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America Is Lost in a Dark Forest, But There’s a Path Out

13 minute read
Admiral Stavridis (Ret.) was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and is Vice Chair, Global Affairs at The Carlyle Group and Chair of the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the co-author of 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. His new nonfiction book is To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision

Sadly, in these not-so-United States, we have found our way deep into a dark forest, and the question before us is how do we find the path out of this dangerous thicket into which we have wandered? Our dire internal divisions are quite extraordinary and worrisome. And here I’m talking to you wherever you are on the political spectrum from MSNBC to Fox News. If you get up in the morning watching Morning Joe and you wrap it up with Rachel Maddow at night; or you start on the white couch over at Fox and you finish up with Sean Hannity—wherever you are on that spectrum, you ought to be concerned about the plummeting nature of our discourse with each other.

That division is the dark forest into which we have wandered, and the real challenge is that the world is not going to wait for us while we figure out how to escape. The world does not see us standing coherently together and facing the challenges and turbulence that roil the globe. This weakens us dramatically.

Consider the challenges: an ongoing global pandemic, a broken withdrawal from Afghanistan, Vladimir Putin rattling the saber of nuclear weapons, failing cyber security, fierce competition with Beijing, Iran moving apace toward a nuclear weapon, Kim Jong-un taunting with ballistic missile launches, terrorism still smoldering in many places, a damaged environment, on and on. The dangers are real, and the world will not wait while we figure out how to face these challenges together as a nation.

We must find practical ways to think through these problems and challenges or face dire consequences both internationally and here at home.

If I’ve brought you this far, you’re probably asking, “Well what do you think, Admiral? What can we do to find a path out of this Dark Forest? What are the tools we need? What should we do?

Counterintuitively, we should start by taking stock of some good news, even as we appropriately wring our hands and worry about all these external challenges and above all about our internal divisions. It’s good from time to time to step back and think about the advantages the United States of America enjoys.

Look at our geography, guarded left and right by vast oceans. We have benign neighbors to the north and south. We have the most powerful agrarian complex in the world, abundant arable land, fresh water. We have vast energy resources, both oil and gas and we’re rapidly building renewables. We have the most powerful and capable military imaginable. And we have multiple engines of innovation in Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, Boston’s Route 128, many other places. All of that accrues to our advantage as we face these challenges.

Another advantage? Immigration. It helps us. Do we need to control our borders: yes, of course. But overall, immigration is a powerful engine for this country. I’ll give you one quick practical example—for 10 years as an Admiral, I visited over a hundred countries. In almost every country I would pay a courtesy call on the U.S ambassador. I saw two things that were identical at every U.S embassy: number one, each was guarded by U.S. Marines. Number two, every U.S embassy in every country has lines, around the block in some cases, of people who want to come to the U.S.

Think about that. Go to the Chinese Embassy, the Iranian Embassy, the Russian Embassy. Hundreds of thousands of Russians just left Russia to avoid being drafted into an unjust war. Yet we have millions who want to come and be part of who we are. That’s an extraordinary advantage and we should take advantage of all that potential productivity.

What else can we do? Above all, we must listen better. We need to listen to our allies in the world, and even to our opponents. But above all, we need to listen to each other. That’s our job as Americans. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree with allies, opponents, or each other, but we need to understand the positions of “the other.” This requires patience and an openness, a lack of arrogance and more humility. We could do worse than to reread George Washington’s “Rules of Civility.”

What else can we do? We can celebrate service.

Because I’m a veteran, people say to me all the time, “Thank you for your service.” I appreciate it deeply and so does every veteran. It is a kind and thoughtful comment. But there are so many ways to serve this country—certainly our military—but how about our diplomats, our CIA officers, our Peace Corps volunteers, our Department of Homeland Security and border patrol, our civil servants? How about our brave police and our intrepid firefighters? How about nurses on the front lines of COVID-19 for two years? How about our teachers? The starting salary of an American teacher in the Panhandle of my home state Florida is less than forty thousand dollars a year. Do you think she’s serving the country? I do.

So, here’s my point: the more we celebrate service, the more we incentivize it, through our tax system and through educational credits, for example, the more it will help us. Service is non-partisan. We don’t need a mandatory “national draft,” but we do need that idea of service to become inculcated in all that we do to help escape this dark forest

What else can we do? Education. When I finished 37 years in the military, I went to one of my life mentors, Bob Gates, and I said “Sir, what do you think I should do after the military?” He said: “Well, Stavridis, what kept you in the military for 37 years? Maybe that’ll give you a clue.” I realized that there were a lot of things I liked about the military and the Navy: I liked wearing a uniform, I liked serving my country, I liked deploying on operational missions, I like traveling the world. I liked all those things, but what I loved best was mentoring young sailors, helping guide the trajectory of their lives. I said that to Bob Gates, and he said, “You ought to be an educator, Jim.” So, I spent five years as Dean at Tufts University. I know that world. I have taught in classrooms. I’ve been a dean. Education can be a powerful part of the solution to the dark forest.

But where I think we ought to put more attention these days is on our community college systems. We are underweighting the use of this powerful resource. Community colleges, at very low cost, can give an education that can be scaled to a young person’s interest, and within two years they can graduate as a programmer, a maintenance supervisor, a nurse, an environmentalist: real skills that can be applied immediately and provide a good life financially and emotionally. It is a path out of the dark forest by addressing the kind of inequalities we see not just financially but educationally as well.

