We’ve heard a lot in these last three Presidential Debates about foreign policy. Whether it’s our continued military presence in Afghanistan, the recent attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi or Iran’s looming nuclear prospects, the debate moderators couldn’t seem to put enough stress on international affairs.
The ensuing dialogue was both contentious and compelling, but it wasn’t the candidates’ differences in strategy that interested me as much as the ideals they agreed upon. Throughout the three debates and especially in their closing statements, both Governor Romney and President Obama expressed a sentiment we’ve heard many times before — that America is the greatest nation in the world.
I have a problem with the statement that America is “the greatest nation in the world,” and it has nothing to do with our astronomical national debt, our crumbling moral foundation or even our torturing of extradited prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The problem rests in the subtext; in the notion that America, being the greatest nation in the world, is thereby entitled to govern it.
From the time I entered the public school system as a six-year-old to the day I graduated high school, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my classmates every school day and saluted the American flag. Most of those times, I thought very little (if at all) about the meaning behind the words, the significance of placing my hand over my heart or why we were saluting the flag at all. It is with this same blind patriotism that our leaders make generalizing statements that warp the reality of our nation’s purpose and place in the world.
We have been led to believe that it is not only within our power as a nation, but our moral responsibility to police the affairs of the international community. We do not simply adhere to our morals and values; we insist on seeing them instated across cultural and political boundaries.
It’s why we invaded Vietnam in the 1960s, and it’s one of the underlying causes for our most recent invasion of Iraq. At face value, these wars are indefensible. You cannot weigh the cost in human life alone against the prerogative of spreading democracy without breaking the scale. And that’s excluding the whopping financial investment, the thousands of additional soldiers wounded and maimed and the devastation to the war zone environment (Vietnam is only beginning to recover from the carpet bombing of its jungles).
The only way you can possibly balance the scale is by assuming an impervious moral standard, a God-like intuition of right and wrong that eradicates all subjectivity.
Such a standard does not exist. It is as divine and unattainable as the notion of any one nation being the “greatest.” Nonetheless, it remains a hallmark of strong leadership in our nation to project infallibility.
We elevate theories to facts, philosophies to religions. How often have we heard politicians place their “faith in democracy,” when democracy is really just one among many plausible answers to a question? I’m not suggesting democracy is 100 percent wrong. I’m just saying that it may not be 100 percent right. This sort of subjectivity is unacceptable in our politics.
In the recent Vice Presidential Debate, the candidates were asked if America should apologize for cases in which American soldiers urinated on the corpses of Taliban soldiers. Republican candidate Paul Ryan responded, “Oh, gosh, yes,” but then made this addendum: “What we should not be apologizing for are our values.”
In a decade of escalating global conflict, our relationship with the rest of the world is of utmost importance. We cannot afford to perpetuate our role as the global arbiter of justice; it is neither within our long-term capabilities nor the boundaries of our rights to do so.
Our leaders cannot continue to confuse military occupation for diplomacy, the escalated manufacturing of weapons for the assurance of peace, or imperialism for patriotism. It’s true that there are certain threats that must be addressed with more than courteous diplomacy — threats that implicate the entire global community — but it is not the right of the United States to shoulder the entire burden.
There is power in collaboration. There is progress to be made with words and alliances.
But until we recognize our own fallibility and abandon this ridiculous notion of national omnipotence, we will not fully earn the trust of the global community. Until we learn to respect the sovereignty of foreign nations, and reduce our military presence around the globe, we will remain the primary target for those who seek power.
We don’t lack weapons, manpower or resources. We don’t lack influence, and we certainly don’t lack pride. What we lack as a nation is self-confidence, and it shows in the aggression of our foreign policy. If we were certain of our position as the greatest nation in the world, we wouldn’t have so much to prove.
Mark Strong isn’t fully dressed without his “Proud to be an American” pin. Amerrrica!