders suspect U.S. involvement and demand an explanation; others decry the lack of U.S. leadership in letting the sun set every evening. In other news, it has been alleged that government intelligence agencies actually collect information. The weather today: cloudy.”
It is not my intent to make light of the recent outcry among our European friends over alleged U.S. intelligence information gathering. The accusation in all this outrage is not only a privacy violation, but also government overreach reminiscent of authoritarian regimes, both past and current. Frankly, the privacy argument falls a bit flat in the share-all facebook and twitter age. And when did U.S. information gathering last injure one of our friends and allies? And who can throw the first stone when it comes to collection of intelligence?
Even if only meant for public consumption, all this outrage is unnecessary. The sun comes up every day. Intelligence agencies collect information. We want to know about our enemies’ communication patterns. At times those communication paths cross your territory. So give us a break and help us out. The same groups that mean to harm us have the same in mind for you, after all. What little we may have come to know about you incidental to our anti-terror efforts (and no doubt discarded) is still far less than what many of you share readily with a wide audience on facebook or twitter.
As a U.S. diplomat in Europe, I routinely experienced the sense of ownership of our leaders among many of our European friends. An American presidential election was also a European political event. Somehow, even if unstated, you expected your views of our presidents to be given the weight of those of our own citizens. Following the irrational European dislike of our last president followed first adulation and then European disappointment in our current one. To a degree such attitudes were understandable and had in the past even been precipitated by us. We Americans, for a long time, lived the role of leader and protector of the free world, its territory and its values. But enough is really enough.
There was a time in the aftermath of a devastating hot and then a cold war when your focus on our leaders was logical, since to a great degree we influenced your fate even more fundamentally than did your own leaders. But in the 21st century your dream and ours has been realized. Nearly all of Europe is whole, free, and at peace….. and you own it! Our friendship and alliance have never been stronger, more important, or more equal. Because and not despite of this, we both try to figure out what the other side thinks. We both gather information on each other and our common enemies. Other than the rough and tumble of free market competition and occasional policy differences, America and Europe have a critical stake in each others success and well-being. As the co-architects of today’s Europe, we are proud of the powerful union you have become. You in turn have every reason to trust in our paramount commitment to our relationship. The U.S. does not act to the detriment of its European or other allies.
So, my dear European friends, let it rest. A man I used to work for and respect most highly, General Colin Powell, once made the definitive statement about American military engagement that applies equally to our ventures into cyberspace: “We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years … and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home to live our own lives in peace.”
Democratic political transitions always provide a good opportunity for strategic policy reviews and fresh starts. That includes second terms of incumbents. Many expectations of a new beginning accompany Barack Obama as the American people prepare to swear him in for his second term. The Administration’s dance card for the next four years is already full, even before the first inaugural ball strikes up the band. Critical economic deadlines loom, along with other complex domestic concerns, from gun violence to immigration policy. All of the toughest foreign policy challenges of the past remain, with several coming to a head in the near term: Afghanistan/Pakistan future, Syria civil war, Iran nuclear ambitions, Putin’s Russia, China’s global role, Al Quaida’s and other terrorist whac-a-mole appearances around the world, and the list goes on.
The President’s new national security team is taking shape. Stacks of briefing papers will greet the new cabinet members in their offices, many reiterating the past and some projecting the future. Much of the focus will be on the trouble spots and less on new opportunities, especially in foreign policy. We have become a bit cautious in our ambitions. Americans are exhausted from years of recession, economic uncertainty and personal sacrifice and loss — from Kabul to Newtown. Our friends in Europe and many other parts of the globe share in this weariness.
Our governments are responding to citizens’ concerns, as they should. But that’s not enough. Even as we are calling on our leadership to “do something,” and often make conflicting demands, we are actually not asking for what we really need — a new project, new hope. We have been to the moon, but U.S. astronauts now need a ride from the Russians to the International Space Station. We need new “moon missions.” And they have to be bold and exciting. President Obama has called for investments in domestic infrastructure, research, and education. Yes, absolutely; and maybe bold given our fiscal state, but hardly exciting.
So what would be an exciting effort to pull us out of our doldrums? How about a tremendously ambitious project that, if successful, would result in happy, prosperous, employed people enhancing and powering the largest economic and political relationship in the world? How about the much talked-about, but never realized U.S. – Europe Free Trade Agreement? How about totally eliminating redundant and expensive barriers to trade such as differing standards from car bumpers to yogurt? How about turning a $16 trillion U.S. economy and a $17 trillion EU economy into a $33 trillion transatlantic economic juggernaut? Expected GDP bumps range from 1% to 2%, yielding hundreds of thousands of jobs on both sides of Atlantic. Now that’s exciting! As a confidence building measure between Administration and Congress, the two should agree on fast track legislative approval for a deal. Reaching for this goal would signal hope. Success would signal U.S.and European energy, confidence, and commitment in a critical relationship. The markets, and our other trading partners and competitors, would be impressed, as they should be.
We must snatch the initiative for creating good news from reacting to bad. This is just one new “moon mission.” We really need this — and more — on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world.
I am still processing the reality that I am now home for good after three plus decades of constant packing and unpacking and bouncing between home and abroad. First of all: It is great to be back! I have spent a diplomatic career extolling the dynamism, leadership and just sheer true grit of our society, and I am amazed to see how tough, resilient and still optimistic we Americans are after more than a decade of personal and national setbacks, and for too many, real tragedies. A lesser people would have crumbled under the pressure. We have not.
