World Leadership: Where are we going?

By Sesha Das
Americans…you gotta love us! Whether through positive thinking or downright self-delusion, we Americans always find a way to promote an image of our world leadership, even if it means putting a spin on evidence that is thoroughly damning to our cause.

Americans…you gotta love us! Whether through positive thinking or downright self-delusion, we Americans always find a way to promote an image of our world leadership, even if it means putting a spin on evidence that is thoroughly damning to our cause.

David Brooks’ December 13, 2010 opinion column for the New York Times, “Ben Franklin’s Nation,” is a perfect example. The column is a commentary on a Swedish professor’s research on the growth of global wealth and well-being over the past 200 years (Search You Tube: “Hans Rosling and 200 countries”). The study shows the explosive growth by the United States from the beginning of the industrial revolution until 1948 which resulted in Americans outpacing all other nations in the wealth and health of its citizens. But, the study also shows that in the decades subsequent to 1948 other areas of the world, particularly Asia and Latin America began to catch up, eventually eliminating the American lead.

Brooks writes of the American reaction, “Some people interpret this loss of lead-dog status as a sign of national decline. Other people think we are losing our exceptionalism. But, the truth is, there’s just been a change in the shape of the world community.”

Yes Mr. Brooks, there has been a change in the shape of the world community. American has lost its lead…period. That’s the truth. Now what? Instead of twisting words to conjure up an image that America remains the lead-dog, we Americans ought to take a look at how and why we lost that big lead. It’s not as simple as the other just catching up.

But alas, rather than going down this road less often traveled, Brooks immediately searches out a new way in which we Americans can imagine ourselves as world leaders. He continues, “In a world of relative equals, the U.S. will have to learn to define itself not by its rank, but by its values. It will be important to have the right story to tell, the right purpose and the right aura. It will be more important to know who you are.”

Here is Brooks’ fix for Americans: (1) global wealth and health will continue to grow; (2) as a direct result so will the ranks of the global middle-class; (3) since America’s big lead was gained on the middle-class ideals of Benjamin Franklin (industry, prudence, ambition, neatness, order, moderation and continual self-improvement); (4) according to Brooks, “Americans could well become the champions of the gospel of middle-class dignity. The U.S. could become the crossroads nation for those who aspire to join the middle and upper-middle class, attracting students, immigrants and entrepreneurs.”

Even though I am an American, and Brooks present an intriguing vision for continuing American dominance, I don’t buy this stubborn idea that no matter what, we America are rightfully situated only when we view the world from our rearview mirror. I don’t buy it two reasons. First, according to the World Bank (a source quoted by Brooks in this article) America will soon no longer be the leader of the global middle-class in terms of numbers. Most of the numerical growth in the global middle-class will take place in countries with different cultural values than Americans. Brooks cites the World Bank figures on middle-class growth, “By 2030 there will be about 1.5 billion. In India alone, the ranks of the middle class will swell from 50 million to 583 million.” Second, as stated by Srila Prabhupada in his Preface to Srimad Bhagavatam, something was and, still is, missing from America’s reign as lead-dog, “Human society, at the present moment, is not in the darkness of oblivion. It has made rapid progress in the field of material comforts, education and economic development throughout the entire world. But there is a pinprick somewhere in the social body at large, and therefore there are large-scale quarrels, even over less important issues. There is need of a clue as to how humanity can become one in peace, friendship and prosperity with a common cause.”

Consider what Ashok R. Garde, Indian management expert and author of Canakya on Management, has to say about how a culturally-specific ethos for business executives is more valuable than a follow-the-lead-dog approach, “The management principles used in the USA or in Japan are obviously derived from their own cultural background. There exists enough evidence already to show that these systems even when meticulously and earnestly adopted in India, rarely take roots or produce the desired results on a sustainable basis. We do need to look for those principles that are likely to make sense in our own social and work culture. These would hopefully deliver better results for all concerned – the customers, the investors, the employees, the vendors, and the society.”

If you think it’s hard creating and working together in one global corporate culture, try creating and living in one global middle-class culture. I’ve done quite a bit of international travel over the last thirty years, spending a considerable amount of time outside the United States. It’s been my experience that when entering the subtle realm of deeply rooted social/cultural middle-class values in different countries around the world I have often found myself clueless about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of my actions in any given time, place, or circumstance. Thus, I find it amusing that we Americans, well-known for our “culturally sensitivities,” would even entertain the idea that we could lead one global middle-class culture, especially when we represent an ever decreasing
percent of the global middle-class.

