NEW YORK, January 1, 2014 ― Nations, like people, are complex, full of flaws and contradictions. Also like people, the national memory often shades the past, thinking, “things were better back when.” “I wish I were a kid again … not a worry in the world.” “I wish I were in my 20s again; those were the days.”
That temptation is there when we look at our current situation in America. “America was better back when … things have declined so.” But we know on a personal level that a forward-looking, self-improving frame of mind is healthier and more sound.
The “good old days” and “golden age” weren’t really all that our selective memories and imaginations make them out to be. We should snap out of it, and do the same looking forward. Some realism and common sense should be used when we look to America’s future.
Three guideposts can help us chart our path forward: The first two are inventories of our strengths and weaknesses; the third is to look at our greatest areas of challenge and struggle. We can then move away from generic and vague national goals and ineffective lurches toward a “better” society. We can improve our nation with greater clarity and focus.
For America in 2014, some specific areas challenge and struggle are Syria, Benghazi, and East Asia on the international front, and the NSA, the Affordable Care Act, and media and the culture wars ― most recently illustrated by the Duck Dynasty fiasco ― on the domestic front.
Being self-conflicted is debilitating and self-destructive. Greater internal harmony, and singleness and clarity of identity and purpose make us successful and effective. Many believe that America is riven by partisanship, which may be true, but that would suggest that the cure is a more bi-partisan approach to government.
That isn’t enough. “Bi-partisan” suggests cooperation, but what is needed is more radical: harmony.
America is divided, and division will lead to decline, but it need not be so. Our decline is not terminal. It is marked by at least three problems:
1. This is a time of radical transition in politics;
2. We still have a long way to go with Barack Obama as president; and
3. We have a president and congressional supporters who are more extreme than moderate in their political impulses and behavior.
The opposition is also extreme. This portends greater national division, which we cannot afford.
The radical transition in politics is due partly to the impact of communications technology and social media on the electoral process. Between America’s liberals and conservatives, the left wing secured greater mastery and control of these new tools of politics first, hence we endure eight long years of the Obama administration.
Do we share any universal ideals that are not subject to Balkanization, ideals held by all Americans? We do. They are the elements of our national identity that once made us both a good and a great nation, a nation that was admired and respected.
The true appeal of this country was never just her wealth. We had our differences, but they were a source of strength, not division. This was true because of the greatest of our universal ideals. It is expressed in the last five words of “thirty-one words tightly compressed into one sentence, a sentence that is more universally known and more often repeated in America than any other”:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Liberty and justice for all. We were a nation of laws, and of equality under the law, and even when that wasn’t perfectly true, we believed that it could be and it would be. We believed that the arc of our history was bent in the direction of making our ideals ever more real.
Liberty is defined in our Bill of Rights, the basic text of our secular religion: the freedom to exercise religion; freedom of speech; freedom of the press; the right to assemble peaceably; the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Liberty and equality before the law bound us in even the most intense diversity. It was sufficient to rally us when unity was desperately needed. Left or right, rich or poor, atheist or believer ― what true American would not want the promise of liberty and justice for all?
Once we have it right at home, foreign policy should naturally flow as a desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with people around the world, risking even our lives for liberty and justice for all.
The struggle to forge a consistent and morally good foreign policy is always challenged by pragmatism and Realpolitik: crass and ugly national self interest. Nobody likes a selfish bastard, though, no matter how rich or important you are or think you are.
Self interest is natural and healthy, both for people and for nations. We cannot flourish without it. But it cannot be the only thing that drives foreign policy. We must lead with our goodness, and this has been missing from our foreign policy for some time.
America is a vast, wealthy, powerful and beautiful land, but above all we should be known as the people who seek everywhere and always liberty and justice for all. America’s foreign policy should grow from this core goodness. We should never exercise our liberties in ways that deprive even one other of the right to do the same.
The First Amendment points the way. Each of us has the right to our beliefs and to express and practice them. We should emulate the ideal coined by Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Voltaire’s version was stronger “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”
In America we should converse. Let ideologies rage, but never let them override our pledge of liberty and justice for all. On wedge issues, even extreme hot button, sexual orientation issues, there never should be a day when an American is deprived or denied his or her First Amendment rights.
It is not easy, but that is what we are about.
With the NSA horrors that were exposed by Edward Snowden last year, the issue is this; are there government agencies violating the constitution, especially the 4th amendment, privacy of the person and possessions as against unreasonable searches, and the 5th Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination, which provides protection for the privacy of personal information?
If there are, then lawmakers must correct and modify these agencies, or else shut them down. It is better to live under the threat of harm, than in an America whose citizens are surreptitiously invaded and deprived of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
On universal health? Is there an American who thinks some Americans deserve medical care and others do not? Is there anyone who would prevent people in need from getting medical help and attention?
On this matter of simple human compassion, there is not a difference among ideological adversaries. The difference lies in the political and social concepts that would make health care good, fair, and efficient. A great many of us find government to be meddlesome, prone to excess, wasteful, intrusive, and inefficient. A great many feel that even with the noblest aspirations, the federal government is the exact wrong place to seek a more fair and more efficient management of health and medical needs.
But this is a question of political ideology. It is not a question of different ideals. Unfortunately for those hostile to big government, we are in a time of big government. But that’s just how it is. So, yes let political challenges abound, but no, do not let us divide as a people. We cannot afford it. With common ideals, we can converse.
As we re-weave our identity on even the most contentious and embattled arenas domestically, our identity and core goodness can gain strength naturally, and then can begin once again to define and guide our foreign policy decisions. In time, hopefully we can act and come to be known as the nation and the people defined by the ideal of liberty and justice for all. Yes, a nation with self interest, but not self interest at the expense of all else.
Because of America’s wealth, power, and influence, she must be involved in world affairs. Important theaters include the Middle East in concert with Europe, the repair of the intensified destabilization of North Africa caused by aggressive, Western self-interest, and investment in America’s Pacific Rim, most importantly among the North Asian nations Korea, Japan, and China.
In the Middle East, the greatest center of raging flames happens in this moment happens to be Syria, and in North Africa, Egypt and Libya and bordering lands are crucial.
The precise path for each track, diplomatic, political, military, economic, and cultural is complex. Ideological contenders will battle fiercely to define positions on a broad spectrum of approaches ranging from dialogical to militant and militaristic. But these hues are natural to the ebb and flow of political life.
More important than the calculus of any given strategy or design is that American foreign policy grow to recover and reflect the identity in which America’s greatness and America’s goodness are synoptic. Regardless of which ideology has the upper hand at any given moment, it should always and at least be the case that legislators are committed to policies that rise above the unwelcome ugliness of pure self interest.
American actions in world affairs should bolster our founding identity as a nation devoted to liberty and justice for all.