Now to produce an idea to make a nation here

This evening 50 “emerging leaders” of the coming generation will assemble to muse on this nation’s shape in 2020. Tomorrow afternoon they will join 400 local and foreign notables in the second Knowledge Wave talkfest.

Their designation as “leaders” suggests qualities which destine them to lead us to that 2020 nation. Indeed, nation-building is the theme of the conference, which itself is called a “leadership forum”. A formidable amount of international and local brainpower will be on display.

They meet in two contexts which will generate a lot of “leadership” talk — a war-substitute (the America’s Cup) and the shadow of real war in Iraq (a bitterer American cup).

The Iraq venture, though tied in rhetoric to this century through September 11 2001, is vintage twentieth-century in its recourse to old-fashioned military muscle. The result for the United States, one cogent school of American analysis argues, will be transformation to an empire.

It has taken over other countries before (Hawaii, the Philippines, for example) and meddled in many in the long Cold War on communism. Its popular culture (Hollywood, hamburgers) seduced the world and its multinational companies wield enormous economic power. But hitherto Americans could sustain a belief that their nation was still a republic as in 1776, unentangled in territorial hegemony.

And therein lies a clue for our “emerging leaders”.

The American republic was founded not two centuries after white settlement. It chose a radical and untested basis for political organisation, the values of the Enlightenment. It might easily have failed. It survived as a beacon of liberty.

The American republic’s singularity was to be founded on an “idea”. Older nations grew out of long and deep occupation, melding culture with place, as in France.

This evening’s “emerging leaders” are not two centuries from the beginnings of white settlement here. So they can be as free of national tradition as the founders of the American republic. And they are as much in need of a defining “idea”, for we would need very many more generations to make a nation the French way.

Of course, Maori have been here longer — but they were uprooted from tradition and land by colonisation. And they are a minority. Their nation, if there was one, is not the nation of 2020.

Nevertheless, if there is to be an “idea” that binds a nation here, Maori are indispensable to its definition. Their renaissance, in numbers and in culture, makes that inescapable. That is a stern challenge for the many who are nostalgic for British or local colonial tradition or revere the American “idea”.

But aren’t we a nation? Not yet.

We freed ourselves from colonial ties in the 1980s, first through the arts and then by a policy and economic upheaval.

But that taking of independence was the work of the sixties generation: those who were in their twenties in the 1960s or early 1970s and are now the power elite. It is an unsteady and uncertain generation, despite its brashness.

The Maori of that generation are too brittle in their recovered culture and the sixties generation descendants of Britain spent too much energy deracinating their culture to have the confident creativity of the American republican founders.

That is for the “emerging leaders” of the next generation — or their descendants.

Now hear a voice from the upper end of that next generation. John Tamihere, cabinet minister and maverick, spent his twenties in the 1980s.

He wrote in the Herald on Waitangi Day: “We are in the middle of the hard yards of nation-building. The heat and passion of the treaty debate will abate. We have a process in place and are settling and reconciling our great nation.”

That is an arrestingly different message from 20 years of anger at Waitangi. And maybe timely: this year’s tone did seem marginally different, a base at last, perhaps, to build on.

Anzac Day, which some have toyed with as a national day, will not do. That day commemorates defeat. Defeat cannot be a founding national “idea”.

But neither will the old “one people” Waitangi Day do. As the Governor-General said (quoting her un-PC 1980s predecessor, Sir David Beattie), not one people.

In any case we are separated from “one-people” Waitangi Days by two decades when that day symbolised strife and division, experiment and bewilderment. There is no delineated framework yet for national self-definition. It is, as Tamihere wrote, the time of the “hard yards”.

Where might those hard yards lead to? Perhaps to an “idea” as experimental and untested as the American republicans’: a hard-headed deal between two respectfully distinct but inextricably intermingled peoples who interweave their cultures instead of separating them out — an “idea” which workably mixes indigeneity and modernity. No nation has done that yet.

That’s my wild guess. But I am of the sixties generation so my muddled musings don’t amount to a row of beans. I will be listening to the “emerging leaders”.