Monday, May 25, 2020

Nuclear Clouds on the Horizon

Nuclear Clouds on the Horizon

A series of ominous signs point to the reality that President Reagan’s warning—“a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”—has not sunk into the thinking of the military establishments of the nine nuclear powers. The U.S. is signaling its abandonment of arms control left and right, most recently the Open Skies Treaty, a stabilizing agreement that allowed Russian and American planes to do flyovers of each other’s territories. The U.S. and others continue research on both hypersonic missiles that will reduce the time for sensible decision-making in a crisis.  We are also developing smaller-yield warheads that make the transition from conventional to nuclear war more likely. Mr. Trump and friends are thinking again about more nuclear tests and the weaponization of space.

We knew very well a worldwide plague could occur but we didn’t think it would. We were taken by surprise and unprepared. The pandemic struck impersonally at obsolete conceptions of nationalist autonomy, reminding the international community of all the other challenges we can only solve together.

Nuclear weapons remain one of those challenges. There is only one way out of the corner we have painted ourselves into: mutual, verifiable agreements to get rid of the weapons and control the materials that go into them. So what do we need to know that will have the momentum to carry the world through to this end, the momentum of truth? A few fundamental realities:

The first is the unreliability of deterrence.  Deterrence works—until it doesn’t. It didn’t deter 9/11. It didn’t deter Russia’s stealth invasion of Crimea. Realists embrace deterrence, Mutual Assured Destruction, as a tragic necessity. The reality is that it purports to prevent a third World War when in fact it only postpones one. Why? Because the mother of all paradoxes is built into the system: in order to never be used, the weapons must be kept ready for instant use. With no mistakes. Forever.

Which brings us to a related reality—the inevitability of error. I participated back in the 1980s in a citizen initiative to bring together Russian and American scientists to write papers on the technical background of accidental nuclear war. The papers became a book, Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking, the first book published simultaneously in the U.S. and the then rapidly changing Soviet Union. Gorbachev read it. Even today more than thirty years later, the book retains the capacity to make one’s hair stand on end. All the problems that the scientists agreed in 1986 were dire are even more dire today.

The layered systems of computers and missiles, some of the equipment modern and some frighteningly worn and obsolete, are coupled with the familiar human error that we have seen unfold in technical failures like the Challenger, Chernobyl, and the Max-8s. There are too many stories of early warning systems mistaking the rising moon or a flock of geese for incoming missiles, nearly initiating a retaliatory launch. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the equivalent of our playing pistol roulette with the world. There was a bullet in the chamber and we pulled the trigger, but miraculously the gun misfired. As Robert McNamara said, only luck, not expertise, has saved us. How far can we afford to push our luck?

Another piece is what we have learned about the possibility of nuclear winter. Scientists have modelled more and more precisely how few nuclear detonations on cities would be required to raise enough dust and ash into the upper atmosphere to change the planetary climate, making fatal changes in agriculture and our ability to feed ourselves. Thus even a so-called “limited” nuclear war contains no possible victory, and very possibly would lead to the suicide of the nation that initiated it. It is startling to admit that, much as we reserve our deepest fear and disgust for suicide bombers, our taxes and investments subsidize just such a system on a world-ending scale.

We cannot fool ourselves that our weapons are good because we are good and North Korea’s weapons are evil because they are evil. A Hindu bomb or a Muslim bomb or a democratic bomb or a totalitarian bomb are all equally adequate to cause nuclear winter.

Unless we change direction, the ultimate tragedy of nuclear war will emerge from the status quo. Experts know this, and yet the drift toward the waterfall continues. Not one of the nine nuclear powers has signed the 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which so far 81 nations have already signed and 37 ratified—an international expression of the democratic spirit we value in our own country.

The only way out—the only way—is a permanent conference, sponsored by the U.N., where the stakeholders pledge no-first-use, take their weapons off hair-trigger, and work out protocols of mutual, verifiable reductions of all weapons. Even if it takes a decade or more, positive incremental steps along the way will build confidence that the job can be completed.

