Jim Leach Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities
I am honored to pay tribute to this estimable institution and its commitment to global education. My respect, indeed affection, for Drake University is deep, indelibly informed by a wondrous speech I heard a generation ago, perhaps in this building, at a dinner honoring several graduates named alumni of the year. In receiving her tribute, a lovely, erudite lady from Davenport, class of 1935, stood up and responded that she was convinced that there was no greater teaching university in America than Drake. My mother then went on to cite five different professors who had made poignant observations in courses she took and the points in her life when each of these observations took on special significance. There was not a dry eye in the audience. Mother had not only paid homage to a great teaching university, she provided a profound case for a liberal arts education.
Everyone in the audience that evening shared Lois Hill Leach’s view of her alma mater and understood that Drake is the cultural center of this highly educated, globally connected, heartland city.
The premise of my lecture this evening is that international studies and international outreach have never mattered more for America and for the world. This wonderful liberal arts university and this extraordinary financial institution, the Principal Financial Group, have formed a partnership with other committed friends of Drake to advance cultural understanding for generations to come. You are to be congratulated.
Cultural differences, after all, engender muscular ideas, usually uplifting and constructive; sometimes hateful, even evil. In probing the muscularity of ideas, I would like to make several quick points about theories identified with two Harvard scholars: noted political scientists Samuel Huntington and Joseph Nye.
Huntington has warned about a potential “clash of civilizations,” a warning that is valid, but if heeded, thoroughly misleading. He predicts that just as historically there have been dangers of conflict between nations, in the modern world there are increasing dangers of conflict between cultural groupings that extend beyond the borders of nation-states.
Some social anthropologists have gone so far as to suggest that there is a natural human evolutionary distrust of creatures, perhaps even people, who look and act differently. Nevertheless, clashes between individuals and groups of different cultural backgrounds are not inevitable. There is an antidote, one that cannot be administered like a quick inoculation pill or shot, because it demands sustained discipline and, for some, a psychological jolt. The discipline is simply a commitment to study and learn to respect the languages and cultures of others. The psychological jolt is perhaps more profound: the open-minded embracing of the notion that life is more interesting and fulfilling if one comes to know and interrelate with individuals of diverse background rather than only those with a similar upbringing.
The history of humankind is a chronicle strewn with wars of many kinds. Broadening mutual understanding is no guarantee that conflict can be avoided but it reduces the prospect that inevitable tensions lead to war. This is why international studies and appreciation of cultural differences are so critical.
Like Huntington, Nye has considered the complexities and provided perspective to questions of power and conflict. He points out that there are many cultural ways of extending power and influence that complement or are not based on military capacity. He and others have defined cultural approaches as “soft” power. I have no critique of Nye’s thesis, except an objection to the label. “Soft power” is a misnomer. Short of human annihilation, little is more powerful than culture.
Governance is a component of culture, not vice versa. Politics and governmental policies are fleeting and reversible. Culture is more enduring because it is more profound and socially encompassing. Effective governance as well as constructive relations between countries requires comprehensive understanding of the cultural pinions of one’s own society and the place of individual societies in relation to others.
There can, as Huntington fears, be cultural umbrages but, like the Olympic Games, cultural exchanges, even competitions, are more likely to be uplifting than almost any other dimension of human relations. It is hard to imagine not being inspired if every country vied to showcase its history and cultural traditions – its scholarship, poetry, dance, music, and varieties of storytelling and art-making. Indeed, it would be my hope that the next Olympic Games would, like the competitions of ancient Greece, include the awarding of medals in poetry as well as for wrestling, basketball, and track and field. Reviving a poetry medal, last given in the Amsterdam Games of 1928, would be an inspiring symbol of the appropriateness of complementing human imagination and creativity with the drama involved in the will power and competitive capacities of the greatest athletes in the world.
The premise of what I am suggesting about the centrality of cultural understanding may seem abstract, even effete to some; lacking in priority to others. But if we think back over the past decade and the costs incurred from political decisions to engage in what might be described as war by choice rather than necessity, war in countries that we didn’t understand, indeed misunderstood, is it not obvious that cultural studies are citizenship responsibilities designed to save lives, livelihoods, and lucre?
