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American Greatness — Struggle or Birthright?

American Greatness — Struggle or Birthright?

As resident foreign policy wonk, I’m supposed to focus on the section of the SOTU address in which President Obama talked about the threats and challenges that — just like jobs and factories — can “race across borders” in today’s interconnected world.

There were a few noteworthy points. The thread running through the foreign policy section was how the United States is working with the rest of the international community, particularly now that America has repaired our image and become more cooperative and less combative. Prominent in this category is President Obama’s signature initiative to safely lock down all the world’s nuclear material.

The president remarked on the peaceful secession process under way for South Sudan after its recent plebescite. Continuing this theme of American support for democracy and people’s power, he congratulated Tunisians for unseating a despotic regime. I thought his affirmation that “American Muslims are a part of our American family” was especially pointed after last year’s controversy around the planned Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. Likewise the president’s mention of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

More interesting between the lines in domestic sections

But most of the foreign policy section was pretty familiar, and I was more intrigued with all the talk of international competitiveness in the domestic policy sections. With all due respect to Paul Krugman’s good wonkish points about our economic ills being wider than the trade deficit, I think the competitiveness frame helps make some important points, mostly about action versus complacency. President Obama first made the point early in the speech, after talking about the fast-paced changes in technology and globalization that have made it tough on American workers:

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies.

The president was weaving a narrative about challenges to the nation that must be met by the American people and their leaders and government. The conservative argument about the country’s predicament has an element of magical thinking: if government just gets out of the way, economic opportunity will gush forth. “This is the greatest country in the world, and government regulation and bureaucrats are holding us back.”

How does this relate to foreign policy? The conservative argument on foreign policy similarly relies on a presumption of greatness rather than a struggle for renewal. All we have to do is show resolve and moral clarity; “this is the greatest country in the world, and we don’t owe anyone any concessions or explanations.” The idea of American inherent rightness creates a major blind spot and undercuts what I call ‘political competitiveness.’

Which brings me back to my original point about working with the rest of the world on the basis of restored international credibility. As we’ve heard repeated many times, the problems of the 21st century world (climate change, stabilizing the global economy, nuclear proliferation) can’t be solved by any one country, no matter how powerful. The United States needs international support for anything it wants to achieve in these areas. And the key to winning that support is through hard diplomatic work, by rolling up our sleeves rather than resting on our laurels.

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26 comments

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2:42AM PST on Feb 11, 2011

Thank you for posting.

8:00PM PST on Jan 31, 2011

The whole notion of "winning" or being the best, at the top, etc. makes no sense in these "modern" times! As long as there are winners, there are losers. Keep this kind of competition limited to organized sports. It is now time for all peoples of the planet to learn how to WORK and PLAY together... EQUALLY! Let's move beyond the classic classist rhetoric. The USA does not have to be "better" than any other country. Only through mutual support can we move forward as a planet and in fact, it may be the only way we can promote and maintain a healthy planet for ALL humans.... not just the "winners".

3:40PM PST on Jan 28, 2011

I agree that the United States needs to get rid of this notion that it is, naturally, the greatest country in the world. There are many other countries who, in their own way, are just as great and many of them have a greater degree of democracy that brings benefits to all people of the country, and not just the wealathiest 2% of the population and the small group of upper middle class who are lucky enough to still benefit from the rickety social system the United States enjoys. Most European countries have better social systems, and I know, because I have lived and worked there for twelve years.

Still, the United States is still a great country in many ways and has institutions that can make its greatness beneficial to the 95% - 98% of its people who are not rich, if everyone, including the rich, work at it with generous hearts

9:47AM PST on Jan 28, 2011

You're the self proclaimed "foreign policy expert" but then make the claim the US has repaired it's image worldwide and stopped being so combative. Based on what? We have not seen any improvement in our "image" based on any measuring instrument out there. Being 'nicer' has not increased worldwide cooperation on a single item. Not a single problem we are facing overseas has been solved and many aren't even being addressed. Basically we have a status quo continuation of the Bush policies but without a firm hand in DC.