While the middle-class ideals espoused by Benjamin Franklin are certainly worthy, how these ideals are expressed and acted upon is going to be slightly different in each of the world’s cultures. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that Franklin’s ideals seem to have reached their limit in the face of the pressures of modern middle-class life. Brooks defines what it means to be middle-class today, “To be middle-class is to have money to spend on non-necessities.” This definition points to both how Franklin’s ideals have failed us and to why America lost its lead-dog status.

When we spend on non-necessities, we subject ourselves to the temptation of overindulgence. When we dwell in the realm of overindulgence, we create an artificial world that pits us against other and is thus doomed to implode sooner or later. Franklin’s list of middle-class virtues has failed us by not adequately protecting us from overindulgence. Yes, he mentions prudence, but apparently prudence is passé for in spite of this proscription Brooks, while touting Franklin’s middle-class ideals, ignores prudence and encourages overindulgence. Brooks writes, “To do this [to become leaders of the global middle-class], we’d have to do a better job of celebrating and defining middle-class values. We’d have to do a better job of nurturing our own middle class. We’d have to have the American business class doing what it does best: catering to every nook and cranny of the middle-class lifestyle.” In other words, middle-class spending power for non-necessities is a more important element for world leadership than prudence.

Lacking any semblance of prudence is certainly damning to America’s credentials and claim to global middle-class leadership. Even if it were not deemphasized by Brooks, Franklin’s prudence is insufficient as a pillar of global middle-class leadership because it fails to address the “pinprick” spoken of by Srila Prabhupada above. Fortunately, other cultures, especially the oriental cultures, go beyond mere prudence in addressing the dangers of overindulgence and its resultant destructive influence on society.

Garde writes, “Our current schools of management talk of management of every ‘thing’, but not really of managing the ‘self’ for becoming a manager. In the holistic thinking of Canakya, the management cannot possibly be separated from the manager: only when the manager knows how to govern himself, can he hope to manage others…This holistic thinking is in keeping with the traditions of the past at his time, and with the thinking in the orient in general. The Indian culture, even today, emphasizes ‘control’ on self…Victory over the organs of the body, which is the literary meaning of the word indriyajayah, is a well-known concept in our culture.”

The type of self-control spoken of by Garde is manifest in freedom from being consumed by the non-necessities of life. This in turn results in a contentment that reduces unnecessary and ill-motivated competition, and creates a focus that generates tremendous ability to lead others. All the power and glory of the British Empire, the few who controlled millions, could not stand before the leadership of a self-controlled Mahatma Gandhi. Self-control is perhaps the most essential credential for leading the global middle-class. But, there is more.

Because lessons in self-control are most often drawn from philosophical and religious texts, self-control provides a path to more than business or political leadership. Self-control can actually lead to the type of peaceful, happy, healthy, and wealthy life which Swedish Professor Hans Rosling’s research was meant to measure in the first place.

Consider this text from India’s Bhagavad-gita, “A person who is not disturbed by the incessant flow of desires—that enter like rivers into the ocean, which is ever being filled but is always still—can alone achieve peace, and not the man who strives to satisfy such desires.” (BG 2:70) Srila Prabhupada explains, “As long as one has the material body, the demands of the body for sense gratification will continue. The devotee, however, is not disturbed by such desires, because of his fullness. A Krishna conscious man is not in need of anything, because the Lord fulfills all his material necessities. Therefore he is like the ocean—always full in himself.”

Being lead-dog is just an anxiety producing distraction for Americans. Neither Hans Rosling’s research, nor life’s goal itself is about being number one, it’s about being at peace and happy. All of this seems to have gotten lost in Brooks’ scramble to keep lead-dog status for America.

My fellow Americans it’s time to face the truth, the era of the lead-dog is over. As described by Srila Prabhupada, world leadership today requires a collaborative effort: “At the present moment, India may be compared to the lame man and the Western countries to the blind man. For the past two thousand years India has been subjugated by the rule of foreigners, and the legs of progress have been broken. In the Western countries the eyes of the people have become blind due to the dazzling glitter of material opulence. The blind man of the Western countries and the lame man of India should combine together in this Krishna consciousness movement. Then the lame man of India can walk with the help of the Westerner, and the blind Westerner can see with the help of the lame man. In short, the material advancement of the Western countries and the spiritual assets of India should combine for the elevation of all human society.”

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Posted in Editorials.