In the more than three decades I've been involved in nation-building, civil-military coordination, and just trying to help make peace in broken places, I've learned that there are two things that tell you a country is still in trouble. One is when people still blame everyone else but themselves for their predicament. The other is when people are living in the past more than the future. Conversely, when the narrative in a society turns from blame toward responsibility and the discourse is more about solving problems than finding fault, that's one indication things are turning around. The other is when people talk more about reform and renewal than revenge or retribution - the future more than the past.
A couple of good examples of this are Serbia and Pakistan. Since the early '90s, Serbia was a pariah state, blaming others for their disastrous string of losses in what used to be called Yugoslavia and glorifying themselves in the myth of a fate of national tragedy going back to a 12th century battle on Kosovo's "Field of Blackbirds". Now it seems the Serbs are finally moving on. This generation appears more interested in making a living than taking to the streets to pursue a romantic nationalism that has brought them nothing.
Pakistan, of course, is in many ways now where Serbia was -- except worse. Islamabad has taken over as the world capital of conspiracy theories and absurd explanations of why the United States is responsible for just about every aspect of their current mess, and they remain obsessed with settling longstanding scores with their archenemy, India. It's not to say that some of their claims are groundless -- but they are pointless. Until Pakistanis can look in the mirror, beyond their self-pity and victim mentality, they're staying on a road to nowhere. Still, there may be growing signs of more reasoned introspection in places like Karachi and among some journalists.
Pakistan may be among the worst examples of a country mired in culture of blame and backwardness, but it is by far not the only one. This problem can seize developed countries as much as fragile and weak states. It happens here as well as overseas, just in different ways.
True, Americans haven't fallen into the trap of blaming someone else for the troubles they're in. But it doesn't mean we haven't adopted a culture of blame.
Quite the contrary, the finger-pointing and shouting matches between the left and the right - fanned rather than tempered by the media - have hijacked our political dialogue. The buck-passing and politicization, in the face of the greatest challenges the country has had to face since the Great Depression have turned every attempt at some kind of major collective action into political Armageddon. For some time now, the narrative has been predominantly about how bad the other guy is. Politics, no longer the art of the possible, is in zero-sum terms - if I can't win, then you can't, either. The longstanding American genius for compromise by moving toward the center along win-win lines seems to be a thing of the past. Emotion rules reason - we're a society more concerned with how we feel than what we think. The voices of moderation and reason are drowned by the din of the blathering dithering - it's not me; it's the other guy.
At the same time, the United States has become a status quo power. Over a couple of generations, a country celebrated for dynamism and youthful optimism has resorted to middle-aged cynicism, constantly looking back to find inspiration in past achievements and older days of glory. We aging Boomers, in our growing obsession with personal and national decline, are now in the denial stage about what's happening to us at both levels. We yearn for simple, nostalgic solutions to these complex problems. We tell ourselves (and just about everyone else) that we're about freedom, self-determination, human rights, fairness, and "soft power". But we walk less that walk, especially overseas. Then we wonder why people don't like us and how some can sympathize with lunatics who want to drive airplanes into our buildings.
Conservative by nature, Americans still want it all, which is what our politicians have been telling us - like the guy on the couch in the infomercial chomping down on chips with some kind of electric vibrating belt, we can cure our national profligacy through painless gimmicks (or make the other guys pay). Sure, we want government reform and debt reduction, but we also want to keep our "entitlements", including tax relief to the rich. The Tea Party, by definition, is all about the past. While it's a nice to think we can return to the "least government" of the early days of the Republic and thus pay even less in taxes, 18th century sentiments don't solve 21st century problems.
So, it's no wonder we can't take on reforming government, education, and health care. Or build a physical, economic, and social infrastructure to remain competitive. Or overhaul our obsolete national security structures so we can get more security and prosperity for less. Beyond the blame game, too many have too much of a stake in the way things are - and the system is rigged to keep it that way.
The United States of America may not be a weak or fragile state, but it is a failing one.
Perhaps the times, whether we're ready or not, are indeed a-changing, and in the most American of ways - from the bottom up. Like the London rioters and the protesters on the Arab streets, our youth in particular is beginning to stir, expressing their general discontent with the failure of our political and economic elites to fulfill their generational social responsibility to "secure the blessings of liberty" and maintain a healthy balance between Wall Street and Main Street in that element of the social contract.
If the Occupy Wall Street movement, however, is to succeed where the Tea Party may have failed, it will have to do the two things that are the telltale signs of a failing state that has turned the corner: Talk more about responsibility than blame - comprehensive and collaborative solutions to wide-ranging and shared problems. And talk more about the future than the past - find greater inspiration in the world that is arriving than the world we're leaving behind.
Our think-tanks and our media have a huge role to play here, in framing and articulating the national conversation. We have all the cognitive tools, and most of the solutions, already at hand. Like the world's mother-in-law, we lecture everyone else about what it takes to get their act together. We need to look in our own mirror and do the same. President Obama may have said more than he realized at West Point nearly two years ago - our greatest nation-building challenge is at home.
Right now, we're looking for the right kind of leadership in places that are part of the problem and not the solution - the political parties. But maybe we haven't yet made ourselves the right kind of people for that kind of leadership. Or maybe it isn't about looking for someone on a white horse at all. We the people have not yet taken things enough in our own hands to force the hands of those who wish to lead us, as numerous volunteer groups around the country and some Californians furthering public initiatives outside of their gridlocked legislature are showing us: "The ultimate authority lies with the voters."
If, as three-fourths of us are apparently saying, that the country is on the wrong track, then we must look first to ourselves, not others, and ahead, not behind. And ask ourselves: "What am I doing to help create the future?" Then we will start to get the leaders we need and not just deserve.