Despite the nay sayers though here and elsewhere, this nation remains special and powerful in ways no other place can touch. The majority of new patents still start here, the majority of world's new businesses start here, we still have by far the world's largest economy by virtually every measure. No nation on the planet has done as much to integrate so many diverse cultures and ideals into a functioning state. Religious freedom here still remains an ideal that no nation anywhere else can touch. Political differences still can exist without blood being shed.

The list goes on. The best and brightest of the world still come here to make it, not just the poor of Latin America. Outgoing US emigration is tiny despite the erosion of many of our freedoms because there simply is no other nation with so much that protects its own so well.

I've been there. I've seen and worked in many other nations. Despite our problems, we are positively exceptional.

6:50AM PST on Jan 28, 2011

How exactly is the U.S. becoming less combative in the world? We've got two military occupations going on, we're using drones to kill individuals we don't like (plus their families, who just happen to be in the same exploding house) in an ever-expanding list of countries, we've created a new, centralized military theater in Africa, AFRICOM is I think it's acronym and though not reported on the news we are undertaking military actions on that continent at an increasing rate, when there was a social disaster in Haiti our response was a military take-over of the government (which nearly all NGO's on the ground complained compromised rescue efforts and humanitarian aid), we have military bases in like 55 (or more) countries around the world, we support the one-sided Israeli war on the civilian population of Gaza...and that's another thing, about how we export democracy, ask the people of the Gaza Strip how much we support democracy as we punish them for freely electing Hamas as their government, ask Jean-Bertrand Aristide about democracy U.S. style and how he's been forcibly removed from elected office TWICE by our government for standing up against international finance policies, ask Venezuelans who inexplicably find their freely elected, twice again, president vilified and targeted by the U.S., we act as instigators with S. Korean in wargames against N. Korea. We support democracy only insofar as we can control it and force it under our own hegemony of economic domination.

12:04AM PST on Jan 28, 2011

Yes USA, you have to earn your place in the world. Stop assuming you can run the planet.
I don't think any country in the world is 'the greatest'.
We need to work together.

5:37PM PST on Jan 27, 2011

Growing up in the U.S., I mouthed all the propaganda about the U.S. being "the greatest" and actually believed it, because I had nothing to compare to what I had been told/taught. Then I started to travel and visit other countries. Then I fell in love with another country, finding there all the freedoms and openness that we talked about in the U.S. but often did not practice. I learned the difference between unquestioning faith and reality.

Don't be so certain that the U.S. really is "the greatest" if you've never tried any other possibilities. It's like saying French Fries are the best flavour of potatoes without ever having tried baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, potato soup, etc.......

5:30PM PST on Jan 27, 2011

"American exceptionalism" sounds a lot like a common fallacy of animal abusers: We have such great, wonderful moral superiority that we are excused from exercising it. It's rather like the popular students' notion that once they walk across the stage and collect their diplomas, they are entitled to forget everything they've learned.

4:05PM PST on Jan 27, 2011

I am so glad to read many comments here that say what I've felt for years."Might does not make right," is a concept that the US has yet to learn. Chants like the ubiquitous "USA,USA,USA," by a bunch of yahoos as if we are some sport team and killing our enemies the ultimate goal, makes me cringe. Bush's descriptive, "Shock and awe," against Iraq, likewise. WE have highjacked the "America is the greatest country on earth," rallying cry to ridiculous levels. How arrogant we are. A little humility will do us good. Time to look at our healthcare system and seeing it is not the shining star of the world. Time to look at our levels of poverty, our crumbling education system that leaves behind many lower working and middle class students for lack of funding, our widening gap between haves and have nots, and our codependency on corporations which are all but running the country. We would do well to look at other countries and borrow what is working for them. We would do well to start minding our own damn business, take care of our own, close many of our worldwide military bases, and cooperate more with other nations for a more harmonious planet.

3:40PM PST on Jan 27, 2011

Republicans don't understand greatness anymore; they're all about smallness.

The regressive Republican Party of No is mean-spirited, religiously fanatical, scientifically ignorant, corrupt, hypocritical, xenophobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, evolution and global warming denying, authoritarian, selfish, greedy, lacking compassion, warmongering, and otherwise dangerous.

NEVER vote for Republicans.

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Kathleen J. Kathleen is currently the Activism Coordinator at Care2. more
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