An extraordinarily hopeful precedent was provided by the Nunn-Lugar Threat Reduction Initiative in the 1980s and 90s— a bipartisan achievement. The project resulted in the disassembly of 7000 nuclear warheads in the territories of the now former Soviet Union. That is nearly half of all the nuclear weapons deployed worldwide today. In one crucial sense these weapons are not like a virus: we built them, and if we can truly see their surreal dysfunction, we can, and we will, unbuild them.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Nuclear Weapons—One Rotarian's Take

Nuclear weapons brought me to Rotary. Some years ago I was invited to give a talk, a rough version of this very article. I had all the usual stereotypes in my head—Rotarians were stiff, mostly male, prone to empty ritual. I was nervous about how a controversial subject might go over. To my surprise, the audience was friendly, respectful and curious. Within a few weeks I had joined Rotary and began to know some of the most generous-spirited, creative and fun-loving men and woman I have encountered in a long lifetime.

I am a child of the atomic age, born in 1941. As the bombs annihilated two Japanese cities, my father was training to become a translator as part of the anticipated final invasion, which, in the standard historical interpretation, suddenly became unnecessary.

People in my demographic have been living all their conscious lives with the threat of nuclear war as a kind of low-level background noise—a noise which rose to a roar at key moments, like the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Especially disconcerting over the decades has been the distance between ordinary citizens and the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the arms race.

In 1984, I was moved to join a group that was determined to make a real difference. We arranged for a group of Soviet and American scientists to meet at a retreat center in California and work together on a set of papers on accidental nuclear war. The result was not only the first book published simultaneously in the Soviet Union and the United States, but enduring friendships among the participating scientists. Gorbachev read the book. Perhaps our initiative even played a minor role in ending a fifty-year era of tension.

Sadly, former Secretary of Defense William Perry asserts that, given the complexity of defense systems and the possibility of error, nuclear war is more likely today than at the height of the Cold War. In the midst of all our other planetary challenges, that is an especially harsh reality to get our minds around.

Equally hard to comprehend is how bizarre a system we have evolved to keep ourselves safe. Imagine we are an alien from another planet checking in on Earth’s progress. Leaders of our most powerful nations are accompanied everywhere by an attendant with a suitcase full of codes capable of unleashing sufficient power to destroy everything.

In the mother of all paradoxes, in order to be sure they are never used, everyone’s weapons must be kept ready for instant use. No misinterpretations or mistakes are allowed—forever. The message of inevitable breakdown, even if rare, in technologically complex systems—Challenger, Chernobyl, 737-Max 8s—must be uneasily ignored. Meanwhile this deterrence system prevented neither the horror of 9-11, nor the Russian invasion of Crimea, just to name two salient examples.

But the oddity of the deterrence system doesn’t end there. We have known for decades that the detonation of even a small number of the weapons could cause nuclear winter. Which means that in even a limited nuclear war without any retaliatory response, victory would dissolve into suicide. This is our security system. It is meant, with the best of intentions, to prevent a third global war. But close examination yields the reality that it is only postponing such a war, as we go about our business and try not to think about the sword hanging over our collective heads.

With the Coronus pandemic, the planet has received a further incentive to think freshly about our systems and values. The analogy with nuclear catastrophe is inescapable. We knew it could happen but we just didn’t believe it really would. We were unprepared. Medical systems worldwide were overwhelmed, as they would be in a nuclear war—if medical systems still existed at all.

In the early 19th century, chattel slavery in the U.S. seemed psychologically, economically and politically immovable. While change necessitated a tragically bloody civil war, equally essential were men and women committed to bringing about a paradigm shift in what it meant to be a moral person subject to the constitutional right of equality.

Today, it is hard for me to see how Rotary, with its power of numbers, resources and good will, can stand entirely aside from the nuclear challenge. Yes, there are complex questions about why we might want to stay out of the fray—unless we imagine what we might have done if we had been 1.2 million people worldwide confronting the ethical contradictions of slavery in 1850.

I am deeply convinced that there is an answer to the nuclear conundrum. It is contained in the model supplied by the scientists from two adversarial nations coming to a common understanding of the dangers of accidental nuclear war—a very Rotary-like initiative.

The world needs to get behind a U.N.-sponsored permanent international conference of stakeholders to work on reciprocal, verifiable reductions in nuclear arsenals. The bi-partisan Nunn-Lugar Nuclear Threat Reduction Initiative provides an instructive model: as the Soviet Union dissolved, this astonishing program was able to reduce the number of deployed warheads in places like the Ukraine by 7000—almost half the number of nuclear weapons deployed today!