Another aspect of education is teaching all of us how to use the internet safely, particularly for the youngest among us.

That cell phone in your hand is a supercomputer: you can communicate point to point anywhere in the world, you can listen to any symphony ever recorded, you can watch any film ever made, you can access all the world’s knowledge. But you can also swim in a river of pornography and lies and bitter, false conspiracies. These smart phones are powerful and dangerous devices, and we often place one in the hand of a child in this country before they are twelve years old. Frequently, we do that with very little guidance and very few restraints. Education and computer internet literacy needs to be part of how we find our way out of this dark forest

What else can we do? We can innovate. We can develop and apply new technologies across the spectrum of our society. Innovation can help us address many of the ill-effects of the dark forest, from solving environmental challenges in ways that create new, fulfilling jobs to taking students out of traditional classrooms to developing equitable and accessible health care.

Another key is immigration reform. This is a big hard complicated problem. It begins with controlling our border—every sovereign state must control its border. But we must add to that fundamental key more thoughtful programs that can harness the power of immigrants who want to come here desperately and work and be among us.

Do we want them here? Think about the vast majority of those who make it to our borders. How much courage and true grit and determination does it take to grab your four-year-old’s hand put your two-year-old on your back and walk across six countries to get to our border? That’s the Hunger Games, and many of those people are the kind of folks I want on my team. We’ve got to figure out how to do that in a way that’s fair to those who have gone through every legal process, and much goes back to controlling the borders; but this could be an enormous engine for us that can help us as we come through the dark forest.

What else? Leadership matters. We need to search for and select leaders—across the political spectrum—who are willing to reach across the aisle and construct successful compromises. Think FDR or Reagan for the 21st century. Do we need a new political party, one that draws from both sides? Perhaps. As a nation we didn’t start with Republicans or Democrats, and my guess is we won’t end with them. But in the meantime, we need to find leaders from both parties with the willingness to bargain, compromise, and achieve constructive outcomes.

Final thoughts: all of this must be based on our values. If you haven’t stopped for a moment and thought about our values, it’s worth doing especially as I did, gazing at the sacred ground near Constitution Hall. Others have gone before us thinking about democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, gender equality, racial equality, about all our values. We have executed those values imperfectly, admittedly, but they are the right values. The values come to us from the ancient Greeks, from the East and the philosophy of the Buddha, and they arrived here in American via the European enlightenment. They come to us through our founding fathers, passing then through insurrections, a civil war, an emancipation, universal suffrage, and many other trials, challenges, failures and successes. Those values matter and we need to communicate those values to ourselves and to the world.

Sometimes when I say that people respond with “Oh Admiral, you’re right, you know it’s a war of ideas.” No, it’s not a war of ideas – it is a marketplace of ideas. Our ideas can compete in that marketplace, but we need to communicate them clearly, coherently, and boldly, without a shred of arrogance or self-righteousness, but with confidence as well.

How fast do we need to go to escape this dark forest? Very fast, but let me make a point using the physiognomy of the fastest thing on earth: the cheetah. It can go from zero to 60 miles an hour in three seconds, and it’s built for speed. The head is shaped like an ax so cuts through the air with almost no drag; it’s got powerful front legs; huge ribs to process all that oxygen; big back legs—built for speed. Except, instead of a tiny, decorative tail, the Cheetah has a huge tail. Why? The engineers among us will know: the cheetah needs that big tail so that when it accelerates and then tries to turn, the tail can counterbalance. Without that tail to stabilize, it would just go tumbling Into the dark forest. So, the point is yes we need to go fast; but we must keep the system in balance

I’m Greek American, of course, so I’m required to mention a Greek myth in everything I write. Think of Sisyphus and his boulder: we must be resilient. Our leaders must be resilient, and the boulder rolls down whoever you are, no matter if you are the most powerful person on Earth. The boulder rolled down on George W. Bush on 9/11; it rolled down and Barack Obama with the Great Recession; it rolled down on Donald Trump with the pandemic; it is rolling down on Joe Biden with inflation spiking and a war in Ukraine. The boulder rolls down. The measure of anybody is not whether the boulder never crushes you; the measure is do you get up put your shoulder behind it and continue the hard work. That resilience is what we need in our leaders and ourselves.

One of my great life mentors in addition to Bob Gates was General Colin Powell. If you look at his “Thirteen Rules,” four of them deal with hope and optimism. He said, “it will look better in the morning,” “optimism is a force multiplier,” and “it can be done.” Hope and optimism. So, if you remember nothing else from my words, I suggest you remember this quote: Napoleon, who knew a great deal about leadership, said “a leader is a dealer in hope.” Not in fear, not in chaos, not in anger.

Those are the kind of leaders we need. Whatever you do in life, be that kind of leader yourself, a dealer in hope. Seek others who lead in that way. Above all, be optimistic about this extraordinary country.

Adapted from a speech given by Admiral Stavridis in Philadelphia on October 7, 2022, within sight of Constitution Hall, the birthplace of American democracy. My remarks were entitled, “The Dark Forest,” an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy, of which the first volume is “The Inferno.” Dante begins his masterpiece ominously with the words, “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

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