Pedaling Principles Chapter 13 – Pennsylvania, Words the Inspire Action

I am fond of Pennsylvania’s nickname, the Keystone State, since I feel a kinship for architectural terminology, even when applied in a different context.  I also appreciate its double meaning, as Pennsylvania was not only the keystone of our original colonies in terms of geography but also in temperament.  As a Quaker colony that fostered tolerance, Pennsylvania was the perfect place for the fiery radicals of New England and the Southern gentry to come together, vet their opinions, and discover common ground.  Our most fundamental guiding principles…that all men are created equal… life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…to form a more perfect Union…government of the people by the people, for the people… they were all composed by Americans from other places, but all found their voice in Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania is a place that appreciates the ability of words to influence, whether it is Benjamin Franklin’s witty Poor Richard or Thomas Paine’s provocative Common Sense.

The famous phrases associated with Pennsylvania uplifted my mind as I pedaled east on US 20 out of Ohio, but I had no idea how they might translate to the Erie Triangle, the chimney of Pennsylvania that was added in 1792 to ensure Great Lake access for the state.  This area historically aligns more with the Midwest than the Eastern Seaboard of our Founding Fathers.  The day was beautiful and I was ahead of schedule so I decided to take a diversionary ride through Presque Isle State Park and spend the night in Erie. In the park, which is a giant polyp sheltering Erie’s harbor, Commodore Perry’s famous quote, “Don’t give up the ship” headlined an extensive tribute of monuments and historical kiosks commemorating the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.  The quote was made far from Erie, as the battle actually occurred west of present day Cleveland, but Erie was the shipbuilder and provisioner of our Great Lake activities during the War of 1812 and they claim all the Great Lake war time activity as their own.  Perhaps Admiral Perry’s words are less eloquent than other quotes associated with the state, but it seemed typically Pennsylvanian to me to highlight the quote itself.  Whether they be words of war encouragement, words of national identity, or words of national healing, words are important in Pennsylvania.

Words are the tools we use to persuade and cajole, they are the key element of statecraft.  When we use them successfully we do not have to resort to the tools of war.  By the time I was in Pennsylvania, the Great National Debt Ceiling Debate was an embarrassing bit of history, our bond rating had been lowered, stock markets were bounding like children on a trampoline.  Everyone was quick to lay blame – it’s the Americans, it’s the Greeks, it’s the Chinese, it’s the Democrats, it’s the Republicans, it’s the corporations, it’s the unions. But as an intrepid searcher, cycling along a beautiful coast, nourished by the lofty quotations of Pennsylvania, I refused to be dragged into the finger pointing.  I wondered how affairs of State and Defense might look if we used our guiding principles to inform how we act in the world today.  As always, when we seek out and start by reckoning all that we hold in common with others, instead of stewing on our differences, the situation does not appear so intractable.

When we work with our healthcare clients to develop their guiding principles we consistently ask, ‘What is the story?’ the narrative that defines who we are, what we do, and what differentiates us from others.  In affairs of State it is paramount to know ‘our story’ so that our actions towards other nations are not only consistent with our fundamental beliefs; they are clear to others. Is our foreign policy one of ‘making the world safe for democracy’, is it ‘nation building’ or is it ‘protecting vital American interests’?  These are three rhetorical phrases we often hear as rationale for foreign policy decisions, yet each tells a very different story.  When we say we are the making the world safe for democracy, we are the benevolent big brother who knows what is best and will lend the little guy a hand so long as he follows our advice.  The term ‘nation building’ is more neutral as to whether a new government has to reflect our own but since the world is already divided into identifiable nations, except for Antarctica, nations are not built out of nothing. Therefore the term ‘nation building’ carries the unstated reality that we intend to upset some existing nation.  Something has to be altered or destroyed in order to build something new.  When we resort to the phrase ‘protecting vital American interests’ we have stepped down from our soap box, rolled up our sleeves and engaged because we want something.  It is the least altruistic of the phrases, but the most honest.  Foreign policy must flow from our best interests, and the same should be true for every country with whom we deal.  The challenge is that too often we define our self interest in short sighted ways, or our true interests get obfuscated by tangential factors that are ‘lobbied’ into getting more attention than they deserve.