In a few weeks we will chose our next President and other government leaders. With the end of a long election season, the work on America’s recovery will not only continue, but intensify. We will have to overcome political differences over the how and who and move forward — fast. There is so much work to do! Growing the economy and keeping our country safe are the overriding goals, but we will have to get specific on details. As we look at other countries outperforming us in education and manufacturing or trade, it is clear that we have our work cut out for us. We are so used to being ahead of the rest of the world that it is hard for us to have to talk about “catching up.” So let’s not. Let’s vault ahead, rather than just catch up to others.
Among the many macro challenges we will have to overcome, here is a small sampling of seemingly small things that would have a big signal effect if we showed the world and ourselves a better way. See what you think.
E-Governance: Obtaining government services at any level in our country is much harder and old-fashioned than it should be in the 21st century. We need state-of-the-art, fast, simple, service oriented access to our government, from obtaining vehicle license plates to passports; from mining permits to export licenses. I just returned from tiny 21st century Estonia to vast and sometimes turn-of-the century America. Estonians have a comfortable, even trusting relationship with their government, not because they spend a lot of time dealing with their bureaucracy, but because they spend very little. Government services are delivered mostly electronically and fast, without long waiting lines, limited service hours, or complicated paperwork. Most services can be obtained sitting in a comfortable easy chair at home with a laptop, tablet or smartphone, while enjoying a favorite beverage.
Wireless Communications: I finally have my new iPhone 5, my home internet connection, and I can find he nearest Starbuck’s with free WiFi. All good, and many around the world envy us for the technology we have invented and put in place. But in fact our internet access is slower and/or more expensive than in other proudly “wired” — or better — “wireless” countries. Too often during my once again daily commute from the Washington suburbs into the capital of the United States, I am faced with the “can you hear me now?” problem as my — hands free — phone connection suddenly drops put. Outside the Beltway it is even worse. In Estonia, broadband wireless access throughout the country — at little or no cost — is a given. The internet is a utility, as universally available and affordable as water, electricity and indoor plumbing. We still grit our teeth paying a hefty charge for slow internet access in top hotels in the country that invented the internet!
Cyber Security/Privacy Protection: I spent a solid amount of my time as Ambassador on national and international cyber security issues. It is a hot topic in diplomatic, military and international law enforcement circles. Our leaders warn of potential “Cyber Attack Pearl Harbors.” Serious stuff and deserving of its high national security priority.
On an individual level, protecting ourselves from identity theft and other forms of cyber crime is of similar importance. In that latter area, the question is not whether we shield ourselves, but how. We do what we can with computer virus detection software, encryption packages, and dozens of passwords with every internet entity from on-line stores to our banks and our digital media subscriptions. We live on the internet, and we live with a confusing array of what we hope are adequate security and privacy protections. Dozens or even hundreds of interloctutors in cyberspace have large chunks of our personal data and all promise “iron clad protection.” Really?
Estonians too are fully vested in the internet age. They embrace the reality that we work, live, shop, interact and play in cyberspace. But they have decided to entrust the security of these interactions, including access to government and commercial services, to a national identity access card — a most difficult subject to raise here in the U.S. We start to shiver when we hear “national ID card” and “government central database.” I readily share our wariness of “big brother.” But I have concluded that big brother already exists in multiple databases that all too readily share information to make big brother larger and more unpredictable than any single, user monitored and legally secured personal identity system would. My friends in Estonia repeatedly demonstrated to me the utility of their ID cards as well as the electronic fingerprints they were able to monitor of those who had accessed their data, including even the police.
So I did spend two and a half hours at my local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in order to get my car license plates — something I should have been able to do by inserting my ID card into a license plate vending machine similar to an ATM in about 2 minutes. Of course my gripe is not simply about waiting in line for a government service or even slow or expensive internet access. It is my concern that what should be America’s leadership as a modern, agile, and innovative society is in a bit of a rut. I am among those who believe in American exceptionalism — not arrogantly placing us above other nations, but accepting and exercising the unique role or country’s founders placed on our shoulders as visionaries and innovators. The citizens of Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” should not be waiting hours at the DMV and the people of Madeline Albright’s “Indispensable Nation” should not have to shout into their smart phones “can you hear me now?”
I am back. On July 22 this year I departed Estonia for the last time as U.S. Ambassador and launched the transition from 35 years in my country’s Diplomatic Service into my new life as a private sector diplomat. On October 1, I joined the new McCain Institute for International Leadership as Senior Director. Located in Washington, D.C. and supported initially by a $9 million gift from the McCain Institute Foundation, we are part of Arizona State University (ASU), America’s largest public university. Our mission is to advance leadership based on security, economic opportunity, freedom, and human dignity, in the United States and around the world.
I will be directing a unique new global leadership fellows program that will bring emerging leaders from around the world to the U.S. to engage in a year-long deepening of their “character-driven” leadership skills, along with professional development in their respective fields. As an ASU Professor, I will also be passing on 35 years of diplomatic and international leadership experience to the next generation of U.S. and international foreign affairs leaders.
And of course the issues and subjects that have been important to me in the past continue to excite me in my new capacity: cyber security, e-governance, U.S. global leadership, the trans-Atlantic relationship, American values, and technology and policy, to name just a few. Thank you for your patience with my temporary absence from the blogosphere and stay tuned — you will hear from me on these and many other issues again from now on. Follow me and the McCain Institute also on Twitter and Facebook.