I recall growing up in the 1960s hearing the assertion that the United States was the greatest nation to have existed. There was an element of patriotism to this claim, and I recall thinking this was a patriotic thought. Many other nations probably felt similarly about themselves. But I also heard that we had a unique claim of various innovations from our constitutions that defended individual liberties and yet still managed to become a decisive power in the second world war that seemed to pit good against evil.
In the sixties, I was only a child, not to become a teenager until the 1970s, but I was paying attention to the news of the time. I watched in concern and wonder the various current events at the time, including the protests and riots. Along the way, I got the impression that these had a good intention of making the country live up to its claim of being a great country, by living up to a higher standard than any other country had. That standard was being debated with various competing views pitting generations against each other and pitting individuals within a generation against each other.
Looking back, I wonder if our biggest mistake was to interpret our claim of greatness as anything other than patriotism observed in other countries. In other countries, the call for patriotism makes the assumption that the country is already great and it should continue to do what it has been doing. In our country, the claim of greatness transcended patriotism to become a goal instead of an achievement. We were not a great nation, but instead we were destined to become a great nation. But to get there, we had to change.
By the 1960s, there was a attitude that we had to change in order to live up to our destined greatness. I think this attitude was shared among most of the population. I did not hear many voices claiming that we had already reached sufficient greatness. The rest demanded that we have more work to do in order to live up to great ideals, even if they didn’t agree among themselves what those ideals should be.
One of the aspirations of our future greatness would be that we would not repeat the declared failings of past successful countries or empires. We had long ago eliminated slavery, and recently enacted laws that assure equality of treatment of all individuals, outlawing various forms of discrimination. We sought to avoid the failings of those countries that had various classes of citizens with approved forms of discrimination among the classes.
In foreign policy, we became determined to avoid the injustice of colonialism. We would not take over local governments of foreign countries. Our greatness lie in setting up self-governing democracies in countries that formerly were adversaries. Our earlier successes for Germany and Japan became the template for all countries. Ours would be the greatest country by getting out of the way as soon as possible and letting the people govern themselves. We would not engage in long term governing of their countries. Earlier, we did have some colonial arrangements and we began clean our slate such as granting independence to Philippines (a generation earlier) and making a state out of Hawaii.
Puerto Rico is an interesting exception where we can’t decide whether to make it a state or grant it independence and thus are stuck with it’s current subordinate status. Despite this embarrassment, we resolved to avoid long-term administration of new territories even following our defeat of their preceding governments.
In very recent examples, we resolved to leave Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible after destroying their preceding governments. We earn our greatness ideals by avoiding long-term administration of maintaining law and order in these countries. We resolved not to make the mistake of becoming a colonial power that would make our country more just another colonial power. We choose the higher ideal of letting these countries work out their futures themselves.
It turns out that their future is very bleak without our continued administrative and policing support. Our country earned its greatness status by granting it independence. Our greatness is not tarnished by the consequences that are currently experienced in Iraq and will probably be repeated in Afghanistan.
Also in recent history, we played a major role in toppling governments in Libya, Egypt, and Syria (nearly). However, our actions claimed a higher ground of supporting other other groups for specific honorable purpose of overthrowing a tyrant who was accused of criminal abuses of his population. Our aspiration for being perceived as a great country prevented us from having a direct role in a more controlled transition of power. Our limited participation absolved us of any responsibility to come in to fill the vacuum.
We take pride in the greatness of our country because we didn’t directly occupy these nations to impose a government on their populations. Any unfortunate consequences of our indirect and limited actions do not tarnish our claim of greatness. We take comfort in reasoning that these are sovereign nations that are solely responsible for their future. We applaud ourselves for the greatness of restraint to impose our will on their populations.
In other areas of foreign policy, our aspiration of greatness is to export our supposed form of government based on a concept of natural human rights and democratic-republic government. Instead of directly administering our government standards on nations, especially those countries with failed governments, we limit ourselves to providing guidance for how they can set up their own governments. We punish violators of our prescriptions for government and human rights through economic means by withdrawing financial aid or making that aid contingent on reforms. This is a double claim of greatness by sharing our wealth and exporting our ideals without the use of force. The fact that the countries continue to fail does not subtract from our greatness. Instead it enhances our greatness by granting them the inherent benefit of self-governance. Building such governments will take time where the interim period will be ugly. That ugliness is not our responsibility.