If our objective is to foment democracy, why do we have such a long track record of supporting select dictators?  On the other hand, if our policy is nation building, why did we decide to overthrow the brutal but legitimate government of Iraq?  Overthrowing brutal regimes is a different story than nation building.  If our story is the straightforward protection of American interests, then why do we do such a poor job of understanding up front the cost of our Vietnam’s and Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s; encounters that cost us far more than we ever anticipated in loss of lives, economic resources and international stature.

Our foreign policy story may be inconsistent, but it does have one salient characteristic – we are in everybody’s business.  A hundred years ago our penchant for isolationism provided a lengthy deterrent to our involvement in World War I.  What a difference a century makes.  Today, the hand of American culture, money, and military strength is spread all over the world, and is particularly sticky where we have defined ‘our interests’.  This is appropriate in a globalized world where interaction among nations and cultures is essential. But this is also a challenge because one of our fundamental aspects, our independence, bucks against the gavotte of diplomacy required to negotiate among the world.

Our basic problem with foreign policy is that we want other people to be like us and we don’t understand why they don’t want to be.  We are a country with a healthy ego, we think we are the best at just about everything and consider ourselves generous in extending ourselves to those less fortunate. Problem is, as soon as we approach another country with the attitude that we are going to ’help’ them, we establish an unbalanced, paternalistic relationship that at a minimum chafes their ego and often undervalues their culture as well. Statecraft requires that we acknowledge other countries as equal and legitimate, whether they are democracies like ours or dictatorships we abhor.  If we deal with them as if we know best, we will not succeed in achieving our interests.

Statecraft that is based on guiding principles is not just about knowing our own story, it is about understanding others’ principles, even when they are not the same as ours. Our objective should always be to find the ways in which we are like other nations as opposed to highlighting our differences.  We have things in common with other cultures that we cannot possibly anticipate until circumstance provides an opportunity for understanding.  A Sunday afternoon from my trip provides a perfect example of this.

There are a number of Amish communities in Northeast Ohio.  Like most Americans I know little of the Amish except that they keep to themselves, wear old fashioned clothes and drive horse drawn buggies.  We are conflicted about the Amish, on one hand finding them queer for not taking advantage of the obvious efficiencies of our times, on the other hand idealizing them as representatives of a pure, agrarian past.  They are vessels of our curiosity into which we pour a complicated mix of our own insecurities and yearnings.  When I saw the occasional black buggy along my ride in Illinois and IndianaI fought the urge to stare, all the while wanting to search their faces for clues as to how they remain so apart from the rest of us.  But in Ohio I had an experience that tossed us together. For in fact, the Amish and I have something significant in common. We both eschew motorized vehicles.  Along the stretch of bike path between Millersburg and Fredericksburg, Ohio the paving is wide and the access signs at intersections show not only a bicycle logo, but also a carriage logo, for along this stretch the bikes and carriages share the path.  There I was in my spandex and helmet, brown legs and arms exposed to the sun, riding along young women on single speed bicycles in long blue dresses and bonnets, and stern men with bushy beards and broad brimmed hats steering carriages.  There was no averting eyes now; we smiled at each other, nodded, gestured to establish rights of way.  We were odd allies; I couldn’t help but snicker envisioning how community meetings must have transpired with cyclists and Amish sitting around a table to determine the parameters of their shared path – why there is thicker paving in one lane and how to accommodate the horse droppings.  For the rest of my trip when I saw Amish, I simply smiled and waved.  Even if all we shared in common was fifteen miles of pavement back in Ohio, it was enough of a bond to create greater comfort.

How might this same idea play out in foreign affairs? Let’s consider the intractable example of Islamic Fundamentalism.  We wring our hands over the challenge of fundamental Islam among Arab countries as if it something we cannot possibly comprehend.  Yet, the Unites States is the most religious of all Western nations.  Fundamentalism of many stripes flourishes within our borders.  True, we do not have a state religion and we tolerate a wide range of beliefs, but it is equally true that we have more experience living among fundamentalism and finding ways to accommodate it in our secular culture than any other first world nation. Instead of dismissing Fundamental Islam as abhorrent, aren’t we better off recognizing that the dangers of radical fundamentalism transcend denomination, that at the furthest end of the spectrum radical Muslims and radical Christians and radical Jews have more in common in their being extreme than they do by their different creeds?  Might it be possible to capitalize on our unique experience with fundamental religion, and our tolerance of it within a pluralistic religious tradition, as a link to forge some common ground with our Arab neighbors?  By itself it would not bring peace to the Middle East, but it would be one small way to express an alignment of experience and demonstrate the value of looking at every situation from the perspective of, ‘what do we share?’