The paradigm of how the world thinks about security is changing. Kissinger, Nunn, Shultz and Perry have sensibly asserted the strategic uselessness of nuclear weapons and called for their abolition. And so have the ever-increasing number of nations that have signed the 2017 United Nations Treaty Outlawing Nuclear Weapons. As people committed to peacebuilding and all the issues crucial to peacebuilding in our areas of focus, it is time for us Rotarians to start “living the questions,” as the poet Rilke put it, around Rotary’s potential involvement, whatever form it might take, in the issue of nuclear abolition. The eradication of polio once seemed impossible. But as Nelson Mandela said, “it always seems impossible, until it’s done.”

Saturday, February 1, 2020

"Where's My Roy Cohn?"

At one point when he felt under siege by possible indictments and impeachable offenses, the president whined petulantly, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” The question became the title of a documentary on Cohn’s life and career that made one feel after viewing like taking a long hot shower. Cohn blithely represented a number of high-ranking organized crime capos.  His reputation for ruthlessness was surpassed only by his reputation for hypocrisy as a closeted gay man who, when he worked for Senator McCarthy, had no problem trashing the reputation of other gay men.

Now the president has found his Roy Cohn—in Lamar Alexander, Lisa Murkowski, and all the other Republicans in the Senate who voted to end the first ever impeachment trial that subpoenaed no witnesses and requested no documents. As e.e.cummings once wrote:

“A politician is an ass upon
Which everyone has sat—except a man.”

Women, too—here’s looking at you, Lisa.

But politicians do not have to be sat-upon asses devoid of principles. I don’t know about you, but in the heroic eloquence and poise of Adam Schiff, I saw something presidential. Maybe not this cycle, but down the road.

It was hard to choose the most outrageous aspect of this Moscow-like show trial—McConnell’s brazen partisanship even though he swore himself to impartiality; Dershowitz’s cockamamie “arguments” that came right back down to Nixon’s “if the president does it, it’s not illegal”; the general weakness of the defense’s rationalizations of the president’s behavior; the abject, feckless refusal to interview Bolton;  or the fact that the president’s lawyer Mr. Cipollone continued to defend the president even as it emerged that Cipollone was in at least one meeting that made him a direct witness of the president’s perfidy.

Polls suggest that 75% of Americans wanted witnesses. That statistic, given myriad other evidence that the polarization around Trump is more like 50-50, is arresting. It suggests something hopeful about the body politic—that, unlike the Republic senators, even for Trump supporters, basic fairness trumps mindless cultism.

Jill Lepore, in an excellent article in this week’s New Yorker, writes “Nothing so sharpens one’s appreciation for democracy as bearing witness to its demolition.” The empty spectacle of the impeachment trial has the potential to activate a lot of citizens to go to work and show cynics like McConnell the door.

OK—on to the ballot box. At least they can’t take that away from us  . . .  can they?????

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Turning Point: The new documentary “Coup 53”

A historical turning point is a moment, perhaps small, perhaps larger, that becomes uniquely causative of events that follow. Obvious examples might include the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand that set off World War One, the U.S. Supreme Court handing the election to George W. Bush instead of Al Gore, or 9-11.  

The enthralling new documentary directed by Iranian film maker Taghi Amirani and edited and co-written by the renowned film editor Walter Murch (“Apocalypse Now”; “English Patient”) is a meticulous backward look at an event that still determines much of the resentment Iran feels toward the government of the United States—and Britain: the 1953 coup which overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran.

At least the U.S. has admitted its complicity; the British intelligence service, MI6, never has, and thereby arises the thriller aspect of this astonishing film. Combing through reams of old documents, film archives, audio- and videotapes, Amirani and Murch come upon a shocking find that explodes a long and careful cover-up.

Meanwhile, multiple interviews with Iranians and Brits who were present at the time of the coup, some of whom are so old that they have died since the film was finished, illuminate the context and the actual tragic events as they unfolded.

We begin to know Mossadegh himself, a dignified, intellectual, and incorruptible official whose laudable goal was to transform Iran into a modern secular state. For him, that required that Iran nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had for decades been screwing Iran out of its fair share of oil profits.

Suddenly Mossadegh beat out Eisenhower or Churchill for the choice of Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, not as a hero of reformist government but as a sower of chaos. The U.S. and British powers that be, via their intelligence services, provided the cash—amazingly, it did not take all that much—to buy off Iranian journalists and hire mercenary provocateurs who took to the streets and inspired mobs to rise up against Mossadegh.

