Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Today, September 17, 2014, No Labels - a national movement of Democrats, Republicans and Independents dedicated to a new politics of problem solving - is holding a one day meeting of politicians, business- and civic leaders and interested citizens about the need for a National Strategic Agenda, which is one thing I advocated for in my book NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism, published by Create Space in August. The book is available as e-book and paperback on 

As we are heading towards another national election, the grumblings about the dysfunction in Washington D.C. intensify and – believe it or not - there are even some initiatives of bipartisan nature that try to do something about it: 
  • ·         The Bipartisan Policy Center published, on June 24, 2014 the report by its Commission on Political Reform titled “Governing in a polarized America: A Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen our Democracy.”
  • ·         No Labels offered earlier in the year a “Shared Vision for a Stronger America” with contributions from politicians from both sides of the aisle, led by former governor Jon Huntsman and Senator Joe Manchin.

We should all applaud and encourage initiatives like these. They represent real efforts to move the dial. Particularly the No Labels pamphlet, because it zooms in on what I think is a structural flaw in the American governance model: America is lacking a national strategy policy.

American governance has no tradition or statute for the creation of a binding strategic plan that is built on broad consensus and transcends the shifting balance of power between the Republican and Democratic parties. How much sense would it make if there was a constitutional requirement on the president and the leadership in Congress to establish a national strategy, much like companies develop a strategic plan for their business that then becomes the compass by which investment decisions and other resource allocations are made? Such national plan should have a long time horizon, transcend the term limits imposed on politicians, and be formally reviewed from year to year to adjust for changes in the external environment.

What’s required is a clear articulation of some overarching bi-partisan national objectives and a popular buy-in of these objectives. America has not had a clearly articulated national objective since John F. Kennedy decided that America was to be the first nation to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely to earth. We can borrow a chapter out of the book of the Netherlands, my country of origin, which—after the flood of 1953—made it a national objective to protect its low laying areas from a 500 year flood.

Public policy in the USA is too much influenced by the perpetual election cycle. Big strategies take a long time to be developed and implemented and don’t fit in with the election-driven decision making practices of our politicians. In this respect a major difference comes to light between the public and the private sector in America. In business nothing survives without a solid strategic plan and careful, methodical implementation. In public life, politicians get slaughtered if they don’t cater to the immediate needs and fancies of their constituents.

But, without a long term plan there is no expected outcome and it is, therefore, not surprising that we are beginning to hear voices calling for an overarching national strategy. The articulation of such strategy is the role and responsibility of the federal government. Note that recent administrations have declared “war” on a number of national challenges—like the war on poverty, the war on drugs and the war on terror—but they have not bothered to rally the nation behind any particular national objective. Can we think of any highly worthwhile broad national objectives? I would suggest that the following would make a good place to start:
1.       Wellness and productivity: Creating the conditions and environment whereby most, if not all, of our residents can lead healthy lives for at least 95 percent of a lengthening lifespan and productive lives for at least 75 percent of the same lifespan.
2.       Response to climate change: Determine the positives of climate change and take steps to capitalize on them like with a comprehensive Arctic strategy; and defense against the negatives of climate change by protecting people and property from its adverse consequences.

Having a clearly defined national strategy would not be a panacea for all that ails our governance model, but it would break through the logjam of partisan stalemate by forcing bipartisan support for and popular unity behind an ambitious and meaningful path forward for the nation that is now drifting without a clear sense of direction.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


My book, NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism, was only out and on the market for a few days when Foreign Affairs Magazine wrote in an editorial for its September/October 2014 edition:
“For such a strong, rich, free, and favorably situated country, the United States is remarkably testy and out of sorts these days — and falling far short of its enormous potential.”

That is exactly the conclusion I arrived at and voiced in my book. The way I worded it is: America is like the smart kid that is so convinced of its superior talent that it is no longer interested in applying himself to get straight A’s. Like this kid, America is grossly underperforming to its capabilities. It is performing like an A+ student that turns in F grades. It should not be that way. As Bill Gates reminded the 2007 graduating class of Harvard: “From Those To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Expected.”

My critics are quick to point out that America is still the greatest nation in the world. They point out that everyone wants to come here and that no people are leaving to go elsewhere. They are mostly right, but beside the point. They should have higher expectations of a country that is blessed with the best of the most vital resources any nation could ever wish for: People, location, space, nature, water, minerals, and hydrocarbons. America has, unlike most of its rivals, enviable traditions in democracy, tolerance, freedom of thought and pursuit, entrepreneurial spirit, and self-reliance. With all of these assets, there is no question that America should be the top performer among nations. But it has allowed others to come a lot closer and it has proven incapable of addressing the big challenges of the 21st century.

There is a broad consensus that the generation now growing up in America may be the first since the Second World War to be worse off than their parents and grandparents. It happens at a time of relative peace and prosperity in the world. If that is not an indictment of America’s performance, I don’t know what is.
Surveying the field today, the question keeps coming up: are the best times behind us? Is America going the way of the Roman and the British Empires? We all see tell-tale signs of trouble around us: from persistently high unemployment, increasing income inequality, lost or unfinished wars, a skyrocketing national debt, a sub-par infrastructure, an ideologically divided voting public and—resulting from it—a dysfunctional political system. We see the unraveling of family structures and values, the proliferation of guns and drugs, the (relatively) poor academic performance of our youngsters, and the prevalence of obesity.

It does not have to be that way. It is in no way an inevitability that America will be the next great power to lose its dominance. The American spirit has a natural capacity to step back from the brink and find another, safer, way ahead. It is quintessentially American to believe that, when it comes down to brass tacks, America will do what it has to do to avoid hitting the slippery slope.

America is not facing a challenge it cannot meet. But it will have to be galvanized into action. It is engaged in a world championship relay race that, by all accounts, it should win convincingly. But look what’s happening: the first two legs are easily won, establishing what looked like an insurmountable lead; the third leg consolidates the lead, but does not add to it and the baton is nearly dropped in the hand-off; now in the fourth and final leg it is struggling to regain the pace and the competitors are nipping at its heels. It needs to pick up the pace and finish with a flurry. It will have to dig deep and find in itself the championship talent it has been bestowed with.

We can be grateful to be living in the greatest nation on earth, but as the French say: noblesse oblige (with the privilege comes responsibility). That is what Bill Gates reminded us in his 2007 Harvard commencement speech (at the brink if the great recession). We can’t rest on our laurels. As Will Rogers so famously said: “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

The resources are there. America has it all. But having it all does not mean anything unless these resources are all brought to bear. What is needed is leadership and engagement. Leadership on the part of our top public officials and engagement on the part of the American people. We need to rally behind a cause and the cause should be the enhancement of our leadership position in the world in terms of wellness, productivity, social justice, moral superiority and creativity. We need to have high expectations of ourselves and our nation if we want to win the relay race.