Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Squandering Peace, Prosperity, and the Opportunity to Become a Better Nation?

by Gleaves Whitney

On June 15, 2023, three days before Fathers Day, I had the opportunity to spend time with Tom Brady Jr. and Tom Brady Sr. when they came to Grand Rapids, Michigan. The younger Brady has become a celebrity because he led teams to seven Super Bowl championships, while the older Brady proudly wears his son’s first Super Bowl ring. (See photo above.) How does a quarterback keep winning and winning and winning the big game? When asked this question, each Brady said in his own way that championship teams cannot assume anything. Smart, disciplined winners know every other team that reaches the postseason is good—and every one of them has the reigning champion in its sights. So the champs cannot rest on their laurels but must identify and overcome every weakness they can. If they thought it was hard work to get to the top, it is even harder work to stay at the top.

Brady’s humility and relentless work ethic are instructive. We might compare his humility and work ethic with those of America’s leaders in Washington, DC. Roughly speaking, during the three decades Brady wore a football jersey (from his sophomore year in high school till his retirement from the NFL), the Berlin Wall fell (1989), the Soviet Empire broke up (1991), and the Persian Gulf War ended in victory (1991). The United States gained enormous wealth and was on top of the world. America enjoyed unchallenged hegemony over a unipolar world. Many of our elites even fancied that humankind had reached “the end of history” (Francis Fukuyama’s phrase), by which they meant that the major questions raised by modern politics and economics seemed settled once and for all. It was believed there was near-universal consensus that liberal democratic capitalism should be the globe’s organizing principle, the still-point of a turning world. Democratic capitalism’s greatest enemies would come around. Russia would get rich and behave, perhaps even become a member of NATO. China would gather unprecedented wealth and leave its authoritarian past in the dustbin of history. And in the Middle East, Arabs, Persians, and Turks would build on the Camp David Accords and get along with Israel. Even the world’s smaller friction points would get smoothed out—in Cuba, Somalia, and Central America.

Grace periods do not come often in history. The question presses: How did America respond to this unexpected grace period in the 1990s? As the preeminent nation in the world, did we apply the Brady principle and strive to work harder to become an even better nation? Or were we content to rest on our laurels?

Most Americans see where we have missed opportunities and gone wrong since the end of the Cold War. In foreign policy, the 9/11 attacks caught us by surprise and we entered two long, costly wars neither of which made our nation stronger or more secure. In domestic policy, race relations deteriorated dramatically, too many of our children did not learn to read, and the gap between those with a lot of money and those with a lot less money has widened. 

For the last quarter-century, our nation has been paying for the missed opportunities of the 1990s, a decade that sowed the seeds of arrogance, indifference, and decadence. Recall Tom Brady’s way of handling victory as well as defeat. America still enjoys many strengths. As a nation we can get back on track if we love our nation and are thoughtful and disciplined.

Photo of Tom Brady Sr. (left) and Chairman Emeritus Marty Allen

Discussion Questions:

1. What are the symptoms of the decline of a nation?

2. In what areas is the United States in decline? In what areas is it experiencing renewal?

3. The United States is sometimes described as “late empire” or “postmodern” or “postindustrial,” as though America’s best days are necessarily behind us. But is decline inevitable? Can you think of other nations or civilizations that halted their decline?

4. If decline is not inevitable, what actions do we the people need to take to turn the tide from decline to renewal? 


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