We know the rest of the story—or we certainly ought to. The Shah of Iran was installed, with the US. training his notorious secret police, SAVAK, in rituals of torture and surveillance. Eventually there was the inevitable reaction, and the Shah had to go into exile, leaving the ayatollahs to take over, which led to the 1979 taking of 52 American hostages as well as deep Iranian-American mutual resentment and suspicion that has lasted to this day. And the hostage-taking was surely a crucial factor in Reagan’s defeat of Carter.

The American secret establishment drew precisely the wrong lesson from the “success” of the overthrow of Mossadegh, and from thence came a rolling series of perversities such as the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, leader of the Congolese independence movement, the overthrow of Arbenz, another democratically elected leader in Guatemala, the attempt to overthrow Ho Chih Minh in Vietnam,
and the Bay of Pigs debacle.

Of course it is impossible to say exactly what might have happened if Mossadegh had been allowed to stay in power, but one possibility, crushingly unrealized today, is that there would be one more modern, thriving democracy in the middle of the Middle East.

One thing is certain: given the low state of American-Iranian relations at the moment, this film, riveting on its own merits, now carries the weight of a profoundly greater relevance than the filmmakers could have possibly expected when they began the project over a decade ago.

The film - which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2019 - has received audience awards from the Vancouver International Film Festival and has been nominated for the Grierson and BIFA awards.  It will be theatrically distributed later in 2020. Here is a link to a preview.

Perhaps “Coup 53” itself will become a turning point—toward a warmer relationship between the “West” and Iran.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

How Long O Lord?

Some years ago my daughter and I had the privilege of visiting the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. Not far from the millions of wildebeests and zebras migrating across the Serengeti Plain, the Olduvai Gorge museum was occupied that day by a single gentle African supervisor. There were no other tourists. We had this place of origins to ourselves.

The museum celebrated Louis Leakey and colleagues' discoveries of the fossil remains of our most distant bipedal ancestors. The most striking exhibition was a replica of 3.7 million-year-old footprints in fossilized mud, clearly those of a male, a female, and two children. These fragile indentations were poignantly immortalized by volcanic ash that rained down from a sudden eruption, preserved until Leakey’s team unearthed them.

As we exited the museum into the windswept parking area, I experienced my own inner eruption from some foundational depth. Tears began to pour. I had no clear idea why. The gentle curator came out and put his arm around my shoulder. From his kind gesture I sensed that others besides me had had a similar response to the museum’s displays, as I tried to put into words whatever had me in its grip. “All the wars. . !” I sobbed, and he nodded.

That was part of it—the sad waste of human-on-human violence through the passage of millions of years—but not all of it. We had experienced a visceral connection with that far-off little family not only as tragedy but as hope. Their footprints had erased the immense chasm of time between us and them. They and others like them had managed to reproduce and carry the human experiment forward, in a delicate unbroken chain stretching across millennia to the present. Their meeting of their survival challenges had made our own lives possible.

The experience in Olduvai Gorge rushed back as I read of President Trump’s assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. My moment in the Gorge twenty years ago, the experience of a connection across time deep enough to cause tears, of feeling overwhelmed by all that our species has gone through, begged the question: when will we ever learn?

Secretary Pompeo’s and President Trump’s rationalizations for the killing of Soleimani were typically Orwellian: “We did this not to start a war but to stop one.” It’s the same kind of absurd calculation that motivated bin Salman when he had Jamal Khashoggi strangled and dismembered—and went on to sentence to death half the team that did the deed under his own orders.

We feel weariness and exasperation at the banality of our tit-for-tat violence against each other. After endless tribal clashes, crusades, Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s or Saddam’s or Assad’s exterminations, the Turkish or Nazi or Rwandan genocides, have we learned nothing about the ultimate futility of an eye for an eye, which, as Gandhi said, only makes the whole world blind?

A plague on both their houses, the American and the Iranian “leaders”—a plague on all their houses—the murderous, up-to-no-good Soleimani, the Russians who support the Iranian militias and Assad as he decimates his own people, the grotesque excesses of ISIS, Putin’s own thuggish assassinations of dissidents, the Chinese forced ”re-education” of the Uighurs, the cowardly Saudis trembling at the independence of the mild-mannered Khashoggi.

So much militarism and murder and cruelty and torture around the world so that dictators can keep ordinary human beings in line by intimidation and violence and gross violations of privacy—by “facial recognition” technology without real recognition— of mutuality.

So many refugees, so many children mentally or physically damaged. Where is the Greta Thunberg who will hurl indignation at the shameful failure of grown-ups to keep children safe from war’s ravages?