In reviewing, for instance, our decision to go to war in Iraq, a country that did not attack us on 9/11, consensus has now developed that there was an intelligence failure related to misjudgments about Iraq’s nuclear and biological weapons capabilities. But the greatest “intelligence” failure was our lack of understanding of the region, its people and their religions. Despite having gone to war in the Persian Gulf a decade earlier, Congress and Executive branch policy makers understood little of the Sunni/Shi’a divide when 9/11 hit. Likewise, despite the French experience in Algeria and that of the British and Russian in Afghanistan, we had little comprehension of the depth of Islamic antipathy to foreign occupation. Nor, despite the tactics of a Daniel Boone-style patriot named Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, who attacked British garrisons at night during the Revolutionary War and then vanished in South Carolina swamps during the day, did we have much sense for the effectiveness of asymmetric warfare.
Policy makers have to recognize that political traumas of the moment are surface issues that can be understood only in relation to underlying cultural realities: the customs, history, literature, philosophy, religion, and sometimes myths of a country or people. Such considerations are critical to devising approaches to avoid conflict, to prosecuting a war if conflict cannot be avoided, and to ending any conflict in such a way as to lessen the prospect of a similar conflict emerging again.
The cost of not understanding the Sunni/Shi’a divide has not only resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and the tarnishing of our political and economic reputation around the world, but in a very immediate sense has also contributed to the debt burdens that challenge us all.
Management of debt has become the dominant problem for the American family, the federal government, most states, and communities. There is a vibrant, not always well-articulated, debate about how or if the economy can be stimulated from Washington. Traditional Keynesian economists suggest that when government is faced with an economic downturn or national security challenge, it should press the fiscal pedal. Acolytes of Milton Friedman and the Viennese-born economist Friedrich Hayek, on the other hand, argue caution, especially on raising taxes.
Both sides of the policy debate are confronted with more limited options as the total debt burden climbs. At some point debt accumulation becomes unmanageable. No economist knows where the breaking point is, because in the final measure nation-states operate in a market economy. It is public confidence that determines the marketability and pricing of debt. What we do know is that the costs of government are bound to escalate as debt obligations place an increasing claim on national resources and as a higher proportion of the population reaches retirement age.
In addition, we know that the hangover from the past decade’s fiscal decision-making cannot be ducked. For the first time in our, or perhaps any country’s history, taxes were cut in wartime. As an experiment was undertaken to “finance” war with tax cuts, no shared economic sacrifice was called for. The cost of military intervention – our two longest wars – as well as the costs and liabilities associated with attacks from the air in four other countries have been passed on to future generations.
Properly, our World War II era parents and grandparents are now referred to as the greatest generation. The sacrifices they made to defeat fascist totalitarianism are much noted. What is never referred to is the tax burden they then assumed to pay for the debt accumulated in the greatest war in history, and then willingly absorbed to save Europe from Soviet domination and rebuild America’s infrastructure, which included two programs advanced by President Eisenhower as national defense initiatives: an interstate highway act and an international education act. Under Ike, our most underrated president, the income tax rate, by consensus, was over twice what it is today. It wasn’t until the 1960s and the Kennedy administration that it became clear that our debts had become manageable and that a tax cut could prudently go forward. If it weren’t for the cost of Vietnam (military and reputational), even steeper reductions would have been feasible in successor administrations.
With this perspective in mind, we as citizens confront today the surreal world of Washington politics and the fiscal decisions that affect all elements of the federal budget and many levels of society. What is so troubling is that the judgmental differences that are worthy of respect are exacerbated by the partisanship that undercuts the capacity of governing bodies even to make decisions. When too many look at politics as a game to win rather than challenge to lead, politics becomes dysfunctional, the economy destabilized, our leadership in the world questioned, and our national security inevitably jeopardized.
In a philosophical context, the public used to think of politics in Hegelian terms. One side would advance a thesis, the other an antithesis, and the end result would be a synthesis. Today legislators in both parties seem more opposed to reaching a synthesis than ever before. Politics used to be the art of compromise. Now, for politicians, partisan intransigence seems to be the art of political survival, the only way to avert either a primary challenge or disconcerted fellow party members pulling the plug in a general election.
