Urban Innovation

On National Service and National Resilience

September 10, 2014  • Michèle Flournoy

Over the last few months, the global security landscape has become increasingly daunting.  From the emergence of ISIS as a brutal terrorist organization executing American hostages and creating a safe haven in the heart of the Middle East, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, to persistent tensions between China and its neighbors in the East and South China Seas, to the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, to growing uncertainty in Afghanistan, it is difficult to recall a time when the United States faced a more complex and volatile set of security challenges.

To make matters worse, America is deeply mired in an unprecedented degree of political polarization and paralysis at home.  Even though Americans from across the political spectrum understand that we desperately need a comprehensive budget deal that would include tax reform, entitlement reform and smart reinvestment in the drivers of our economic vitality, our representatives in Washington seem unwilling or unable to make the pragmatic compromises necessary to conclude such a deal and move the country forward. Meanwhile, the American dream seems to be receding into the distance, increasingly out of reach, for many low and middle-income Americans.

In this context, it is tempting to despair.  

But our own history suggests that we are far more resilient – as a people and as a nation — than we may feel at this moment.  On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is worth remembering that we Americans have survived the worst of times – the Great Depression and deep recessions, a bloody civil war and two World Wars, political unrest and societal upheaval — only to reemerge stronger and more vital as a nation. We have a remarkable ability to rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of a crisis or conflict and begin anew.  This resilience is a part of our national character.

But our national resilience is not a given or self-sustaining. Without care, cultivation and purposeful investment, it can atrophy. So the question is: How can we enhance our national resilience in these difficult times?  

One sure way to bolster our societal resilience is to dramatically increase the number of Americans who have the opportunity to serve their nation. This week, September 12 marks the 20th Anniversary of the founding of AmeriCorps. Programs like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, Global Health Corps, Teach for America, and CityYear are critical to creating a society in which people are engaged and invested in strengthening our communities and the fabric of American society. When young Americans opt to serve their country – either in the military or as civilians through one of these service programs – they are almost always transformed by their experience of service, both as individuals and as citizens.  Through service, they find deeper connections to each other, their communities and their country.  And many find a sense of hope and empowerment that we need to rediscover as a nation.

National service also has the potential to create a common experience of service that unites Americans from different geographic, socioeconomic and political backgrounds, downplaying our differences and bringing to the fore the values, responsibilities and obligations we share as citizens of the oldest constitutional democracy in the world.  If every young American were expected to dedicate a year of their lives to serving the country in some capacity, imagine how powerful that common experience would be to knit them together as a generation and as the future leaders of a more truly United States of America.

Today, less than 1% of the population serves in the U.S. military.  Expanding national service to include many more civilian service opportunities would increase the number of Americans who experience putting a mission first and sacrificing for the greater good. Unfortunately, right now, the demand for civilian service opportunities far outstrips the supply.  AmeriCorps, for example, gets approximately 580,000 applications for only 80,000 slots. We need to dramatically increase the size of national service programs to make sure that all young Americans who want to serve have the opportunity to do so.

National service is, at the end of the day, a way of living our values, of walking the walk of what it means to be part of society that aspires to be democratic, egalitarian, and compassionate.  A shared expectation of national service for all young Americans would undoubtedly help reinvigorate a national culture of giving, service and community more broadly. 

For all of these reasons, I truly believe in the mission of the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute and currently serve on the Leadership Council, chaired by retired General Stan McChrystal. The Franklin Project is working towards making “a service year” an expected rite of passage for young Americans between the ages of 18-28. We’ve brought together a group of bipartisan national leaders who have signed a comprehensive plan of action designed to transform the way we think about national service in our country.  The Aspen Institute Franklin Project is working with a number of partner organizations to make a year of service a cultural expectation. This Friday the White House will also be marking the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps. As we reflect on this and the 9/11 anniversary, we should not lose sight of the way in which strengthening national service can also serve to strengthen our national resilience now and in the years to come.