Another key to statecraft guided by principles is to always seek the win-win situation and avoid the situation where any party is crippled beyond repair.  It may feel good to bring a foe to their knees, but it is not good statecraft.  The Versailles Treaty ending World War I left Germany so enfeebled it enabled the rise of Hitler, while after World War II the Marshall Plan not only helped Japan and Germany take their place among responsible nations of the developed world, it was also a tremendous boon to our own interests, triggering the golden years of the American Century.

It is difficult to address affairs of state without addressing war, which is the result of statecraft failed.  Let’s consider the spectrum of relationships that can exist between two countries.  At one point we have dominance, the control that mother countries exerted over colonies in the past, whether it was the control England foisted over the Colonies or Russia had over lessor members of the Soviet bloc.  Next we have influence, such as Russia used to exert in Cuba or the United States in the Philippines, where the interests of the larger party essentially determine the policies of the weaker one.  A less strong but more productive bond is alignment, such as the US enjoys with nations of Western Europe.  Next in the pecking order is autonomy, where countries act quite independent of each other yet come together as their interests dictate.  Singapore is an excellent example of a country that acts autonomously.  Their political system does not align with ours, yet we do not interfere with it.  The entire world trades with Singapore, regardless of political system; all sides focus on their mutual economic interests and do not allow them to be sullied by peripheral issues.  Then there are the countries of which we are wary; countries we hold at arm’s length because there are compelling mutual interests despite large differences.  Right now we have a wary relationship with Pakistan.  We need each other to fight terrorism and find stability in the Middle East, but we are uneasy partners.  Finally, there are the countries with which we are militant; either actively at war or so mistrustful that war-like posturing and threats are our primary form of connection.  When George Bush named the Axis of Evil, he established a militant relationship with Iran, Iraq and North Korea.  Since he introduced that label, we went to war with one, and remain in deep distrust of the other two.

The reason I refer to these terms as a spectrum is that dominance and militance come around to meet each other.  Any country that dominates another long enough and deep enough will face calls for independence and often civil war.  Simultaneously, the result of any successful war is dominance.  The United Statesis currently in a state of dominance in Iraq; we conquered the country and are still sorting out what to do with it.  What we won’t do is keep it, because the seventeenth century notion of conquer, control and keep is out of style.  Iraq will not become the 51st state.  Even though we invaded and threw out its government, we will not consider running it ourselves in the long term.  Instead we hope to find Iraqi’s who will run it more or less the way we want it run, but who also have some general approval of the Iraqi people, usually represented through a legitimate election.  The jury is still out on how successful our efforts will be, but the American people are tired of the war, which was pronounced ‘Mission Accomplished’ years ago, and it is no longer politically correct in a global context to conquer a territory and actually take it.  It was acceptable to many of our allies for us to overthrow Iraq; it would not be acceptable for us to keep it.

If we consider the range of relationships we can have with other nations, our objective should always be to seek an aligned, or at least autonomous condition.  Appealing though it sounds to dominate or influence another country, the cost is too great in terms of economic and political capital, especially since that old adage, ‘to the victor goes the spoils’ no longer applies.  These days, the victor just gets headaches.  On the other end of the spectrum, there is little benefit to having wary relationships with other countries, relationships that consist of closed doors and lost opportunities and may lead to war.

Americans consider themselves a peace loving people, but we go to war far too often and we almost never understand the risk/reward opportunities before we shoot.  We have incredible war making potential, potential that we used in World War II and then stockpiled in the numbers game we called the Cold War. Yet more than twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell and we were the only superpower left standing, we still get sucked into wars throughout the world.  Sometimes we start them; sometimes we jump into a fray in progress.  It is not unlike building new industrial parks in Ohio– we do what we know how to do.  The particulars of each war vary, but the results are always the same.  We lose important men and women on both sides, we drain our economy, we scarcely change the hearts and minds of the countries in which we intervene, and we get almost no material return for our effort.

