Respect your Elders — a call to action
In 2007, conflict was driving hundreds of thousands of Somalis from their homes, Burmese police were beating monks in the streets and a U.S. mortgage crisis was about to topple the global economy. Also in 2007, Nelson Mandela turned 89, and on his birthday, he announced the formation of a group of veterans of global politics with a mandate to “foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.” He called it The Elders.
This London-based group of laureates and luminaries — Former U.S. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, former President Jimmy Carter, Cleric Desmond Tutu, etc. — continues to consult with heads of state, write letters and conduct private diplomacy to promote good governance and end the world’s thorniest issues — like the current G-20 response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But with the highest confirmed rate of coronavirus infection in the world, a sclerotic government and a bitterly divided electorate, it is time for the United States to convene its own council of American Elders.
The U.S. is in the grips of a public health emergency, one that will also inflict massive long-term damage on the economy. An effective council of Elders then would include veterans of the SARS, MERS and Ebola containment campaigns, and from the 2008 financial crash and subsequent recovery. This team should serve as a go-between for heads of U.S. agencies, private sector leaders, academicians and international leaders who can bring a variety of perspectives to America’s biggest problems.
Just as importantly, the U.S. political landscape is more partisan and vitriolic than at any time since the Civil War. This animosity extends from common voters and media consumers, up to elected officials and appointed members of all three government branches. An American Elders council would have the monumental task of recommending ways to unify a divided electorate and convince both parties their best interests lie in disarming and exploring avenues for dialogue and compromise.
An Elders council carries capabilities that no other group can harness. Recommendations from a group consisting, for example, Madeleine Albright, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Alan Greenspan, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Clinton, David Petraeus and Al Gore are likely to attract attention from the public, the media and many in government, and apply a unique level of pressure on agencies to reform themselves.
But this American council should include more than just former U.S. officials. We would need a council who can advise on the wide range of segments that make up a strong and healthy democracy such as pioneering journalist Barbara Walters, visionary entrepreneur-philanthropist Bill Gates, former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, former Proctor and Gamble CEO Bob McDonald, Ashoka founder Bill Drayton and former World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim.
The need for nuanced expertise is high, but the bench available to the U.S. for an American Elders is extraordinarily deep.
These leaders all share one special trait in common: they faced down the world’s toughest problems while occupying top positions of power. They all made mistakes, but learning and persevering in the face of outsized adversity bestows a special kind of wisdom that is constantly in short supply, but is needed now more than ever.
Our nation is at a crossroad. Americans are losing confidence in traditional institutions, the government, the media and in each other. We must take concrete steps to restore the public’s confidence in society, which is mission-critical for the cause of freedom around the world.
Our challenges call for sophisticated, sustainable solutions. Let’s empower our most celebrated figures to merge their brain power, experience and compassion toward our collective betterment. This will not be a quick fix, but as COVID-19 is proving, progress is urgent but eminently achievable. We are a resourceful people. We not only can do this — we must.
Brian Babcock-Lumish is an assistant professor of international affairs at the United States Military Academy at West Point. A military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, he is a scholar of civil-military relations. The opinions expressed do not represent those of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.