To say we are children is an insult to heroic children like Greta. We are not children, we are infantile—I mean we the human species. Not to have learned from 1914 assassination of the archduke which began WW1, or the treachery of Pearl Harbor and the first use of the atom bomb in war, or the partition of India and Pakistan that still reverberates in Kashmir, or the British-American overthrow of the elected government of Iran in 1953, or the Cuban Missile crisis, or the failures of Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not to have learned how futile it is to hate our enemies more than we love our children.
Not even to have begun to see we are not Shia and Sunni, Arab and Jew, Iranian and American, Hindu and Muslim, dark or light-skinned, but one species, all facing the climate emergency together, all wanting security, nourishing food, clean water, a better life for our kids, all equally in search of meaning, dignity, fulfillment. Which means that the two words “diplomatic solution” go together far better than “military solution.”

Meanwhile the juggernaut of the arms race rushes headlong toward apocalypse, enriching the few as the threat to all increases. The Russians boast of a new hypersonic missile that can glide to an exact target anywhere on earth in half an hour or less, and we Americans mindlessly vow to equal or surpass this latest destabilizing innovation. We are hell-bent toward the next global war, but even the most war-loving generals won’t like it when it actually happens. And it will, it will, unless we start to picture ourselves in each other’s shoes and work out our differences. As Auden wrote, “we must love one another or die.”

Isn’t the 3.7 million years between the footprints of our forebears at Olduvai and 2020 time enough for us to have learned that violence and war are perfect vehicles for the perpetuation of conflict, but completely obsolete when it comes to the genuine resolution of conflict? How much more time do we need? How much more time do we have?

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

A Presidential Speech The World Needs To Hear

“Good evening, my fellow Americans.

I want to speak frankly with you tonight about a reality that the nuclear powers have so far refused to acknowledge as the arms race goes forward unchecked. We have arrived at a point in history when the destructive power and complexity of our weapons systems have become so overwhelming that their strategic usefulness cancels any good that they could possibly do to maintain security for our own or any other nation. We all know this. President Reagan acknowledged as much when he said back in 1984 “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

The clearest demonstration of this reality is contained in computer models that show how few nuclear detonations would be necessary to plunge the world into a cooling phase so widespread that agriculture would be affected for a decade—in effect, a death sentence for the planet. It would take the use of only 3 to 5 percent of existing U.S. nuclear weapons to loft into the high atmosphere enough dust and ash to circle the earth and make the growing of food impossible. Even a limited exchange between two nuclear powers would amount to planetary suicide. Retaliation, the basis of deterrence strategy, would only hasten the end of all we love.

This is a major reason why 122 non-nuclear nations have signed the United Nations treaty outlawing the manufacture and deployment of nuclear weapons. None of the nine nuclear powers have signed this treaty, because established political, military and corporate thinking asserts that the power of these weapons have been a deterrent to further global war.

People of good will may argue that the policy of deterrence has prevented apocalypse. Our challenge is that deterrence is not a steady, stable condition but instead an ever-changing unstable one. The relentless march of “we build/they build” technological competition is constantly providing new weapons delivery systems. These systems are attached to ever more complex electronic monitoring devices, and these devices are in turn attached to fallible humans, the whole enchilada subject to the unspoken paradox of deterrence: in order to never be used, the weapons must be ready for instant use.

My fellow citizens, no one has more respect than me for the professionalism of the various branches of our military. Our problem is that the prevention of an extinction event like nuclear winter is dependent upon not only our own personnel and equipment making zero mistakes, but also upon the other nuclear powers doing the same—forever.

But we must face the tragic reality that accidents and misinterpretations are not only possible with technologically complex systems—they are inevitable. This we have learned the hard way, from the Challenger disaster, from Chernobyl, from Fukushima, from the two 737 Max 8 disasters, just to name a significant few. We are caught in a pervasive illusion, a web of denial: we acknowledge that planes can crash and chemical plants can explode, but we do not seem to be able to acknowledge, because we have become so dependent upon it, that the mighty deterrence system of the existing nuclear nations itself could fail if we continue the arms race.

We need to question our most fundamental assumptions, and if they are about to lead us off a cliff, must we not turn around and begin to take steps away from that cliff?