In the Revolutionary War we were the upstarts, the rabble rousers who had little going for us except knowing the lay of the land and a passion for our cause.  The British were hired hands in bright clothes, tradition bound and lost in the new world.  Two hundred years later, in Vietnam, we had become the British, unable to grapple with the new rules and geography of guerilla warfare.  We have become more nimble since then, but we still fight wars that are out of our element with less and less support of the American public.  There is something comical yet ultimately depressing in the media images from Afghanistan.  Our men and women in camouflage uniforms with their rifles tight to their bodies meeting with local Afghan groups in flowing robes. Are we blind to the simple reality that the rifle preempts any meaningful dialogue?  That it establishes a hierarchical and coercive order that will last only so long as we are standing there with our threatening weapon?  There is no doubt that we are invaders; Peace Corps volunteers do not carry arms.

Wars have become part of the background noise of American life, they happen somewhere ‘over there’, they are fought by the small percentage of men and women for whom military service is a step up the economic ladder, or the even smaller percentage of men and women who view military service as a patriotic duty. What we lack in direct recruits, we outsource to Halliburton and others, the Hessians of our day. If we reenacted a random military draft to staff up these wars, they would end almost immediately.  Nothing would create a unified national will faster than the prospect of selecting at random our sons and daughters to trot off to these wars. The middle class would not abide it. That is why the draft has disappeared from our discourse.  We fight wars out of habit rather than resolve, and we are not the least bit creative in searching out alternative resolutions.

We have the big stick Teddy Roosevelt advocated.  In fact, our stick is so big and so strong we can’t use it without being labeled a bully.  Our capacity to inflict total annihilation makes it a hollow threat in the face of random terrorism, small country skirmishes and internal civil wars.  The simplistic idea of a war with boundaries, that there are two opposing forces with a line separating them, and that we know who is on which side, has evaporated.  Friends could be anywhere, foes are everywhere, and we can’t tell the difference.

Which brings us back to Statecraft, because we have a better chance of eliminating foes by diffusing their rage than we ever we do by seeking them out and shooting them.  I cannot pretend to understand a young man who decides to strap on a bomb and blow up himself and others for the glory of Jihad and seventy virgins in paradise.  But I can understand that there are millions of Arab men under 25 who have few opportunities in life, little education, little chance for work, little prospect of anything meaningful in a world that appears controlled by others.  If these young men can find a satisfying path in this world, they will have fewer reasons to bomb themselves and us into the next.

We are not going to get young Arab men, or any other disenfranchised group who currently view us as their enemy, to change attitudes overnight.  But we have to realize that our pattern of inconsistent rhetoric followed by consistent war making is not a wise one.  We cannot tell the world that we will preserve our quality of life at all costs and ignore the quality of theirs.  Though it galls our independence, our lives are intertwined with every other being on this planet, and if we want our lives to be comfortable and meaningful, we have to acknowledge that every other person has their own aspirations that deserve to be nourished.  This is not telling everyone in the world to be like us, this is telling the world that the best way for us to have what we want, is to let them pursue what they want as well.  Only when we work towards a foreign policy that actively seeks solutions where everybody wins, and acknowledges that nobody wins when war occurs, will we have a foreign policy guided by principle.

Riding north and east towards New York the land rose in tall bluffs above a calm, expansive Lake Erie on my left, while undulating strings of vineyards on my right marched to distant silhouettes of church steeples and rising hills. A pair of beautiful, complementary views, worthy of postcards.  Suddenly it occurred to me that I had seen postcard images of both views before; the sea reaching the bluffs reminiscent of Northern California, the vineyards and steeples distinctly European.  I was thousands of miles from either locale yet the essence of each came together in Pennsylvania.  The prevailing experience of long distance cycling is that our world is immense, but in that singular instance of two distinctive landscapes flanking my steady progress, the world seemed quite small.





About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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