In the entryway of the municipal building of the little town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France, hangs an American flag. Sainte-Mere-Eglise was a site where our paratroopers landed prior to the D-Day invasion. They landed in the midst of German troop formations, fighting as they came down. One paratrooper got hung up on the church steeple and survived the battle. His replica still hangs there today. The American flag in the mayor’s building is said to be the first one planted on the European continent. And it is displayed there proudly as a memorial in thanksgiving to America for what we did to save France and Europe from tyranny.
Most of us think of war as traditionally fought with tanks, aircraft, ships and infantry. Even in the age of drones and asymmetrical terror threats — such as IEDs (improvised explosive devices) — most of us see our defense through a conventional lens. But warfare is changing fast, with the miniaturization of nuclear weapons, drones and other technologies. For instance, self-replicating nanobots the size of mosquitoes capable of carrying poison could be used for mass destruction. Small nuclear warheads can already be placed onto faster, lighter ICBM missiles from nimble, mobile launchers that are difficult to detect. Imagine new underwater weapons systems that emerge without warning. We are entering an era that is unprecedented and unpredictable, born from the very technologies that have heretofore ensured our survival.
What has emerged internationally is a tripolar world, simultaneously increasing danger and opportunity. On one pole stands China. As they ascend to economic dominance, China seeks to pair their mercantilist clout with military projection in key lanes of commerce. The Communist party leader President Xi projects himself as a man of virtue and dominance. Last week the magazine The Economist called him The World’s Most Powerful Man.
At another pole stands Russia. Though facing demographic problems, Russia has in many ways raced ahead of us in weapons technology superiority. It could be argued that the Soviet era was an aberration within Russia’s long tradition of czarist rule. Seen in that light, Putin is a new czar type who has moved past Marxist theology to recover Russian nationalistic poetry, purpose and expansionist power.
The third pole is less of a geographic or ideological proposition. It’s an expression of higher ideals. In traditional terms, it’s called the Transatlantic Alliance; in broader terms, it is peoples from around the world who are guided by a reasoned intuitive sense that all persons have dignity and rights and that systems of government and economics ought to be ordered around that proposition. When persons can exercise excellence for themselves in partnership with others, a community of possibility exists. Because, in America, we believe these values are universal, we also believe they are more potent than any ideology or accident of geography. That is the long arc of history — born in former ages and translated over time to the present.
Given our vulnerabilities, we understandably commit to technological superiority in weaponry. But, as a singular proposition this is illogical. The tech gap is closing. There must be more — and it is found in two pathways. First, our own internal reflection. Last week we saw a Hollywood elite named Harvey Weinstein brought to shame for his manipulative perversions. In a flash of collective conscience, the curtain was raised on Hollywood’s dark hypocrisy. Almost all Americans were aghast, showing our capacity to value human dignity. Second, a healthy national conscience gives us the credibility to reinvigorate and build authentic relations worldwide. By incentivizing economic good and promoting governing models that are fair, we create the conditions for our own safety and the world’s security.
On my way home from Washington to Nebraska, I was behind a red pickup truck. Not an uncommon sight in our great state, except that on each side of the truck was a pole with a large American flag, blowing fiercely in the wind. A bit tattered on the edges, but, nevertheless, very proudly displayed, just like at Sainte-Mere-Eglise. It is my hope that this third pole can hold.