My political career is a case in point. I was honored to have represented this extraordinary state in Congress for thirty years, a period in which I increasingly became out of step with my chosen political party as it came to undervalue aspects of its Eisenhower and even Goldwater heritage. I was, after all, pro-choice, one of a handful of Republicans to vote against the authorization to use force in Iraq, and the only Republican to vote against a tax cut once the war was launched. I supported the Federal Reserve System, the U.N., a host of affiliated institutions like the World Bank and IMF, advocated actively for a test ban and the Law of the Seas treaty, objected to political action committees (PACs), endorsed partial public financing of campaigns, worked against those who lobbied for Internet gambling and those who wanted to press an anti-gay agenda. I understand and respect why many in my party would have joined the eventual majority and voted for another candidate. That is the meaning of democracy.
Increasingly at issue in American politics is the question of bipartisanship, which I look at somewhat differently than others. Usually the term is used by the executive branch or leadership of the majority party in a legislative chamber to call on members of the other party to support its initiatives. My view is that just as members of opposing parties should be prepared to support on occasion policies of an administration or opposing majority party, so members of the same party as the executive or the majority party in a legislature should be prepared to exercise independent judgment and on occasion object to an executive’s or party leader’s policies. Given the panoply of issues before the nation, it is inconceivable that one party can encapsulate all wisdom or the views of all a party’s members. As for Iowa, the model of bipartisan service of Herbert Hoover is relevant. While Hoover is considered a rock-ribbed Republican, he unhesitantly served under a Democratic predecessor and successor, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman.
Today, as we face what is described as a post-election “fiscal cliff,” there is a modicum of consensus surrounding the need to reduce the deficit. While methodology remains controversial, economists on both sides of the Keynes-Friedman/Hayek debate are suggesting that multiyear deficit reductions, at least $3 trillion, should be on the operating table. Such a sum will inevitably involve greater constraints on domestic programs which already are at their lowest levels relative to the GDP in decades. But this level of deficit reduction cannot realistically be achieved by only constraining, even eliminating, many domestic programs, especially if increases in defense spending are contemplated and entitlement programs are not reformed. When government spending is above 23 percent of GDP and revenues are below 18 percent, reality dictates that there must be adjustments on the revenue as well as spending side of the government’s ledger. There is a singular opportunity to proceed without substantial changes in income tax rates if our loophole ridden tax code is reformed. But whatever choices are made, the multitrillion dollar cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their aftereffects must be accommodated.
These seemingly extraneous macro-economic considerations are noted to underscore the fragility of our country’s economy and our government’s fiscal picture. The assumption that jobs are the number one issue for most Americans is valid; a conclusion, however, that a broad liberal arts education and cultural studies are not critical to job creation is mistaken. Indeed, such a conclusion could too easily lead to policy prescriptions that undercut American competitiveness and the national interest itself.
One of the myths of our times is that literature and history, philosophy and the creative arts are good for the soul but irrelevant to the pocketbook. Actually, they are central to long-term American competitiveness.
It is true that many jobs, such as in the building trades, are skill based, but job creation itself requires an understanding of community and the world. An increasing pace of change characterizes the times. With each passing year jobs evolve, become more sophisticated. Training for one skill set may be of little value for another. On the other hand, studies that stimulate the imagination and nourish capacities to analyze and think outside the box are well suited to the challenges of change. They make coping with the unprecedented a manageable endeavor.
What is needed in a world in flux is a new understanding of the meaning of the basics in education. Traditionally, the basics are about the three “R’s,” which here in Iowa are sometimes defined as “’readin, ‘ritin, and ‘restlin.” However defined, they are critical. Nonetheless, they are insufficient. What are also needed are the studies that provide perspective on our times and foster citizen understanding of their own communities, other cultures, and the creative process.
To understand and compete in a global setting we need a fourth “R,” what for lack of a precise moniker might be described as “reality” – which includes not only relevant knowledge of the world near and far but the imaginative capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others and creatively apply knowledge to discrete endeavors.
Rote thinking is the hallmark of the status quo. Stimulating the imagination is the key to the future.
