It is the soul that makes a nation great or small, noble or ignoble, weak or strong. It is the soul that exalts it to happiness, or sinks it to misery ... it is the spiritual side of humanity ... The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful and virtuous: for upon these conditions depend the life of its life.
- Frederick Douglass, in 1885 on the 23rd anniversary of Emancipation
This may sound politically naive to some, but unless the moral core of our nation is restored, the United States of America may enter the new century as a second-rate power. America's greatness has always been premised on the moral character of our democratic institutions and the dignity and worth of the individuals they serve.
The routine compromise of these principles tolerated by an increasingly cynical public is undermining the strength and integrity of our country's leadership both at home and abroad.
How can we expect our youth to be inspired with a sense of pride and direction leading to good citizenship when they see their political system routinely perverted by unethical fund-raising and influence peddling, and partisan guerrilla warfare often taking priority over solutions to the nation's problems - this, with so many elected officials surrendering principle to politics, and allegations of scandalous behavior riveting public attention and dominating the nation's agenda.
While this may echo the grumbling of generations past - that familiar lament that things aren't what they used to be - the situation is much more serious today.
The US has always been a country with a sense of higher purpose, around which most Americans can take pride in a common desire to achieve. Today, our country lacks such vision, and many of our political leaders ignore their inherent responsibility to inspire the youth of America to reach for higher goals, confident that the American dream is alive and well.
Is the message we are sending to even the youngest of children - that "anything goes, so long as we are making money" (the crux of "if the economy is good, he must be doing a good job") - what we really want? Is this the kind of nation millions of our citizens have fought and bled for?
What kind of an example are we presenting to less privileged peoples around the world who look to America as a role model of democracy in action?
When a government not only loses its moral core, but demonstrates that loss to virtually everyone on a daily basis, it loses its respect and authority to lead.
As we face the 21st century, the commitment of strong and decisive US leadership, including the personal involvement of the president, is required to devise strategies of international cooperation to deal successfully with a new agenda of complex challenges and issues. Vast opportunities are at hand, notwithstanding newly emerging but extremely dangerous threats to peace and security, including our own.
President Clinton's dramatic swing across Africa, conveying a message that the US should play a leading role in the continent's development, raised the expectations of millions of Africans who are victims of poverty, social injustice, violence, and genocide. This is a daunting challenge that the US and the international community should have seriously addressed much earlier. Obviously the US cannot carry this burden alone. Presidential leadership is required to galvanize international participation with a serious proposal of action that sheds the image of political expediency or of being an American corporate welfare program.
The greatest threat to civilized societies in our times, according to US Secretary of Defense William Cohen and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is from the indiscriminate spread of weapons of mass destruction - including biological and chemical warfare agents - and terrorism.
The international community seems benignly unconcerned about the growing potential for global violence and has left the heavy lifting to the US. A new framework of international cooperation - based on results not words - is urgently needed to prevent proliferation and to control nuclear arsenals.
International institutions are valuable for networking and laying the groundwork for tackling such complex and perilous issues. But where muscle and decisive strategies need to be applied, the world has tended to trust the US and to look to it for leadership.
With moral rot eating away at the fabric of our nation's political leadership, it is only fair to ask if the US, the world's only diplomatic and military superpower, will have the inner strength - and credibility - to continue its role as the linchpin of global stability in the new century.
We Americans should take time to reflect on those words of former slave Frederick Douglass. They still ring true.
It is time to reverse course, to reset our moral compass. Leadership is what it's all about.
* Lloyd R. Vasey is a retired rear admiral. He is the founder and a senior strategist at the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Honolulu-based policy research institute.