The Peril of the Dominant Culture and The Idea of America

By David Young

The Congressional Institute

February 7, 2003


Senate Republican Planning Conference



The Peril of the Dominant Culture and The Idea of America


Dr. David R. Young

Oxford Analytica




Good evening ladies and gentlemen.


I am grateful tonight for the opportunity to share some personal reflections on what I believe is one of the most important matters facing America – both today and for the foreseeable future.  These reflections are personal and I believe the questions I raise here are vital whether or not there is a war with Iraq.


 I am here as an American who once spent four years in the White House on the National Security Council staff as Administrative Assistant to Henry Kissinger from 1969 to 1973.  My office was just down the hall from Lamar (Senator Alexander), who was trying to take care of Bryce Harlow.  And upstairs there was another young assistant named Dick Cheney who was trying to take care of a guy we all called “Rummy.”  So I am not unmindful of the difficulties of the job you have.  Since then I have spent over twenty-five years watching America from abroad – and one might even say, for such a time as this.


 The consulting firm I established in England in 1975 – Oxford Analytica – has today about 200 clients around the world – a quarter of which are international institutions and governments, including each of the G7, China, India, Russia, the European Union, as well as the UN, World Bank, and the IMF.  This international exposure has allowed me to see America from a number of perspectives relevant to tonight.


I am also very honored to be able to share these thoughts with you, as you shoulder considerable responsibility for America’s future.  This morning Darrell Green spoke from his heart as an African American, to you as members of the Republican Party; this evening I’d like to speak from my heart as an American living abroad to you as leaders in the Senate of the United States of America.


My title is: The Peril of the Dominant Culture and the Idea of America.  I will pull my thoughts together around a few questions.  But first a quick overview:


·        The US is now arguably the most dominant of dominant powers in modern history. 
·        History, however, shows that there is a peril in being a dominant culture. Such cultures sooner or later become so preoccupied with their own power that they fail to see themselves from outside. 
·        Here is the challenge:  How does America avoid the Peril of the Dominant Culture and at the same time establish its legacy of very special “beliefs and values”?

        Throughout my remarks I will be using the phrase the “idea of America” to encompass all those fundamental and universal “beliefs and values” embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution [that is equality, freedom, justice, pluralism, tolerance, opportunity and individualism].  As I proceed, my aim is to point to the “idea of America” as a counterpoint to the “dominance of America.”


            My first question is: What is the peril of the dominant culture? 


Simply, a dominant culture has difficulty seeing itself from outside.  As the great Scottish poet Robbie Burns wrote:

“Oh would that some power would give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us.”


Because this peril is so hard to understand, it often seems to be a mystery.  President Bush, in a post-911 news conference, said:

“I am amazed, I am stunned, I just can’t understand.   It is such a misunderstanding of what America is all about.”


And I believe this represents how most Americans felt at the time.  We were not only surprised, we were mystified and confused when we realized how many in the world thought and felt about America.  This gap in perceptions was, and is, startling.


Newspapers and magazines are full of stories in this connection nowadays.  In a recent Pew Foundation Report, 38,000 people in 44 countries were surveyed. Other similar, though more modest, efforts have been produced by the German Marshall Fund, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, and the University of Michigan Values Survey. Here are a few troubling perspectives:


1)   More than half of Western and Eastern Europeans say America does not take other countries’ interests into account in carrying out its foreign policy, whereas three quarters of Americans think their government does. (Pew, p.58)


2)   There is a strong sense among most countries surveyed that US policies serve to increase the formidable gap between the rich and the poor.  (Pew, p.18)


3)      In France and Russia,75% of respondents said that the principle reason that the US might use military force against Iraq is a desire to control Iraqi oil.  (Pew, p.?)

4)      In an earlier Pew survey conducted with the International Herald Tribune at the end of 2001, 275 world opinion leaders were asked whether US policies would be seen as a major cause of the 9/11 attacks.  Less than 20% of the US respondents agreed, while 60% of the non-Americans did.


Of course we can’t rebut every misunderstanding or misperception of America.  But when those misperceptions are held by large cross sections of the rest of the world, we ignore them at our peril.
But some would say: So what?  Why does it matter what other people think? 

It matters because we are not all powerful, even though we spend more on defense than the next 20 countries combined.  And what other people think sooner or later results in action.

      My second question is: What is the nature of America’s dominance today?

First of all let’s clear away the underbrush of typical answers.  A lot of people around the world just don’t like America because of its bigness.   Many are just plain jealous of America’s success.  Some are anti-American on ideological grounds.  While all these views have validity, they are not sufficient explanations for our current situation.

A more useful approach is to analyze the nature of power leading to America’s dominance. Four perspectives are important: political, military, economic and cultural. For reasons of argument, I’d like to first treat the political and military perspectives together.  We think of ourselves very often as the “reluctant sheriff” trying to keep law and order around the world within the framework of established international institutions.

