At their best, both art and journalism ask provocative questions. In America, such a question recently emerged from a television drama about journalism – Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. The question – Why is America the greatest country in the world? – provokes an angry lament from the protagonist that begins with ‘It’s not!’ The audience is shocked.
As a frequent visitor to the U.S., and an admirer of America and Americans, I am often amazed at the intensity of emotion around the idea of being not merely a great nation, but rather the greatest nation. In a multipolar world, the latter goal is perilous, while the former is both more achievable and more advantageous – for America and everyone else.
Sure, this is easy for me to say: I am a Canadian with some 10 nationalities and cultures in his background, none of which has aspired to global domination recently (except for Spain in soccer). I also realize that in a U.S. presidential election year few politicians can afford to appear anything less than committed to American exceptionalism. When you’re used to the gold medal, sharing the podium is never easy.
But with these caveats in mind, here is my case for the pursuit of ‘shared greatness:’
1. Dynasties are dinosaurs. The forces of demographics, economics and politics are resulting in a global realignment of power and influence between nations, and arguably from nation-states to trans-national entities. The greater power shift, however, is from organizations to audiences, thanks to the transformative effects of mass access to global online publishing power. In every sphere of human activity, no ruler is immortal and no rule eternal. In the technology world, that means neither RiM nor Apple, neither Facebook nor Twitter, neither Yahoo nor Google. The same is true of nations. The chances are that the 21st century will belong to many great nations – not just one.
2. The name of the game is influence, not power. Think about your own response to marketing: has the hard sell or the big boast ever been less effective? Today, we are attracted to authentic voices who listen as much as they talk, and (as my friend Jay Baer writes) help as much as they sell. In diplomacy, this is the difference between ‘hard power’ and ‘soft power.’ While it’s been two decades since Joseph Nye coined the latter term to describe a strategy of co-opting rather than coercing, it’s an idea whose time has come.
3. When power is shared, those who share it achieve more – often with less. Rosabeth Moss Kanter influenced a generation of managers with a deceptively simple axiom backed by persuasive research: ‘To expand power, share it.’ In an era of many powerful nations, this is not just a wise strategy to advance national interests; it is a necessity.
What does this have to do with public relations and communication? Everything. The tools of public diplomacy and soft power — and the strategies of gaining influence through listening, helping and sharing — are part of the modern professional’s playbook. This gives communicators a special role today.
Another distinctly American artist, Bruce Springsteen, captures some of these ideas in his own occasional commentary about his nation’s direction: ‘It’s time we need to move America towards the fulfillment of its promises that she’s made to her citizens: economic justice, civil rights, protection of the environment, respect for others and humility in exercising our power at home and around the world.’
He spoke these words during another election season eight years ago. But this week, as our neighbours to the south celebrate the independence of one of history’s greatest nations, these are both admirable ideals and smart strategies for true greatness in a multipolar world.