Today I, as Commander-in-Chief, am taking the first step backward with three initiatives. First, I pledge that the United States will never under any circumstances initiate the use of nuclear weapons. Second, as a further confidence-building gesture, I am bringing back to base two of our Trident ballistic missile submarines, and I am ordering our intelligence services to be on the lookout for reciprocal gestures from the other nuclear powers. If we see clear evidence of such gestures, our nation will respond in kind, beginning, I fervently hope, a virtuous circle of military stand-downs and a consequent relaxation of tensions. Third, I am calling for an ongoing international conference of military and diplomatic leaders to share with each other the dire implications of a hair-trigger deterrence system and to come up with realistic ways to go beyond it and prevent disaster. I expect the personnel of both nuclear and non-nuclear nations to participate, given that they all have a mortal stake in a positive outcome, and also given that there are many nations who continue to assume that their self-interest and survival requires nuclearization.

Now I fully realize many citizens and strategic experts will question the usefulness or even the common sense of these proposals. Since the end of the World War Two, a war which coincided with the beginning both of the atomic age and the cold war standoff with other superpowers, the peace has been kept through overwhelming military strength. The United States will maintain this superior strength even as we explore this new landscape where strategic advantage is no longer available by way of more weapons of mass destruction. The same technology which enabled these weapons to be built will also be up to the task of verifying whether nations meet professed commitments that will allow a world free of the scourge of nuclear weapons. 

My final point is that not only we have been overtaken by inconvenient nuclear realities, but also America must lead in the redirection of the immense resources we have been pouring into nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.  The very survival of the planet demands that we transform our own so-called military-industrial complex—and incentivize other advanced into doing the same—into a global powerhouse that will provide sustainable energy and prevent rising temperatures from rendering vast reaches of the planet uninhabitable. We have no other choice but to thread the needle between potential global cooling by nuclear winter and the climate emergency of excess carbon dioxide.

God bless the United States of America, and equally bless the other nations of the world as we work together to move in the direction of a planet that works for all.”

Saturday, August 17, 2019

A Context for American Renewal

 "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today."
                                                                   —Abraham Lincoln

What’s next for our nation? What kind of shared vision can we the people build? Here are six lenses or “levels” that it may be useful to acknowledge in order to ask such questions, each lens taking in a wider view than the one before, beginning with you and me, and moving outward to domestic politics in the near term, further out to the possibilities of structural reform built upon our founding documents, further still to our nation’s place alongside the 200 or so other political entities on the planet, then to the shared challenges all those countries face together, and finally to the widest lens of all, our place in the unfolding story of history over the long term.

The first level is you and me. Each citizen of a democracy is a walking civic question mark. How open are our minds and hearts to opposing views? We all have biases worth rigorous examination, very much including the writer. How active can we be in fulfilling our basic citizenship responsibilities? Do we believe that individual citizens can make a difference? What is it exactly that makes us Americans? Too many of us have to work more than one job just to make ends meet, and our civic relationship with our country may be limited to voting. Others may have the time to volunteer their services on town boards or commissions. Others may be citizen leaders working on statewide issues or even seeking elected office.

Our own community may feel strong and prosperous, or fraying, or unsafe, or deprived. It is through that lens that we look up from our daily routine and local environment at what might constitute positive change. An immigrant who achieves citizenship in America may feel deeply grateful, in spite of our country’s faults, to be in a place where he is free to work hard to achieve his chosen ends. Minority groups may feel that the deck is stacked and that we still have a long way to go to achieve equality of opportunity. Where we stand as individuals depends upon where we sit.

A second level concerns national current events. Speaking of minorities, our country is in the middle of a crucial demographic change, where whites, hitherto privileged by numbers and racial advantage, are themselves headed toward becoming a minority. Minorities becoming majorities, though a sad sliver of us are fearful enough of this to indulge in murderous rampage, could spark a cultural and political renaissance. Our nation began in slavery. The effort to leave that horrific legacy behind continues to be a major energizer of democratic fairness.

In 2016 we elected a supposedly populist president who tends to shoot from the hip and use racial and ethnic divisions to his own partisan advantage. Is he a one-time phenomenon or a symptom of deeper fault lines in our culture, including corrosive divisions of class?