For domestic policy, we also aspire to greatness by having a strong financial support for the less fortunate in this country. Unemployed people have financial assistance until they find a job. Unemployable people have access to a variety of public assistance. We subsidize health care for low incomes and for elderly. We mandate a minimum wage for those who work. And we provide retirement benefits that meet the needs of a reasonable quality of life.
We do all of these things because these will contribute to our claim for being the greatest country in history. The fact that we have to pay for these with new debts is also something that great countries do. Future generations should gladly pay these debt in gratitude of the greatness earned from our present charity.
For our justice system, we aspire to greatness through humane penalties of incarceration and fines. We have outlawed penalties that we perceive as inhumane. Although we still have capital punishment, it is rarely carried out and it is subject to extensive reviews. Nearly all of our punishments are either financial penalties or incarceration where both are considered the hallmarks of a great country when compared to briefer penalties involving painful punishments and embarrassment.
Long periods of imprisonment and large fines denies the benefits of the punished person’s quick return to society. Those denied benefits include both the loss to society of contributions by that person as well as that person’s opportunity to reintegrate with society. We take pride in our humane punishment through long prison sentences and crushing fines. This humane punishment advances our project of becoming a greater country.
Over the past half century, we have made deliberate decisions to act on policies that would make a potentially-great country a great country. We chose to do things that we assumed the future will look back and declare our country not merely great, but the greatest country in history up to this point. Our decisions assumed we had not yet reached our greatness 50 years ago, but we had to work on that greatness through deliberate choices of avoiding the bad things previous great countries did. In the process of striving to be great, we actually became mediocre.
For the first two decades following the second world world we were already a great country. Perhaps we were not the greatest country, but we had already proven to be pretty great. We did have the opportunity to be greater but we had to make a choice of how to get there. Either we repeat the actions of previous great countries to establish regional or even worldwide peace or we strive for new ways to achieve those ends without repeating the things we thought were bad about the preceding great countries.
The greatness of the USA did contribute to the worldwide period of relative peace that sometimes was called Pax Americana. This came mostly from our role in regulating international trade and our military might. It appears we are at the end of that period. Our role in maintaining worldwide peace has declined, and there is an increase in number of actors who are challenging our interests. Pax Americana probably peaked for just two decades but even a generous accounting from the end of World War II and the present gives it a run of about 7 decades. This is not unusual for a merely great country in history. We are becoming just another example of a country that had its 7 decades of dominance and then fades from the scene.
We will soon enter a period of historical assessment of our greatness. Our greatness during those 7 decades will be compared with earlier world- or regional-dominating powers. In that comparison, I think we have a weak claim of being the greatest in history. We may not even make the top ten.
One of the counts against our claim of greatness is that we managed to last only a couple decades.
Even though the British empire did many things we disapprove of today, it managed to last far longer. That duration had benefits to international relations and local governance of territories. From a historical perspective we can compare the benefits of the British empire with its abuses. The benefits may outweigh the abuses. Comparing the era of USA’s greatness with its immediate predecessor of Great Britain’s, it is not clear how USA’s greatness is greater. Our avoidance of abuses allowed far worse abuses to occur. We did not even attempt to do anything to prevent or to reduce the internally created abuses. Our passivity makes us less impressive when compared to historic governments.
The British empire made credible justification for abuses as their responsibility to use their strength to maintain order in their territories. They took responsibility for the consequence of their earlier actions. Also, they aspired to a responsibility to share the advantages of their strength with the rest of the world. Although groups of local populations challenged their colonial rule, the British treated these challenges as just another form of local politics that happened to be more violent. History later proved their wisdom after we observed how many of these territories devolved into violence and chaos when the decline of British power forced them to withdraw.
In our quest to deliberately avoid repeating the perceived abuses and excesses of the British empire, we ignored their lessons. One lesson is that local opposition, even if very forceful, is often a minority. The majority can still benefit and welcome a strong colonial rule but only if that rule is able to contain that minority opposition through the application of force. The excesses are forgiven if they can restore order for a long enough period of time to enjoy the benefits of the peace.
Our objection is that this peace is not legitimate because it is imposed from a foreign and even remote power. That objection informed our intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. We proved we could restore and maintain order in their countries. But we felt an urgency to withdraw because this was an illegitimate form of peace. The local populations have to come up with their own solutions for stable government. We are watching how that is working out.