As individuals, we all try to make sense of our own odysseys through life. Our “universe” is small in relation not only to the solar system but the communities in which we live. But wherever we might be, we are affected by global events, whether related to the challenges of national security or the global hiring hall. In this insecure geopolitical environment, a deeper comprehension of the fourth “R” (reality) has never been more important. It is essential to revitalizing the American productive engine and inspiring thoughtful citizenship.
A skeptic once suggested that the humanities are little more than studies of flaws in human nature. Actually, they uplift on the one hand and warn on the other. The power of a few to commit acts of social destruction and the contrasting capacity of a few to precipitate constructive change has grown exponentially in the past century.
A race is on between these antithetical forces.
By perspective, I should note that yesterday I wandered through a building here in Des Moines that may be the most inspiring “museum” anywhere, celebrating the role of individuals who as private citizens singularly changed the world for the better. That building is the old Carnegie-like library that has been converted into the home of the World Food Prize. Throughout the building are pictured individuals who have through agricultural planning and technology and later genetic research helped avert Malthusian famines. People from many countries and eras are showcased. Twentieth century Iowans stand out, from Norman Borlaug, who in winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, is given credit for saving more lives than anyone in history, with his research on wheat and rice that launched the Green Revolution; Henry Wallace, father and son, who pioneered hybrid corn; George Washington Carver who studied and taught at Iowa State and after moving to Tuskegee applied techniques he learned at Ames to peanuts; and Herbert Hoover who led the greatest and most extensive food relief effort in history during and after World War I.
Yet today civilization is on trial from two extremes: the looming prospect that weapons of mass destruction could be unleashed, and the reality that the more advanced and open a society, the more vulnerable it is to terrorism. For the first time, anarchy which has been an ingredient of history through the ages has been globalized. The debilitating attack on America on 9/11 was plotted in a mountainous redoubt half way around the world and carried out by 19 people. Seldom have so few caused so much havoc.
In the profoundest political observation of our age, Einstein once remarked that splitting the atom had changed everything except our way of thinking. Concern for nuclear proliferation is in the news once again. In the background is the Cuban missile crisis.
I was a young college student when President Kennedy informed the American people of the placement of Russian missiles in Cuba. Coming from a secure, Iowa upbringing, I remember being skeptical at the time of the seriousness of the threat. As more information has been gathered over the years it is now clear how far off the mark I was. We now know that our president gathered at the White House advisers from the Defense and State departments and key people with whom he had trust, most importantly his brother Robert and Ted Sorensen. At one of the first meetings of the group, our U.N. ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, vigorously recommended a trade: we should agree to dismantle our missiles in Turkey if the Russians would in Cuba. The generals, led by Curtis LeMay, and others objected strenuously and pressed to attack.
Our intelligence was woefully inadequate. We missed the first movements of missiles to Cuba and never grasped just how many had been delivered. Nor did we know that Castro had given his permission for the Russians to unleash the warheads if the U.S. attacked Cuba. Lacking knowledge of what we were up against, the administration formed an armada with over 200,000 troops that we were prepared to land in Cuba. Then, secretly at the Department of Justice, Robert Kennedy gave Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin an ultimatum to pass on to Khrushchev: we would follow Stevenson’s advice and offer a trade, stipulated on the understanding that the deal was off if the Russian leadership ever let anyone know that we were prepared to remove missiles from Turkey. On our side only seven Americans initially knew of the commitment we made related to Turkey as part of our ultimatum. Dobrynin had one important question: Could Khrushchev tell his generals about the quid pro quo? The president’s brother pondered for a moment about the query for which he had not been given instructions. But quietly he nodded in the affirmative. Another answer might well have been fatal, because Khrushchev’s control over the Soviet system, as we soon leaned, was slipping. A battle with his generals would not have been helpful at a moment when a timely decision was imperative. Russian acceptance of President Kennedy’s terms came back when American forces were within 48 hours of landing.