Stepping back further still, we can assess our institutions through the lens of changes that might vitalize our civic culture. Examples include the issue of money in politics. The Citizens United case legitimized money as a form of speech, giving corporations what some perceive as undue influence. Many think that repeal is necessary to restore one-person-one-vote equity. There is also the issue of the public funding of elections along with shortening the length of active campaigns. And the possible obsolescence of the Electoral College, given that some candidates have achieved the presidency without winning the popular vote.  Ranked choice voting is being tried in a number of states, increasing the civility with which candidates debate each other and strengthening tendencies toward moderation. There is also the possibility, difficult as it may be, of enacting constitutional amendments even on issues as divisive as guns. A minority of our population own millions of assault rifles, a condition that the founding fathers could not have anticipated.

Widening the lens another click, in our brief history the U.S. has rapidly become overwhelmingly powerful in spite of our youthfulness. Our national immaturity has meant we have come to terms neither with our relationship to the indigenous peoples that were here before “us,” nor with our origin story in slavery and racism, the effects of which sadly persist. We have carried this unresolved racism with us into our foreign wars.

America’s dominance over the international scene since the end of World War 2 has involved the exercise of our enormous power to usefully check the reach of totalitarian regimes, especially during a half-century of cold war with the now defunct Soviet Union. Perceiving the world as full of implacable enemies with ruthless ambitions to bury us has been a difficult habit to break after that cold war came to an end. It resulted in our fighting expensive wars with confused motives in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere. We tend to think of ourselves as the exceptional nation, but perhaps we need to take a more objective look at ourselves. The reality is that comparative statistics measuring literacy or the quality of health care demonstrate that we are actually quite far down the pecking order by any number of measures.

Meanwhile American power has projected itself into military bases all over the world—what policy makers call “full spectrum dominance,” another way of saying that the best defense is a good offense. This default assumption of the role of world policeman also came about in part because the hopes for an effective United Nations have so far gone unrealized. Autocratic governments are on the rise, encouraged by citizens uncomfortable with the mass movement of migrants. But there are counter-movements, such as the one we saw in Hong Kong in 2019, peacefully demonstrating for more robust democratic rights. Our country, which began with a radical rebellion against injustice, has been ambivalent about radical rebellion against injustice elsewhere.

Still, the birth of American democratic ideals continues to represent hope for the world. 35 countries have adopted language from our Declaration in their constitutions.

An even wider perspective becomes available by assessing some major changes over the last century that have affected not only America but the world as a whole. Humans have gone into space and brought back photographs of the earth as it looks from the moon, underlining our commonality on a small planet. Global population has risen exponentially, though the rate of rise has begun to slow. There are now 9 billion of us. Feeding everyone will tax our creative capacities to the limit.

Nuclear weapons, now possessed by nine countries, have introduced the potentiality that our species could do itself in entirely at any moment unless nations cooperate to disarm ourselves. America, along with the other nuclear powers,  relies upon a shaky system of security we call deterrence. The nuclear powers have trusted their security to a fantasy: political leaders persist in behaving as if no mistake could ever occur with all the computers and sensing devices and fallible humans attached to the 14,000 presently extant nuclear weapons, forgetting the vulnerability of complex technical systems that led to Chernobyl, Fukushima, or the Challenger disaster. But we humans created deterrence and we can change it. It is past time to get the diplomats and generals of the nine nuclear powers together to share their thoughts on this dilemma of our common global fate. Full realization of possible mass death shared by all could send nuclear weapons into the dustbin of history. The United States is strong enough to lead the way—as it is already obligated to do by non-proliferation treaties.

While there is still far too much violent conflict on earth,  analysts like Stephen Pinker have documented many trends that point to an overall lessening of war and violence. Many non-violent movements have achieved remarkable victories, going back to Gandhi’s Indian independence effort or the American civil rights movement.

Then the biggest challenge of all, the global climate emergency, looms over us, like the nuclear issue an additional reminder of our common fate as a species and requiring a degree of mutual cooperation that so far has seemed almost beyond us.

And yet humans have vastly increased our scientific knowledge. We have learned more about ourselves and our environment in the past century than we have in all previous history. The widest lens of all to examine what might be next for America is the unfolding story of the planet through thousands of years of time made available by recent scientific discovery.

Thus we must even include the perspective of deep time—the reality that over hundreds of millions of years there have been five great extinction events, where the vast majority of species on earth have been utterly swept away. Science tells us with overwhelming evidence that because our human species has been such a success in terms of sheer numbers, we are in the middle of a sixth such event. We have exhausted the soil, filled the ocean with plastics, and raised the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Civic engagement and education for a renewed America requires a basic understanding of these six levels in their interrelationship.
If short-sighted practicality leads us to neglect wider perspectives because they appear to fly over our day-by-day lives at 30,000 feet, we run the risk of winning the battle but losing the war. We may define the battle in terms of where we are on the political spectrum at the moment and for whom we might vote in 2020, but the war as a whole is unfolding on an infinitely wider scale.

