Change or Be Changed

11/23/2011 04:16 pm 16:16:34 | Updated Jan 23, 2012

We Americans have a lot to be thankful for. As a land of inordinate opportunities, our success has not been because we're really any better than anyone else -- but we have been luckier. It seems, however, that our opportunities may be running out. To twist the sports adage, sometimes it's better to be good than lucky. And that means taking better advantage of opportunities to shape our own destiny, while we still have them.

We are no doubt in the midst of seismic shifts in the world order that penetrate our own front doors.

The bad news is that they are immense and overwhelming; but, the good news is in the way change is taking place. Real change in America and world is coming from the bottom up, through an emerging collective consciousness searching for articulation and the wisdom of the caring crowds. Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring are only the beginning.

When I took my ride around the United States to contemplate what it means to be an American and what that should mean beyond our shores, I came to the conclusion that not only will change ultimately finds its essential inspiration through a more community-based process, but that if the United States is to move forward in the 21st century, it needs to have a "national conversation" in the same way.

We should have had it as far back as 1989, when the world order we are now seeing began to take over from the one that dominated the last century. We've just failed to notice it, or at least take appropriate action.

Yes, of course we are a country in decline, partly because our relative decline was inevitable - our dominance of the globe and all that went with it has been an historical aberration. But it's also because we have been missing many opportunities, among them overhauling national security governance, embodied in a military-industrial complex that has dominated the federal government and has not really changed since 1947. As Jim Locher of the Project on National Security Reform, put it: "how can we secure our children's future with our grandparent's government?"

Like the U.S. team at the Women's World Cup last summer, we're learning that more than the rules have changed -- the game has changed. America has been largely responsible for the globalization of everything but itself.

And yet like Team USA in that fateful game, we are missing one opportunity after another to score -that is, to structure ourselves for success in this new world order. It's been costing immense amounts of blood, treasure, international standing, and now even jobs and our standard of living. When 9/11 hit us, we likewise failed to look beyond the threat and see the opportunity. Then came -- and went -- Obama's mantra of "change." We have yet another with our withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the massive downscaling of defense and intelligence that is no doubt coming with the debt reckoning.

The problem is, with each and every opportunity deferred, the costs of change are going up while the better and more available options keep coming off the table. We're starting to lose ground we can't make up. There's no better example of this than our failure to tackle the long-term debt issue. Each day the national debt rises, in a globalized world in which our ways of dealing with it look ever more out of date, we are losing our ability to manage our transitions.

Our main issue is governance. Think of governments as collective change management mechanisms. In a time when security and prosperity have become synonymous, and when the public-private nexus. holds the greatest promise to this change management process, it's become obvious that government reform can only be induced from outside the stale world inside the Washington Beltway -- or, as Locher dubbed it: "it takes a nation to fix a government."

Fortunately, there seem to be a growing number of movements, beyond the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, which offer Americans a real opportunity to participate. As we've seen abroad, various social networking media are the seedbed of movements such as Americans Elect and Smart Congress, which are slowly re-energizing individuals and helping them to mobilize rather than wait passively for elites (who are more interested in maintaining the status quo than changing) to come to their rescue.

Even the Project on National Security Reform has launched America's First Quarter Millennium -- Envisioning a Transformed National Security System in 2026, a blog-based initiative that seeks to inspire a crucial part of this national conversation. Unlike the typical think-tank report, it is a public-working-draft of future history, looking to capture the best of America's collective wisdom and co-create a vision of the future to be communicated back to Washington.

The looming 2012 elections are yet another opportunity to at long last have this great national conversation that, among many things, can help us redefine the meaning of citizenship and national service. It can help engage us in a national learning process to navigate these new frontiers. Most importantly, it can empower individuals in the national political decision-making processes -- through the interactive connectivity of a broadened national community, not just polls that politicians can choose to ignore.

There was a time when we could afford our splendid isolationism, our willful ignorance, and our apathy towards even the simplest of civic duties such as voting. No longer. We can't sit back anymore and think the issues we used to ignore no longer impact our lives, while we indulge in escapisms like Dancing with the Stars. Welcome to the reality and not just the show.

We can't "win" the future. The future is coming, anyway. What we can do is to become more the subject of change rather than its object. That begins in the present, by asking ourselves, every day: "What am I doing now to help create the future"?

It's a choice: Change or be changed.