Meanwhile, we had detected three Soviet submarines in the vicinity of our fleet (there were actually four) but we didn’t know that each was armed with one nuclear warhead. Nor did we know that instead of a handful, there were over a hundred missiles in Cuba. Under instructions from the Pentagon, our navy forced with depth charges one of the submarines to surface. It wasn’t until a conference was held in Cuba (attended by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara) in 2002 on the 40th anniversary of the crisis that we learned that when the depth charges were dropped, the captain of the submarine ordered the launching of the nuclear missile. Because Soviet naval protocol required two approvals for such an action, the captain’s position did not prevail. The other officer whose authority was needed refused to approve the decision. If it weren’t for a submariner named Vasily Arkipov, the missile would have been launched. If it had struck at or near its target, the explosion might have wiped out the entire fleet and in all likelihood precipitated an American nuclear response and counter exchange from Moscow.
Fortunately, Khrushchev chose to back down. Armageddon was threatened by a Communist leader but averted by the same leader, a single Soviet naval officer, and an American President who chose a more cautious path than the majority of his advisers recommended.
With this reminder of how near we came to nuclear disaster, we have no choice except to continually bear in mind Einstein’s warning that splitting the atom requires a change in our way of thinking. Never has it been more important for individuals in public life to appeal to the better angels rather than the baser instincts of the body politic. Whether the issues are social or economic, domestic or international, the temptation to appeal to the darker side of human nature must be avoided. The stakes are too high. The duty of public officials is to inspire hope rather than to manipulate fear. The health of nations is directly related to the temperance of statecraft.
For many, concern for civil discourse seems either unimportant or sanctimonious. Actually, civility is an enduring virtue of civilized society. At issue is how individuals interrelate in community and how societies make decisions that can affect life on the planet.
Civility is not simply or principally about manners. It doesn’t mean that spirited advocacy is to be avoided. In fact, argumentation is a social good. Without argumentation there is a tendency to dogmatism, even tyranny. What civility does require is a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others, with an understanding that all peoples of the earth are connected and rely on each other.
If, according to the American creed, all men are created equal, it follows that everyone has something to contribute to the public dialogue. Everyone can teach something to somebody else. Hence, the case for citizens and, most importantly, public officials to listen to others with respect, and to proceed with humility is powerful. The best and the brightest are not immune from great mistakes. The same may be true for countries. Democracies, for instance, are not mistake-free. Fortunately they are the best form of government to correct missteps once taken, but sometimes this takes time and historical perspective.
Every individual thinks differently and sees events from a unique perspective. To take a cue from my mother’s eulogy to Drake, I have from time to time been reminded of four books I read in college called the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. The books, set between World Wars I and II in Alexandria, Egypt, covered a rather insignificant set of events, each from the eyes of a different participant. One wonders why anyone would want to read about the same happenings four times, and it ends up that all the stories are quite different. The literary moral is that to get a sense of reality it is helpful to review events from more than one perspective. This lesson may apply to a dinner table conversation, the court room, even relations between countries. This is why in a global setting foreign travel and professional exchanges, whether academic, business, or artistic, are so important. Mutual understanding can be advanced through studies but they are best sealed through personal engagement, the recognition that perspective broadens with diverse input. The greater the number of eyes, the greater the focus.
Here I want to conclude with several observations about the most important bilateral relationship of this century, that between the United States and China.
In the next two weeks, decisions will be made on leadership transitions in the two countries which will have the most to say whether this century will be relatively peaceful and prosperous. In America we will have a series of elections; in China, a series of selections. At the top there are several interesting similarities and contrasts. President Obama and Governor Romney both started their presidential quests here in Iowa, beginning five years ago. And in China, the President-designate, Xi Jinping, received his baptism in cultural relations in Iowa, leading a Chinese agricultural delegation to Muscatine more than a decade ago.
The U.S. and China have radically different political systems. China is the older civilization but over the past several centuries each country has borrowed political concepts from Europe. In America, Jefferson, the principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence, was the philosophical godson of John Locke; Madison, the primary architect of the Constitution, adopted Montesquieu’s balance of power precepts. China, on the other hand, turned its back on the European Enlightenment and instead imported a Marxism-Leninist model.
The ruling Communist Party embraced the dictatorship model theorized by Marx, massaged by Lenin, and subsequently coercively implemented by Stalin and his henchmen. Under Deng Xiaoping, China subsequently abandoned part of the socialist dogma Mao introduced and gradually ameliorated many of the “gulag” aspects of Stalinist/Maoist coercion. While Communist Party political controls and many state-owned corporations are maintained, China has opened to the outside world and welcomed carefully monitored foreign investment.