Again, the earlier noble aspiration of responsibility comes into play. The British held onto their rule and fought down rebellions in part because they accepted responsibility to maintain order. A successful rebellion or civil war is unlikely to lead to a stable government. Allowing one to devolve into chaos will be an insult to the greatness of the occupying government. They felt responsible for maintaining order. Although maintaining order never fully defeats the opposition, it results in real benefits from the majority who can continue day-to-day commerce.
Imagining a future historian contemplating the earlier era of USA’s dominance, one of his conclusions may be that USA was remarkable in its inability to accept responsibility and to obligate itself to fix the problems it created. This responsibility and obligation should be independent of the justification for the original act that caused the problem. When the problem becomes present, a truly great country will obligate itself to fix it.
Similarly, he may conclude that USA was remarkable in its reluctance to exercise its power to the project of making lasting commitments to get countries to set up institutions necessary to make stable governments. When it came to sharing its wealth with the rest of the world, USA chose to give financial aid instead of fielding some form of local governing force. History will probably judge that the reliance on financial aid was far less effectual than the earlier colonial models.
The historian may also find objections to USA’s approach to human rights. In the area of foreign policy, USA often emphasized human rights violations and in particular the suppression of political dissent. USA’s policies placed protection of political dissenters at nearly the top of its priorities. Sometimes the entire policy toward a country focused on the human rights of a tiny minority or even a single person. The historian may observe that this priority was misplaced. The observed means of suppression may be the best option available given the local conditions. We learned that when we saw what was being suppressed after we assisted in the overthrow of the leadership in Libya, for example. As bad as Gaddafi was, what he was able to contain turned out to be far worse. A greater nation than ours would have had the wisdom to anticipate this. Instead, we foolishly believed that Gaddafi was the only barrier to a US-style free democracy in Libya.
Also, our focus on human rights may have distracted us away from other more productive opportunities to improve the local economic and political conditions. It is likely that if we had focused on local conditions and ignored the human-rights issues, the improved conditions may diminish dissent and the need for these abuses. Instead of demanding release of specific political prisoners, or of acceptance of demands of particular groups, we could have been working on strengthening common interests with the countries and these may have long term lasting benefits. We chose to make our priority the human rights issues, and in particular the more publicized dissident groups.
The historian may find objection to USA’s claim of exemplary human rights domestically. In particular, USA prides itself in humane punishments of prison terms and financial penalties instead of more corporal but quicker punishments. USA forbids cruel and unusual punishments to the extent that the only punishments available are incarceration or fines. There is a case to be made that the allowed punishments may be more inhumane because it denies the opportunity to quickly reintegrate the perpetrator with society. The punishments we forbid as too cruel offer the advantage of the person returning to society quickly and thus take advantage of the relationships and employments he already has. In contrast the more humane prison times and financial ruining fines usually severs the ties of the perpetrator with his community. Incarceration makes it impossible for him to continue to participate until a much later time. When he ultimately serves his term, he has start from scratch to rebuild his life but at a more advanced age.
Prison times are more appropriate for political purposes than for criminal punishments. Long term imprisonment isolates the individual from participating in society. This is the objective of political imprisonment: to prevent the prisoner from influencing the politics. This is not an appropriate form of punishment for crimes, or at least it may be inferior to those punishments we forbid.
The same misunderstanding may explain both our misplaced priority in addressing human rights protections of dissidents in foreign countries and our over-reliance on incarceration for punishing crimes. We misunderstand the purpose of incarceration. It is most ideal for separating political dissidents from society. It is not an appropriate too for punishing crimes. We instead reversed the definition thinking that will make us a greater country. Instead we will look very naive and ill informed.
USA’s aspiration to be the greatest actually prevented it from accepting responsibility and taking up the obligation to fix problems. It appears we experiencing the end of the USA-dominate era in history when it had its chance to be great. That dominance made it great but only for a relatively short duration. We are left to judge the greatness of USA based on that short era. I think historians will find that we squandered our opportunity to become the greatest in history because we tried too hard to be the greatest. We should have paid more attention to past great countries and listened to their lessons. What appeared to be regrettable in historic governments may actually have been the best choice to follow, or at least better than the choices we made.