Is America a Great Nation?
The Make America Great Again (MAGA) political slogan triggers acrimonious debate about
America’s current place in the world and its past. Was America a great country? It’s common rhetoric on news broadcasts, movies, TV shows, and even political rallies to bedevil the character and accomplishments of the United States. Detractors of the integrity of the nation cite its failings, ugly warts and misdeeds (or their understanding of these) to contradict the country’s ‘Great’ appellation. Many demean the character of the very nation that gave birth to their extraordinary quality of life, unequaled in history. One could understand calling attention to failures to avoid their repeat. But, to characterize a nation by recognizing its faults and shortcomings, absent the contrast of accomplishments, renders the opinion questionable. Contrasting the good with the bad and weighing the balance may provide a more objective view of the character of a country.
Nations, much like people, are multi-faceted, complex characters. Very few people are all bad, and with a bit of searching, we’d discover that most saints, weren’t always saintly. Indeed, the trial of reaching beyond one’s own baseness or weaknesses to become a unifying and ennobling force may not make one ‘good,’ but possibly ‘great.’ A newborn baby without life experience isn’t ‘good’ because it has yet to sin, it just is. By extending that logic, a young adult who fails at a few challenges of adulthood is not evil, just learning by doing. An adult who at first fails, then redeems its virtue by correcting its failures or overshadowing those faults through other forms of achievement, could be considered a force for change and perhaps a force for ‘good,’ or ‘greatness.’ The same could apply to nations.
Conceived in Greatness?
Few nations are conceived without some earlier despoiling enterprise over unfortunate populations within its control. Fewer countries last into elder-hood by keeping their public virtues spotless. If a complexly faceted history discriminates nations from ‘greatness,’ no modern country could achieve that appellation. Greatness can be a measure, not of purity, but of the distanced traveled from humble beginnings to an apogee on the world stage.
Perhaps critics of the MAGA slogan believe that claims of America’s greatness are an assault on the character of other nations. Maybe they think that if America is great, then all other countries, by definition, must be miserly by comparison and they may feel that no such disservice is merited on behalf of America’s character. The character of nations is not a zero-sum equation. When America became great, it did not mean that all other great countries had to surrender their past achievements and leave the international stage. It just means that other great nations are joined in the history books by one more great nation.
The term ‘great,’ as used in the MAGA slogan, is an adjective, it describes and modifies its antecedent, America. One definition of great is ‘very large and imposing.’ Indeed, by this definition, few could reasonably deny that America is great – it is large by landmass and population, and it is imposing by both its military and economic strength.
However, other definitions are relative and comparative in nature. One such is “of ability, quality, or eminence considerably above the normal or average.” A Google search suggests there are currently 196 countries in the world. To be above normal or average the US should have abilities, qualities or eminence greater than 98 other countries; to be great (considerably above, or for argument’s sake, the top 20%) greater than 157 other countries.
While America’s imperfections are paraded nightly on popular culture, media and news, I’d recommend the following metrics of greatness to contrast those presupposed (and perhaps poorly contextualized) failings, as an elementary list for ‘ability, quality, and eminence.’
Successful implementation of revolutionary ideas
The sovereignty of the individual as a concept did not spring from the American well of political, philosophical thought; it emerged before the colonies yearned for their freedom. John Locke, the father of liberalism, and Rousseau, amongst many others, wrote impassioned treaties on why the sovereign individual, not the sovereign state (or sovereign king) is the proper state of nature from which the society derives its just powers. However, it was the fledgling America that led a successful revolution based on this very liberal idea and formed a government guided on these principles. Indeed, these liberal principles held dominion over this improbable experiment of government of the people, by the people and for the people for the next 241 years. This experiment, inexact though it has been, has been a shining example to numerous nations wishing, and succeeding, at emulating the results. This is greatness.
America’s first act of greatness was not rebellion, but successful rebellion; so successful that it is referred to as a revolution. Many nations, with far better conditions for success than the American colonial rebellion, failed. American’s did not reclaim their country from the usurpers of the British Isles, as they were colonialist, British citizens. But that 13 decentralized colonial groups formed their own cultural ties, independent of their motherland, and then conceived a political and military union to break the maternal bonds from the mightiest sea-faring nation and economic powerhouse on earth, was unprecedented. It was greatness. The further fact that they could generate alliances to ensure their future sufficiency and survival, in this nascent, vulnerable condition, though perhaps providentially lucky, was also greatness.
The ability to right wrongs even at horrific costs
American slavery is frequently cited as a reason why America was never and could not be great. Indeed, slavery is a human failing with inimical qualities. Slavery was brought to the colonies with the consent of a distant parliament. Though perhaps advantageous to the motherland, the practice fostered a failed economic system enslaving relationships; slave to master and master to slave, which further relegated the South to a tenuous agrarian dependency. Fourteen years after declaring independence from the ties of this parliament, a new federal government was formed with the authority to align laws with their own morality. It took seventy-five years of strife, division and battle to absolve slavery in the halls of Congress and on the battlefields across the young nation.
With the commitment defined by 620,000 soldier deaths, the destruction of the country and immolation of the South, slavery was forever outlawed (hopefully) on this land. Within one long lifetime, (not the 400 years often cited) the nation broke its dependency on slavery and aligned its laws with its morality. Within one long lifetime, the country achieved its vision and institutionalized the very concept of the sovereignty of the individual (not just some individuals) through an excruciating and sorrowful way. But it did it, and it continues to advance the reality from theory. This leap from the pernicious state of nature of slavery to emancipation for all, I think, can be characterized as greatness.
