In 1940, General Philippe Pétain, a former war hero and an influential military official, actively advocated that the French “collaborate” with the Nazis. His ideas were rejected and collaboration became a bad word. In fact, collaborators were routinely rooted out and executed. Pétain himself was eventually sentenced to life in prison for treason.
Today, the word collaborate has a very a different meaning. Thank God it does or we would all be lined up against the wall and shot for doing that very thing which is most needed! I believe in collaboration. I believe in the power and politics of working together. I am an unabashed cheerleader for the kind of well-choreographed communication, negotiation, and problem-solving processes that lead to capable and durable agreements.
I believe the biggest challenges we face –- repairing our economy, reducing poverty, cleaning up the environment, securing our borders, fighting crime, avoiding a nuclear shootout, improving our health and education systems –- require new approaches. The sheer scale and cascading intensity of these problems defy the conventional boundaries and aging categories we have inherited. In fact, no one intellectual discipline can fully explain these problems. No one sector has the power to force solutions. And no one group, locale, political party or person can wall the problem off, wish it away, or deal with it alone.
At this moment my colleagues and I are involved in convening and facilitating discussions on some of toughest topics our country faces. These are issues that absolutely require cooperation to solve. One involves whether the U.S. should build a new fleet of nuclear power plants to meet energy needs in an increasingly carbon-constrained world. Another centers on possible new vaccination policies in the face of a dangerous and fast-moving pandemic flu, one that many say is inevitable. A third focuses on the new policies and practices that are needed to manage the rapidly expanding number of wild fires in the West.
Each of these conversations is well represented by voices from the left and right. Each has experts who are bringing the best information available to the table. All of them involve key stakeholders, those groups who are most affected by the problem and who must ultimately live with solutions. In the discussions, people disagree with each other, sometimes heatedly. However, everyone knows that their various long-term needs cannot be met by prolonged conflict. All of the meetings are pragmatically optimistic. All of them are a search for solutions by rival authors who intend to write a new script together.
Finding fair, tractable, and transparent solutions to these problems must be a team sport. No other enduring approach will work. The collaboration game is about disciplined bridge-building, critical thinking, good information, political courage, and above all, the wisdom of diverse voices. I believe in the words of Winston Churchill who said “Talking jaw to jaw is better than going to war.” Conflict creates opportunity. Collaboration helps us transcend the conflict.
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