 We believe that we do not throw our weight around unnecessarily.  We are careful to include others in trying to keep the peace, whether it’s in Mogadishu, Bosnia, Afghanistan or Iraq. A good portion of the world seems to understand the need for someone in this role and recognize the benefits of having a “sheriff.”  A Pew Report finding is relevant here:


“Most people around the world think that a rival superpower would make the world a more dangerous place.  Even Russians agree by two to one (53% – 25%) that a bipolar world is potentially more dangerous.” 


         However, this is not to say that there is not at the same time wide resentment of America’s power and suspicions of its motives.  In short, the world does not see us the way we see ourselves.

On the foreign policy front, we must acknowledge the impact that our foreign policies have around the world, especially on those who have no voice in shaping these policies. Wherever America pursues foreign policies based on its own domestic political and special interests, and not on a wider understanding of what is fair and just to all parties in the circumstances, problems invariably surface.  From abroad, our policies must be perceived as fair and just if they are to be accepted and credible.  In sum, the way we see our policies is not the way many others see them.

When we move into the spheres of global economic and cultural influence, no one is a “full-time sheriff,” and the laws all seem to have holes in them. And so America and the other G7*[1] countries operate abroad within relatively benign environments.  And I think it would be fair to say that the US dominates the economy of the G7, which in turn dominates the world economy.

Fortunately many executives are becoming aware that this dominant position carries with it responsibilities. 

But again, while we may see American business as upright and free of corruption, those outside have reasonable grounds for seeing us otherwise.

Lastly, our global cultural influence is arguably the most counterproductive of the four dimensions of our power.  Hollywood often projects images of America that many Americans deplore.  In a recent article entitled “ Hollywood’s Contribution to 911,” Michael Medved provides a devastating critique of what we are doing to ourselves abroad. 

The export of American popular culture must be taken seriously because it is creating the image of America that the world believes, for better or for worse, and it is at the heart of the world’s “love-hate” attitude towards America. 

A word on globalization.  It is important to recognize that globalization over the last two decades has certainly increased the size of the global GDP pie and has arguably been responsible for the greatest redistribution of wealth in history.  America has benefited enormously from globalization as the world’s leading consumer, but so have the producers. One may argue that on balance globalization has been a net good in terms of Bentham’s Law of the greatest good for the greatest number.  The catch is that the G7 winds up with a disproportionate share of the greatest number of those who have benefited.  Moreover, there are many injustices along the way that we cannot ignore, whether it is child labor in the Philippines or Russian oligarchs getting the biggest piece of the action in the latest privatization. 

And as we look into the future, the overall picture is even more troublesome:


  • “The World Bank definition of poverty is income of less than one US dollar per day; and of the global population of 6.1 billion, 4.8 billion are living on or below this level. 


  • Of the 1.3 billion above this level, 280 million are American with an average per person income of about 100 US dollars per day. 


  • The World Bank estimates that over the next ten years, world population will increase by 1.9 billion.  Of this increase, over 95% will be born into households living below the $1/day poverty line.


  • Moreover, while we represent less than 5% of the world’s 6 billion people, we consume over 25% of the world’s energy and enjoy over 30% of the world’s total GDP (USD31.4 trillion).


We must shift out of our “comfort zone” and realize that the flip side of globalization is the “politics of despair.”  In other words, our standard of living and wealth is grounded on having the world not only as a market for our products and services, but also on having the world as a resource for cheap labor, energy and manufacturers in return.

Another problem is that globalization is multilateral in the extreme, in that anyone can play – but no one is in charge.  What is needed is not just a framework of free market principles, but principles grounded on justice and equity.  If not, the result will be even greater disparity between rich and poor, and the “politics of despair” around the world will continue to grow.  Rising despair will eventually result in actions and when that happens, we will be hard-pressed to protect our interests around the world.

The point is that a lowering of the “politics of despair” is not only in our own self-interest but is the right thing to do.  America must lead here.  There is no one else.  And it must also be seen to lead.  Our actions give people hope, and hope is all many have.  In furthering the idea of America – our policy goal should be to change the “politics of despair” into the “politics of hope.”  President Bush’s AIDS Initiative announced last week gives real potential to such a vision.

Let’s look for a moment at the historical context…  


No dominant culture in history has been able to see itself as others do in time to change and avoid its own demise.  Their shortcomings, more often than not, have been in their own policies and behavior – not in the values they espoused or the beliefs they held.  Invariably it was their overreaching insensitivity, overconfidence, hypocrisy, corruption and arrogance that were their undoing.  In sum, “they were not able to see themselves as others saw them.” 

And what has been their legacy?

·        Greece gave us the beginnings of democracy and under Alexander the Great integrated East and West under a common language.

·        Building on Greek philosophy, Rome added the concept of the rule of law.  They built roads to carry out the new order.  They gave us a new language and, in due course, the institutions that gave rise to modern Europe.

·        During the Ming Dynasty, China created a meritocratic civil service and was the most technologically advanced nation on earth. 

·        Britain gave us another new language and the beginnings of practical democratic government.  It built systems of administration and education to preside over its empire and social reform, which accompanied the industrial revolution.


