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A Lesson Plan for Facing Threats to U.S. Prestige

David Boren is worried that the United States is in trouble, and he wants to be sure that every last citizen is aware of the potential problems.

The former Oklahoma Democratic Senator recently penned “A Letter to America,” in which he expresses his fears that our nation will soon lose its position as a superpower. The problem, he said, stems from low international approval ratings and distrust from the rest of the world, as well as domestic problems.

“We don’t have the Roman Empire anymore, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire,” Boren said in a phone interview. “How long do you think the United States is going to be the leading superpower?”

The first indication that our nation is headed for a decline, Boren said, is that the majority of Americans are pessimistic about the country’s future.

“Sociologists and historians often say you can judge the strength of a society by its attitude towards its future,” he said. “If it’s a truly strong society, it’s going to be optimistic that things are going to be better in the future and that’s always been true of the United States. … And here, for the first time, are the American people saying, ‘We don’t think our future is going to be as great as our past.’ I almost want to shout out: ‘That’s un-American!’”

Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma, hopes the book will start a national conversation about the United States’ pending slip from the top.

“It seems to me that we need to get back to an attitude that 4-year-olds have of always wanting to say, ‘Why? Why? Why?’” he said.

Boren is concerned that the rest of the world is frustrated with the U.S. and its inability to take the opinions and suggestions of foreign officials into account. This has led to a strained relationship with other nations, he said..

“We have spent very little time as a people in examining the reasons,” he writes. “Instead, most of us, including many of our leaders, have simply reacted [to other nation’s criticisms] with anger and hurt feelings. I often find myself doing so. How could they distrust us when we’ve done so much for them?”

In the book, Boren suggests an international version of the U.S. Peace Corps as one way to address this problem. The group would bring together volunteers from around the world, placing them on missions similar to those of Peace Corps volunteers.

“We need to put as much attention on rebuilding our relationship with the rest of the world as we have on building our military might,” he said. “We need to think outside the box. Let’s work together to bring the future leaders of our countries into working together as young people, to build bonds of friendship.”

On the domestic side, Boren said a loss of bipartisanship is hurting the country by stopping Congress from getting things done.

“Can you imagine the Marshall Plan if Republicans had wanted to run 30-second attack spots on President Truman and Marshall?” he said. “You can imagine what could have been done, but instead they came together in a bipartisan way.”

Boren, who served 15 years in the Senate before retiring in 1994, said he stayed close to the Senators in his freshman class throughout his time in office. The class often met for potluck dinners at each other’s homes, he said.

“Each family would bring a dish or a dessert, like old-fashioned small-town living,” he recalled. “None of us ever campaigned against each other. It’s so much easier to form a bipartisan proposal in private and unveil it together.”

Boren comes from a political family. His father, Lyle Boren (D-Okla.), served 10 years in the House, and his son Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) is now in his second term. David Boren often was noted as a centrist during his tenure, a quality he feels his son possesses.

“I’m sure I picked up a lot of my independent thinking from my dad. … And so my son has a lot of that,” he said. “I tell him he can’t help that, it’s an independent streak. We’re soul mates when it comes to trying to hammer out bipartisanship.”

Despite the obstacles he addresses in his book, Boren’s outlook for the United States isn’t entirely pessimistic. The former Senator sees an opportunity to change course, given the right leadership.

“We don’t seem to have a great teacher or leader right now to really teach and inform the American people how serious this is,” he said. “I don’t have any worry about Americans responding to a crisis once they understand it.”

Boren will be appearing at 5:30 tonight at Top of the Hill at the Reserve Officers Association, 1 Constitution Ave. NE, for a signing, discussion and questions.

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