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National service can unite us again

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We have a trust problem in America. Only 31 percent of citizens say that others can be trusted. At the same time, the number of hate groups in America has more than doubled since 1999. In the past several months alone, from El Paso to Gilroy, this lack of trust has manifested as violence.

On the anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, we are reflecting on what keeps us safe and secure as a nation, from threats at home to those overseas. Our communities are fraying, from Charlottesville to Chicago, and we must take action. As America becomes more diverse, we need to invest in solutions that build bridges across racial and socioeconomic lines to create more inclusive communities with more opportunities for all. We believe building an expectation of national service in America and a 21st century system to match it will rebuild trust among citizens and bring people together to solve public challenges in a time of great need.

In every generation, those who have undertaken national service, in the military or in a civilian capacity, have emerged more connected to their generation and more invested in their country. It compels young people out of their comfort zones and cultivates a sense of duty and civic responsibility, all while surrounding them with people from different corners of the country and the globe who look, pray, sound, and live differently from themselves. From our perch in the White House, we saw this culture of service emerge strongly after 9/11, the last time there were more national service opportunities through programs like the Peace Corps, Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and Volunteers in Service to America.

Such service is core to the American identity. When Thomas Jefferson penned the right to the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, he was also talking about the public happiness, a cooperative enterprise that we help one another achieve that was fundamental to the maintenance of American democracy. George Washington and James Madison were worried that in founding a government so strongly on rights, future generations distant from the American Revolution that secured those rights would need to be reminded of their duties through civic education and service. They proposed founding a national university that would play this role.

Service is also core to a functioning democracy. As large integrating civic institutions such our churches and other religious congregations, labor unions, metropolitan daily newspapers, and political parties for grassroots organizing built up during the 1900s have shrunk significantly since the turn of the century, it is unclear what institutions are taking their place. National service could play a powerful role in building civic bridges.

National service also helps keep our country safe. The first nationally representative survey of 11,000 returned Peace Corps volunteers showed that 93 percent said that the Peace Corps improved the perception of the United States globally, 66 percent said it improved our foreign policy, and more than half believed it improved our national security. Higher levels of trust among people makes us safer both at home and abroad.

We envision a future where everyone has the opportunity as they enter adulthood to serve in a civilian or military capacity, a future in which national service brings together young people of different backgrounds and where that service is rewarded with increased opportunity. This future engages communities to ensure local priorities are honored and private resources are usefully leveraged. It builds on existing efforts at the federal, state, and local levels so that no resource goes untapped.

To achieve this future, we must first call on Congress to dramatically increase the number of national service opportunities from 66,000 per year to 200,000 to match the number of people who enter the United States armed services each year, on a path toward one million service opportunities a year by the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. Serve America Together is leading this charge and continues to press the presidential candidates to release their plans to expand national service during their potential first 100 days in office.

On this anniversary of one of our greatest tragedies, let us learn from the past and prioritize what we need to be more secure for the future. Our challenges are too big for small ideas. If we are going to repair the trust crisis in America, we need bold ideas like national service at the forefront.

Stephen Hadley is the chairman of the United States Institute of Peace and a former White House national security adviser. John Bridgeland is the vice chairman of Service Year Alliance and a former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. The authors were joined by retired Army General Stanley McChrystal, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in submitting their testimony on this issue to the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service.

Tags Americans Defense Democracy Government Military Peace President Security

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