The ability to bring resources to bear to make the definitive difference
Many years later, when the country grew from an agrarian powerhouse, providing sewn and natural materials across the world, America demonstrated another form of greatness. From a nation poorly prepared to defend its borders, with infrequent and small scale military forays beyond its borders, it fielded an army capable of tipping the balance of a continental war in Europe. Ready to assume greater responsibilities on the world stage, it compelled its sons to join the American Expeditionary Force and deployed them to end the stalemate of the continental conflagration resulting, by some accounts, in the deaths of 37 million soldiers and civilians. Greatness, perhaps. Or perhaps just the beginning of greatness of an imposing nation.
America departed the European battlefields but left behind a ‘lost generation’ of artists and authors that produced a treasure trove of books and mental images that flame the spirit and ennobles the soul to this day. The age of American literary giants was born with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Elliot and many others who, through their stories, captured the mood of a restless, growing nation.
Re-builder of Nations
America repeated the act of ‘going over there’ for the disastrous repeat of folly with the Second World War. In spite of the sacrifices, it emerged from the conflict even more powerful, and this time, it didn’t pick up and go home, it stayed. Americans stayed and became a greater nation. The nation didn’t linger to steal the riches or enslave the defeated enemy or to disadvantage its broken allies. It remained to rebuild a new world much in the image of its own philosophical beginnings.
Though the Marshal Plan, America helped reassemble the destroyed continent of Europe and formed economic, political, and military ties to reduce the possibility of a third world war. It was close, but with its shepherding policies backed up by American might the Cold War never really went hot. America left the confines of its protective borders and assumed its place as a protector of nations. America assumed its position amongst the great nations of history.
As part of the rebuilding effort, the US offered its currency as a peg to tie all other nation’s currencies to the price of gold. The US dollar became the international currency, and in turn, it provided economic stability. The American commitment offered security and financial stability, enabling the rest of the world to climb out of the desolation of war. One may argue about the long term effects or advantage gained by the US because of the Brenton Wood Accords, but few modern nations could ever claim to have the world currency on such a grand scale. This was greatness.
Economically, the US has staunchly supported and advocated for capitalism and the free enterprise system. It’s often cited that capitalism is the worst form of economics, aside from any other system tried. It is also credited with bringing more people out of poverty faster than ever before. Because of America’s adherence to its general principals, American built the strongest and largest economy on the face of the earth. Its economy is the shining example that most other nations aspire to emulate, or align themselves with. While many may argue about a relative cost to such practices, having the number one economy in the world is greatness.
To whom much is given (or earned) much is expected. Accordingly, America is the most generous nation on the planet. OK, depending on what source one reads or how the metrics are parsed out, American may not come on top (Myanmar was number one in 2014, 15 and 16 according to the Gallup World Poll), but year after year Americans have consistently donated prodigious measures of money to charity, good causes and needs other than their own. Whether donations are evaluated by total dollar amount by individuals, organizations or the government, relative to GDP, the US steadily ranks amongst the top (if not the top) of the developed world (G-20 countries) in giving.
Within the realm of peace and prosperity made possible by American security commitments, American arts and entertainment grew to preposterous proportions to where it’s commonplace to hear American rock, or jazz or country songs played in the smallest of villages in the most distant places. American movies and TV shows are routinely featured all over the world. U.S. Jeans, even ripped ones, became a status symbol for the fashionable cosmopolitan. American culture, though some find it repugnant or decadent, or both, has been the opiate of the young and an aperture into the possibilities for an improved quality of life by the masses. To develop such a pervasive and dominating culture is greatness. Furthermore, one may argue that English is now the international language not only because of the world’s desired access into the American economy, but because American culture is the ultimate promotional tool spreading the English language.
While all mankind aspires to the stars, the US is the only nation to put a man on the moon and a rover on Mars. That’s greatness.
Greatness in acclaim and emulation
While many America detractors within the country claim to be victims of the evils of the country, millions outside the country, exposed to harsher realities beyond America’s border, risk life and limb to legally, and illegally, emigrate into the country. They wish to be Americans or at least, partner with the great country and all of its benefits. They understand that to be poor in a great nation, is preferred than a nominal condition in a less than great country. Is that not a sign of greatness?
So that begs the question, by what standards do apologist for the nation judge this nation? Is it purity? Within such a narrow prism, is the absence of any sin the only qualifier for national greatness? One could presuppose this view, this standard bearer of greatness, emanates from an emotional image of some utopian reality. One must then also presume that this imaginary nation somehow averted the real-world experiences of choosing between bad or worse decisions because that’s all they had. Somehow these great utopian countries sidestepped the unfortunate consequences that such choices inevitably yield. Complexity and pressure forge multi-faceted gems; it’s under such complex pressure that great nations are animated, with all their failings and accomplishments.
This list of American’s ‘abilities, qualities, and eminence’ may anemically, and poorly, service justice in describing the same. It does, however, offer an alternate basis from which to evaluate greatness rather than the limited ‘absence of failings’ point of view. For me, this short list edifies the position that America has been and is a great nation. What about you?
America’s future is made more challenging by the internal divisiveness of the shallowness that self-limits possibilities for greatness and all that ‘greatness’ entails. All tides turn, entropy is the natural state of things. In time, American greatness may be relegated to the pages of history books. But that time is not now. America is a product of its collective past and its potential for the future. Perhaps America’s future and surpassing greatness will eclipse the greatness of its past 241 years. We’ll see. What are your thoughts?
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