As Americans determine possible reforms and institutional revisions, it is useful to keep all the levels in mind—belief in the power of individual citizens to make a real difference; equality of opportunity for individuals in communities; changes that make the system work more fairly and efficiently on the state and federal level; international initiatives that increase our security by working the diplomatic process with other nations to ramp down nuclear weapons and general military overreach, even as we ramp up what our own nation’s role might be in strengthening the health of the living system upon which all humans depend.

Modern nation states, misunderstanding the interdependence which determines their larger self-interest and unable to reconcile their politics to the unifying truths of universal religious teachings summed up in the Golden Rule, have substituted various political ideologies dependent upon enemy-imaging, reducing the “other” to less than human rather than acting upon the interdependence of all with all. Many of these ideologies have ended in genocide at worst or static totalitarianism at best. 

In terms of nuclear war and climate, narrowly self-interested nationalism has become obsolete, even if nation states have not. Nations are crucial administrative units, let alone discrete containers of priceless cultural diversity. But there are international challenges, first of all maintaining the health of the living system, the oceans and the rain forests, which simply cannot be resolved by individual countries working alone, no matter how powerful or prosperous.

International relations will inevitably have to be based more on the force of law than the law of force, accepting and even celebrating the tension between worldwide cultural diversity and our shared destiny as a species and planet. The United States, far from perfect, yet successful as a pluralistic culture, has the potential to help lead the world into a place where competitiveness will be transcended by the need to cooperate to survive. But why must America often think that in order for us to win, others must lose? Last year Iran suffered terrible flooding. What might it have done for our relationship with that country if we had offered logistical help?

A more global meaning emerges for “all men are created equal” when nations consider our profound interdependency with each other and all life, suggesting a new role for the human on Earth beyond the material consumption, growth, and competition that indeed yielded great prosperity in the now receding age of fossil fuels. Our new primary role is not just to steward, but to actively strengthen, the living systems that sustains human and all other life. Political and economic systems worldwide must bend to that imperative, no exceptions.

Young people understand this far more profoundly than those of us who grew up with the unconscious habit of assuming that nature is an infinite resource. They realize that the Earth cries out for us to end not only our wars with each other but also our war with bees and birds and whales and rain forests and coral reefs, the intricate web which has still so much to teach us and give us—if we can stop fraying it and start encouraging it to self-heal.

What will give both teeth and consensus to renewal is a different consciousness of what it means to be human at this moment in our still unfolding story. We can continue to be proud citizens of a given nation, while we also identify with the necessity for an Earth politics and an Earth economics where entrepreneurship is subject to sustaining the whole. America cannot assume it is an exception to this planetary necessity.

Present U.S. polarization, monetized and intensified by mercenary media conglomerates, is already being perceived by many of us as transparently shallow and artificial, given that we citizens share so much more than what divides us. Neither right nor left wants destruction by war or global climate instability. We are ripe for building a shared vision of where we have to go.

What will encourage the practical realization of such a vision? The best single mechanism for getting from here to there, as Thomas Jefferson argued, is education—education leading to agreements based upon principles that more truly reflect our reality as seen through these six lenses.

Will change come bottom-up or top-down? Both, interactively. The macro strength of a nation is a function of the resilience of our thousands of communities. The climate crisis is amenable to a million bottom-up initiatives that will demonstrate our ties with distant peoples like the Marshall Islanders, whose lands are disappearing as the oceans rise.  Each of us can make a difference. And all the more can servant-leaders articulating a coherent vision from their bully pulpits. Political candidates who understand the tremendous entrepreneurial potential of moving to a sustainable energy paradigm will deepen their success. To do well by doing good will be increasingly celebrated.

The first step from here to there is to see, to really see the truth that challenges like omnicidal weapons and the climate emergency have radically changed humanity’s global interdependency. Hurricanes, floods and fires provide their own pressure for change. Can our simple awareness of events on all these levels educate us and our representatives to a more life-affirming redirection of our resources and toward the greater equality of opportunity that will further unleash our creativity?  These lenses through which to look at the prospects for American renewal are not answers, only the context for questions that can begin authentic dialogue.