Nation Building at Home: Where is America’s Great Wall?

By Akio Matsumura

President Obama, in his second State of the Union address, said that we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.  The president emphasized that we need to work on developing America as a nation.  “Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Hua, Mme. Liang, and Akio, 1981

Indeed, America was founded on an idea, and great ideas inspired and led to the nation we have today. The transcontinental railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the NASA space programs were hallmarks of American leadership and progress.

When my parents visited the US for the first time from Japan in 1979, we toured the East Coast.  They were amazed by the Queensboro Bridge, built before my father was born in 1909; the US Capitol building; and the six lane highways that connected them.  We drove from Niagara Falls to Washington, D.C.—a length of 2,500 miles, or 1 ½ times the length of Japan.  When my father learned that we had not driven into the middle of the US but had stayed only on one coast he asked, “Akio, why did Japan attack such a large country?”  But many of the monuments, bridges, railroads, that amazed my parents were built over 100 years ago, even in the time of the Civil War. America’s leaders inspired by a desire for a Great America—and yes, by extraordinary profits—set their sights far into the future and undertook incredible projects that continue to awe visitors to this day.

But America’s physical infrastructure is deteriorating.  Railroads are slow, bridges and electric grids are in disrepair, and NASA is being cut back.  Donald Trump echoed Arianna Huffington when he said that when returning to Laguardia from Singapore or Dubai, he feels that he’s stepping into the Third World.  China’s high-speed railroads will put America’s to shame, and its space program is expanding.

And it’s not just in infrastructure where yesterday’s developing countries are racing past us.  America is falling behind in two other critical areas of nation-building: education and healthcare.

Education is fundamental to national progress.  And here America again lags.   US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, Thomas Friedman reported in the New York Times, that “one-quarter of U.S. high school students drop out or fail to graduate on time.  Almost one million students leave her schools for the streets each year.”  And then there is the stunning report by a group of top retired generals and admirals that showed that “75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.” It’s disappointing to learn that America’s youth are now tied for ninth in the world in college attainment.

The debate over American healthcare is well known, but two quick points are worth mentioning. Infant mortality rates remain very high in many low-income, mostly black, urban ghettos.  And there is still no universal coverage, a benefit otherwise expected in the developed world.  If its citizens are unable to receive adequate and affordable healthcare the US will see its society continue to fragment along socioeconomic and racial lines.

America has fallen behind in these three critical areas, but does continue to push forward in other areas—information technology and business especially.  America continues to be competitive and innovative. Microsoft, and now Google and Apple, have kept America on the cutting edge of development in the technology world. America is the largest multi-ethnic population in the world; its diversity has bred innovation and competition and fostered a stronger America. And American culture—the jazz, sports, brand names, and fashion created through its diverse population and challenging history—is perhaps its greatest export abroad.   While these areas are important for national progress and an area of national pride, they alone do not build a stronger nation.  Gains in national development will only be complicated by the national debt—projected to reach $19 trillion by 2020.

But why has America fallen behind?

Last month, Chinese president Hu Jintao made a state visit to Washington.  China has gained in economic and military power, even though the US still vastly outperforms in terms of GDP and military power and spending.  But let’s disregard numbers for a moment and try to grasp the crux of the difference between the two countries: long-term vision.

If America’s greatest asset is its diversity and the individual ideas, innovation and creativity that this engenders, China’s unique feature is its incredible ability to organize group action and extend it into the future.  America focuses on the individual idea, China on communal action.  And perhaps America’s greatest weakness is its relative youth, which results in its leaders lacking a strong concept of time and commitment to the past and future.

I first visited China in 1980 with the UN, and have had the pleasure of visiting many times since.  China has many astonishing sites, but the Great Wall is my favorite. It is visually astounding, of course.  But think of how its construction lasted over 2000 years, beginning in 500 BC and continuing through 1600 AD!  It runs the distance from New York to San Francisco, and, most importantly, construction continued under so many separate rulers and dynasties.  It was truly a collective, national effort fueled by long-term vision.  The goal was for protection, not national greatness, but the project ended in both.

China views its progress in centuries. American leaders cannot extend their vision longer than ten years! While it balances its monstrous and growing debt with various and continuing adventures abroad, can America extend its success in the future?  Can it pass on to its next generations the success and developments that three decades ago amazed my parents?

Napoleon once foretold, “China is a sleeping lion; let her sleep. If she awakes the world will be in danger.” China was asleep during the Industrial Revolution and now awakes as the Information Technology Revolution opens.  And it is not just China—Singapore, the India, South Korea, Brazil, and South Africa are seeing enormous success.

America’s strong democracy is a vital force and example in the world, but yields slow gains and political compromise. This democracy, and the diversity and innovation it encourages, cannot be sacrificed, and does not need to be, for national progress. Long-term vision from America’s leadership is needed to light the country’s way forward in the 21st century.

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