08/20/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

The Politics of Protection

Shortly before Karl Wallenda, of the famous Flying Wallendas high-wire act, plunged to his death in 1978, he made what proved an apocryphal comment. He said that throughout his career he had always focused on doing the next great performance but that, lately, he had found himself thinking increasingly about not falling. The Flying Wallendas work without a safety net.

Much of our discourse as a nation these days seems to be the language of not falling in a dangerous world without a safety net. But Karl Wallenda may have something to teach us. Like him, we may find that trying to prevent disaster may serve us less well than trying to imagine success.

Since 9/11 and the financial meltdown of 2008, our public conversation has centered on how to stop another terrorist attack and how to avoid economic collapse. For even longer, our policy debates have centered on how to prevent other calamities: depletion of the Social Security Trust Fund, global warming, moral decline, drug trafficking, illegal immigration, abortion, and the list goes on. Our language has been the rhetoric of fighting disease, fighting crime, fighting terrorists, fighting debt, fighting illegals and fighting drugs.

We are thus engaged in the politics of protection. We have focused on averting disaster, on not losing what we have. But our standard of living, our vibrant democracy, our culturally diverse and creative society in the performing, mechanical, social and healing arts, and our advances in spreading democracy in other parts of the world are the products of a politics of promise. They are the result of Karl Wallenda looking out across the thin wire connecting him to the future, not looking down into the chasm that separates him from it.

It is not a question of whether we need to fight terrorists. Nor is it a question of whether we need social insurance to guard against the ravages of disease, old age, or natural disasters. It is a question of balance. What ultimately drives our imaginations and our collective endeavors must be a belief in success as much as a concern about failure. We must guide ourselves by looking toward the horizon as well as in the rear view mirror.

We have spent well over $1 trillion fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (by some estimates, much more). Our defense and homeland security budget is $851 billion for the 2013 fiscal year alone. By contrast, the State Department will spend only $52 billion for all of its staff and foreign assistance programs. Just $1.4 billion of this will be devoted to the Food for Peace program.

A politics of promise may seem fuzzy, perhaps because we lack positive pictures of the future. What would a healthy American population look like? A clean environment with flourishing biodiversity? An America that is not dependent on oil imports? An economy where everyone who wanted a job could get one? What would a world look like in which every child is vaccinated and educated? Our leaders offer us ways to cushion the blows but an engaging story of a future where they are largely absent is something else entirely. Said another way, consider where we would be if Martin Luther King Jr. had focused on the nightmare instead of the dream.

Perhaps we need an Inter-American Conference on Building Jobs in Central America as an alternative to building a wall and using drones to stop immigration. Perhaps we need a blue ribbon Study Group on Building a Healthy Water Supply for Less Developed Nations, not just Study Groups on wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps we need a "Marshall Plan" for nearly failed states along with a National Defense Strategy. Perhaps we need a Presidential Address on an America in harmony with nature and preserving its biodiversity. Perhaps we need an International Conference on Religious Respect and Toleration. And perhaps we need to engage more Americans, not just think tanks and policy wonks in government, in fashioning such promising efforts.

One Christmas Eve a few years ago, there was a story about a Palestinian father's disappointment that he could not buy toys to put under the family's tree because he had not been paid in ten months. Why were there no photos of American ships carrying toys to the Middle East?

The plea for a more hopeful picture of the future should not be dismissed as an exercise in Pollyanna-ish sentimentalism. There is considerable research on the power of positive psychology in driving human affairs and achievements. There is also considerable experience in American affairs at home and abroad. Thomas Jefferson knew the power of the politics of promise when he said that he always approached the future "with hope in the bow leaving fear astern." Acquiring Louisiana, which he predicted would usher in an "Empire of Liberty," was the direct result of such thinking. Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew this as well when he said "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Karl Wallenda knew it at the height of his success, when his mind's eye saw him walking on air.