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A nation must think before it acts.
Much attention is being paid lately to how America should respond to the post-Cold War international environment, to what America should do in and for the world. The challenge is so important that it sometimes obscures the fact that the world is also doing something to and even for America. Through the reflective power of negative examples, it is offering us some powerful lessons—if we are wise enough to learn them.
What do we Americans see this July 4th when we look around this beautiful but troubled planet? Most of us would agree that we see a sobering picture.
Militarized and politicized religion threatens communal peace and diplomatic effort in much of North Africa, and South and Southwest Asia. Islamic fundamentalism is roiling the Near East and North Africa, its atavism undermining social stability and threatening governments from Rabat to Cairo. Hindu chauvinism and Sikh extremism stoke the fires of separatism and violence in India, and the civil war in Sri Lanka between Tamil and Sinhalese, too, is fueled by rising Hindu-Buddhist antagonisms.
Even more sobering to most Americans, resurgent nationalism in Europe is destroying hopes for peace and prosperity. Nationalism is not always a malign force; the imperial subjugation of peoples is a political sin of equal magnitude, and national assertion can right such wrongs. But the sadder side of nationalism is more in evidence today, especially in the Balkans, and the Russian Federation’s potential problems in this regard are orders of magnitude more grave and consequential to the world at large.
Beyond these most dramatic examples, political weakness and uncertainty abound in both democratic and non-democratic states. Half of the Italian political elite is either in or on the way to jail; France courts political paralysis with a lame-duck socialist President vying with a right-of-center parliament; bombs rattle London. Spain and Belgium show signs of falling to political pieces. The post-World War II Asian democracies—Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and even Japan—show themselves either economically edgy, politically troubled, or both.
Meanwhile, the post-Soviet states in the Baltics, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Europe (Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine) are convulsed by new responsibilities even as they stand paralyzed by poverty. China is heading for inevitable instability with a major generational shift in leadership. Southeast Asia remains mired in repression, poverty, and incipient war-again-in Cambodia. In the horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan) things are even worse. Economic advancement and political life remain fitful and fragile in most of subsaharan Africa, and the same can be said for much of Latin America. South Africa, like Russia, stands at a pivotal moment of decision, and could plunge into gruesome civil war as easily as rise to successful political reform.
If all this weren’t enough, the trade in deadly conventional weapons and the danger of CBN (chemical/biological/ nuclear) proliferation grow; and global environmental problems still mount.
And then there is America. Consider the contrasts.
While America produces a David Koresh or a Jim Jones from time to time, we happily lack an institutional clergy driven by megalomania, hatred, and the desire to divide. With each passing day, the wisdom of the Founding Fathers in relegating religion to the private sphere looks better and better. God help us if we ever fail to appreciate this sublime arrangement.
Far more important, the American experience shows that people of different origins and beliefs can live together, notwithstanding the mean claims of alienated “multiculturalist” intellectuals. America bears witness today to what religious intolerance and ethnic chauvinism can do to heterogeneous societies whose members forget their common humanity. Surely it should teach us that the answer to our own racial and ethnic problems is not to exalt in the hyphens we have put after our parochial origins and before our Americanness, but to work patiently to excise them ultimately from our vocabularies.
As for American politics, we all know that there are problems. The system can be fairer and more responsive, less corrupted by money and bad habits of unearned privilege. But compared to most peoples, we live within a rampart of constitutionality, representative institutions, and stable democratic traditions. Anyone who can’t see this just doesn’t want to look.
When it comes to the proliferation of deadly weapons, America is on balance part of the solution, not the problem. As to our own vulnerabilities, they are modest, partly for reasons of geography, but also because, unlike almost every great power in history, America has not made lasting enemies out of its immediate neighbors. We may have our differences with Canada and Mexico, and problems of sorts with Cuba and Haiti, but they are certainly not about to lead to major war.
Even with regard to environmental problems, Americans are lucky. There’s still many a mess from the past to clean up, and vigilance against those who would mortgage everyone’s future to their next bottom line must be unceasing. But environmentalism is an American invention, and things have improved mightily over the past dozen years. If you don’t believe it, spend a year living outside the United States—almost anywhere will do—and you will believe it. Little by little, too, the rest of the world is learning from the American example.
When all is said and done, then, what can the political state of the world today teach us? Humility, gratitude, and hope will do for starters. Humility because we can do better, gratitude for what we have achieved, and hope that the rest of mankind will in some way benefit from our experience. God bless America.