            Now it is America’s turn.  But our dominance is different from others in history.  It is based as much on influence as it is on power.  Moreover,

  • Never has a nation been caught in the paradox of being both so powerful and so vulnerable at the same time. 
  • Never has a nation literally been so global in the reach of its dominance.
  • Never has such dominance been achieved without design and without forceful occupation.


The question we must ask ourselves is:

·        What is the legacy America wants to leave to the world? And,

·        How should we conduct our affairs so that our legacy will endure?


But we must not forget that there is a contradiction at the heart of America. We have a message built on great ideals that all men should enjoy.  We want to share them with the world. 

But our materialism, consumerism, attitudes, lifestyle, popular culture and policies impede reception of the message. 

Put another way, if Marshall McLuhan is right, and the “medium is the message,” then America must pay much more attention to how it behaves or else the message will be lost. 



Let me step back here for a minute. 


Throughout history, power is usually seen as having two dimensions: a tangible/physical/material dimension and a policy/strategy/intellectual dimension.  But I believe another dimension – a spiritual dimension – must be taken into account.

Perhaps I can best explain this point in personal terms.  My most lasting and profound memory of my four years in the White House was of a sense of battle.  Not a battle in a conventional military sense, but a battle between spiritual forces of good and evil at work in the highest places as well as in each individual.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it most eloquently in the Gulag Archipelago as follows: 


“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, not between political parties either, but right through every human heart and through all human hearts.” 


This line also passes through human history on a grand scale, and as discouraging as that history may seem from time to time, it is not yet over.  The question for all of us is: “How do we find the moral and ethical compass by which to live in the midst of day-to-day battles?”

This notion of a spiritual dimension in the exercise of power is not new.  One could go back to St. Augustine or even earlier of course – but in the secular world, one of the most powerful acknowledgements comes from Frederick Nietzsche, who wrote in his famous book Ecce Homo in 1888:


“For when truth engages in struggle with the falsehood of ages, we must expect shocks and a series of earthquakes, with a rearrangement of hills and valleys, such as has never yet been dreamed of.  The concept of politics is raised bodily into the realm of spiritual warfare.”


Thus, Nietzsche’s conclusion – from a very different starting point than mine – is that politics involves a spiritual struggle between truth and falsehood.

Indeed I would even say that the most accurate and graphic description of what I am talking about goes back to the Apostle Paul who wrote in the book of Ephesians:


“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this present world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” 


The fact that men as different as Nietzsche and the Apostle Paul agree that the exercise of power is a matter of “spiritual warfare” must, at a minimum, challenge us all.



            My last question is: What can we do to avoid the perils of the dominant culture and give the “idea of America” the best chance to endure?

First of all, we must recognize that no one has been here before – we’re in a new kind of global game – it is being played out in all spheres and in all dimensions.  It’s going to be a generational battle for hearts and minds.  

Second, we must begin by carefully listening to all that is being said around the world about how America is viewed today.  This must then be critiqued and analyzed to draw conclusions as to accuracy, not only of the reporting, but also of the views reported.   Even when such views are erroneous, we must recognize that perceptions are what count.  Unfortunately, in this situation, truth is not as important as perception. 

Third, we have to be open to change in our policies, attitudes and behavior, particularly where there is perceived unfairness or injustice that obscures our message. 

Some ideas:


1)         Remain Engaged

America must craft policies in all four areas of dominance that work together to make a coherent whole.  We cannot rely purely on military power, which we may be tempted to do in light of our technological superiority, and the fact that we have had three relatively “cost free” wars in terms of human life, as in The Gulf, Bosnia and Afghanistan. 


2)         Media

We must discover creative ways of conveying the truth about America.  We need to look for, cultivate and work with people in the film, media and entertainment industries whose aim is to challenge, inspire and educate. We must remind them of the huge responsibility they carry and that they are playing in a bigger “love-hate” game than they realize.  


3)         Diplomacy

We must cultivate a superb professional diplomatic corps that understands how not only to look after American interests, but also how to share America’s values.


4)   Globalization

We must reach out to the nations in need in order to help them cope with globalization.  [President Bush’s Millennium Fund initiative is a good example of what is required here.]  Our leadership is as essential here as it is in any other area.  We have to measure our policies and actions for their inherent justice and equity within the onslaught of globalization. 


5)         Business

            We must help our business elite to see themselves not only as Chief Executives but also as international representatives of America.  We must encourage these executives to take their local corporate social responsibility seriously – and remind them that fair play and ethical behavior are the litmus test in all of their business dealings, even when there is no sheriff and the rules have holes in them.   


6)         Personal Exposure

You – and I might suggest your families – must take advantage of every opportunity to gain first-hand experience and understanding of what is going on around the world.  I know time is precious and you may be accused of junketing.  But time outside the dominant culture will invariably be worthwhile and indeed help you not only to learn more about others – but also about yourself.  As Rudyard Kipling put it,


“And what knows he of England who only England knows.” 


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