Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Toward National Greatness? A July 4th Reflection

Toward National Greatness? A July 4th Reflection

  • Adam Garfinkle
  • July 1, 1998
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

Washington is a strange town. Having but a single business to justify its existence, and there being far more warm bodies in town than are necessary to do that business, many a peculiar notion has been known to issue from its excess capacities. Perhaps that helps explain the recent call to“national greatness,” wherein a coterie of metropolitan intellectuals has sought to plan for the next triumphal, and definitely great, American century.

One can readily detect this particular form of exhaust inside the Beltway. In February a “national greatness”colloquium was held in Washington, well-attended by journalists, think-tankers, assorted middlemen, and others prepared only to identify themselves as “consultants.” This colloquium followed from the founding documents of the “movement,” last year’s essays by Bob Kagan and William Kristol in Foreign Affairs, and David Brooks in The Weekly Standard. The flame has shone too in the dispatches of the Project for the American Century, a William Kristol initiative ably managed by Gary Schmitt from behind the portals of the Standard’s offices on 15th Street.

I bow to no one in my respect for both patriots and patriotism, and I, too, want America to be great. But there are mature and there are wayward ways to go about such things. The heavy breathing associated with the national greatness project, I am afraid, is an example of the latter.

Still, it is hard to argue with one of the movement’s main propositions: that one cannot love one’s country and hate one’s government at the same time. Some conservatives have somehow moved away from their Burkean sensibilities toward those more befitting the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and it is surely worthwhile to try to haul them back to their better senses.

It is also easy to sympathize with one of the movement’s underlying motives: to prevent internationalist-minded Republicans from becoming an endangered species in the great swirling intellectual vacuum of the post-Cold War world. Otherwise, the realms of foreign and national security policy would become playgrounds for fuzzy-minded liberals for whom the term geostrategy has about the same ring as phrenology or leeching.

Nor is the moral core of the movement frivolous. The national greatness project frames two very important questions: As the preponderant global power, what responsibilities does America have toward the rest of the world? How wisely to share the gift of democracy we bear?

And the patron saint of the movement was, and remains, an endlessly fascinating figure: Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican Roosevelt, who was about as energetic a supporter of both American greatness and an activist federal government as any American has ever been.

It is not the motives of the national greatness movement that make me uneasy. It is rather its formula and its method.

As to the formula, it is weighted heavily toward America’s role in the world. And in that domain we are told that the defense budget is too small, even though it is larger than the next dozen such budgets in the world combined. We are told that America is becoming isolationist despite the fact that since 1992 U.S. military forces have maintained a higher operational tempo than at any time in American history short of civil or world war— and we have forces stationed semi-permanently in 19 foreign countries. We must do more, we are told: get tough with China and Russia; get still tougher with proliferators; save Kosovo and Bosnia and Haiti and Burma and Rwanda; aggressively open foreign markets to our notion of rational, transparent, IMF-approved capitalism; and more, much more, besides.

Despite the appropriation of TR to the banner of the national greatness movement, this formula sounds rather more like that of another President, and not a Republican President: John F. Kennedy. It was JFK who asked then, as the promoters of national greatness ask now, for Americans to “go anywhere, pay any price”— and we did indeed go far, all the way to Southeast Asia, and yes we certainly paid a price. The main difference, perhaps, is that the invocation of such energies nowadays, in the absence of a superpower counterweight to American greatness, promises to keep that price fairly low. Or so it is supposed.

As to the method, it is a direct one. Want America to be great? Plan for it, spend for it, exert the national energy toward it. But the achievement of national greatness before the court of world history isn’t something that can be planned. It cannot be plotted. It cannot be forecast or foreordained. Nor can it be assembled nation-building project after project, intervention after intervention, proclamation after proclamation of our indispensability to the world. It cannot be sought directly at all; it just doesn’t work that way.

America cannnot assure its greatness merely by amassing wealth and power and influence. Alexander and Peter and Frederick and others have been known as “the Great,” it is true. But the civilizations of old that we as Americans value today as having been truly great are not the war empires of Assyria or Babylon, imperial Greece or Prussia, but those, for example, like little Israel, city-state Athens, and wee Scotland that gave enduring spiritual and moral gifts to posterity. We are defined, at our best, by our belief in a common humanity, by the idea of economic progress balanced by our custodianship of the earth, by the passion for healing, by the treasures of liberty and democracy, and by the realization of community and inter-generational responsibility.

These are the values that matter most to Americans, and always have. This is what made American independence truly revolutionary, and it is what keeps America a revolutionary force in the world today. These are the values whose enactment in society best guarantees their own longevity as well as the approbation of posterity.

Of course we need a robust military to protect the society that lives in and through these values. There are times when the United States must project force to satisfy its global responsibilities, and there are cases where actively promoting democracy abroad makes both practical and moral sense  for  all  involved.  But  we must never forget that it is the values integral to our society, not the military assets that protect them, that defines whatever greatness we have achieved, or may achieve in future.

National greatness, in the true sense of the phrase, comes from qualities that are so integral to any civilization-in-progress that they are opaque to those inventing, refining, and living by them. In other words, greatness is a byproduct of the pursuit of great values for their own sake. Ultimately, too, it can only be achieved at the discretion of others. What S.J. Perelman once said of individual immortality, in his own incomparably irreverent way, applies as well to nations: “I believe it was Hippolyte Taine, the historian— or possibly Monroe Taine, the tailor, a philosophical chap who used to press my pants forty years ago in the Village— who once observed that immortality is a chancy matter, subject to the caprice of the unborn.”

There are other human domains that follow the logic of indirection, and it is well that we mark them. The experienced naturalist knows that if one wants to “see” a hummingbird in the wild, that exquisite excitement can best be captured through peripheral vision. Those who appreciate great musicianship know that a skilled artist can play notes that “aren’t there” through the subtle manipulation of rhythm and syncopation, and it’s the notes both there and not there that together produce the rhapsodic magic. Even more obvious, if also more abstract, is the matter of happiness. The Declaration’s determination on its “pursuit”notwithstanding, the only way any of us ever achieves real happiness is indirectly— by acting in ways that make those we love and cherish happy. The way to get real love, too, is not to seek its acquisition, but rather to give away every ounce we have.

Nearly everyone knows all this, or at least can be made to appreciate it upon a moment’s reflection. It doesn’t take a conference to conclude or a movement to know that if we want America to be great, then Americans have to be good— first of all to each other and then to those with whom we share this planet. We have to be honest, compassionate, hard-working, realistic, and provident. If we are, history will doubtless be kind to us. Indeed, we will be very great.