Corruption is embedded in elements of Chinese commercial and governance structures. While America, by contrast, has little political corruption, we have growing conflicts of interest in our political system, exacerbated by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United that authorizes corporations to intrude more forcefully into the political process.
I have visited China a number of times, the first in 1979 when I had the privilege of meeting with Deng Xiaoping as part of the formal normalization of relations delegation. The most recent visit was two months ago when, based on a Memorandum of Understanding with the Chinese Ministry of Culture, I headed a delegation to Beijing and Nanjing to discuss a variety of cultural issues in a colloquium with Chinese government authorities and scholars.
It is hard not to be impressed with the pace of change in China, including the manner in which the political system operates. Since Mao’s Cultural Revolution there has been a shift in the “who” and “how” of Chinese governance. In the post-Mao era an increasing number of Chinese leaders have emerged from an engineering and science rather than revolutionary background. American political leadership, on the other hand, remains more sales oriented. Ideas and personalities have to be sold to the American public.
Salesmanship is less needed in China. Under the Chinese constitution the Communist Party is the exclusive party of governance. Hardly noted in the West, China allows a small number of other political parties and in some local elections there can be a semblance of democratic voting. What is unprecedented in political science, though, is the requirement that other parties cooperate with the ruling party rather than serve as opposition parties. All significant top positions in government must be held by Communist Party members. In many circumstances the system provides for the top person to choose his/her deputy. Surprisingly, sometimes a strong person at the top prefers to name a nonparty person as deputy, perhaps because the top person can reach out to quality people in the academy or the private sector, perhaps because a nonparty choice eliminates a vigorous competitor for the top person’s job or another choice position for which a nonparty person is ineligible.
In the Chinese system, there is a regular, performance review (at least once a year) of individuals holding government positions). The main criteria in a review relate to job creation, though attention is increasingly being placed on expansion of education and cultural opportunities for the public. In addition to math and the sciences, education policy is beginning to place greater emphasis on humanities disciplines, from world history to foreign languages (particularly English), and a priority is being given to the establishment of schools of design. Humanities studies are being advanced as disciplines to foster greater understanding of the world and techniques to nurture creative thinking so that the country can compete more vigorously in developing, rather than simply manufacturing products designed abroad.
In Nanjing there is an enormous memorial to Sun Yat-sen, who prior to the struggle between Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao was the first president of modern China. I was impressed with how venerated Sun Yat-sen remains even though or perhaps because he was committed to a staged approach to achieving full democracy. Many Chinese see an eventual democratic trend in China but few visualize early changes in the current system of Communist party control. Non-Communist parties are not likely to become opposition oriented in the near future; nor is the ruling party likely to drop either its Communist superstructure or consider adopting a more Chinese-centric name. It is not soon apt to embrace an appellation, as popular as it might be, such as the Confucianist Party.
In America, process is our most important product. Our politics have worked well over time yet many Americans sense that something is askew in the current political environment. Whether it is the tea party, the Occupy Wall Street movement, or disenchanted moderates, there is a growing sense that inside power brokers have gained too much control over the political process and that money has come to play too egregious a role in campaigns. My views might be considered radical to some. I am convinced that the case for overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling and going to a system of partial public financing of campaigns is the most effective way to lessen the power of interest groups and hold government accountable to the people.
In the wake of this election, Americans should take stock and consider how best to seek common ground to advance the common good. To realize what the 19th-century British utilitarians described as the greatest good of the greatest number requires a greater willingness to respect each other’s views and needs. When there is no sense of common purpose, social cohesion breaks down and dysfunctionality reigns in government.
All social organizations from football teams to the Boy Scouts, from corporations to army units produce better results when the participants pull together. The same is true for legislative bodies. America would be better served if our political parties cultivated a more constructive give-and-take relationship instead of advancing singularly adversarial agendas. There are, after all, common values like liberty, free markets, and concern for national security and educational opportunity that should bind us together even when disagreements on the direction of the country are most robust.
The country must come before party; the national interest before interest groups.