Rich Lowry at NRO (entire column):
When the likes of Marco Rubio, the new Republican senator from Florida, say this is the greatest country ever, sophisticated opinion-makers cluck and roll their eyes. What a noxious tea-party nostrum. How chauvinistic. What hubris.
Yet, what other countries deserve this designation? For the sake of convenience, start at 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia ratified the modern system of nation-states. And grade on power, prosperity and goodness.
Is Spain the greatest ever? It had a nice run a couple of hundred years ago based on plundering the New World of its gold and silver. By 1800, it was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Today, it teeters on bankruptcy.
Is France? Its model of centralizing monarchy in the 17th century was extremely influential, and admirable — if you like elaborate court ritual, religious persecution and expansionistic wars. It gave the world the template for modern ideological madness in the French Revolution and for the modern tyrant in Napoleon. After the debacle of World War II, it recovered to a power of middling rank. If there’s no doubting the greatness of the French, their history comes with the implicit admonition: “Do not try this at home.”
Germany? In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a cultural jewel. And one of the most talented statesmen ever, Bismarck, forged a nation that became an industrial behemoth. It also had an illiberal heart. Germany today is an anchor of democratic Europe, but with a hellish black mark against it that will last for all time.
Russia? By the beginning of the 20th century, a decrepit autocracy sat atop a mass of misery. Then, things went south. The communists murdered and enslaved many millions across seven decades. Russia remains an important, if vastly diminished, power, governed by a prickly, grasping kleptocracy.
Britain? Getting warmer. It invented the rights that are the bedrock of liberal democracy. More than most European powers, it lived by Adam Smith’s formula for prosperity: “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” From a tiny island, it came to govern an enormous extent of the globe in a relatively benign colonialism. It was a bulwark against the dictatorships of the Continent, from Napoleon, to the Kaiser, to Hitler. And it spawned the countries that have made the English-speaking world a synonym for good governance and liberty: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and America.
Which brings us to the U.S. We had the advantage of jumping off from the achievement of the British. We founded our nation upon self-evident truths about the rights of man, even if our conduct hasn’t always matched them. We pushed aside Spain and Mexico in muscling across the continent, but brought order and liberty in our wake. Our treatment of the Indians was appalling, but par for the course in the context of the time. It took centuries of mistreatment of blacks before we finally heeded our own ideals.
The positive side of the ledger, though, is immense: We got constitutional government to work on a scale no one had thought possible; made ourselves a haven of liberty for the world’s peoples; and created a fluid, open society. We amassed unbelievable wealth, and spread it widely. Internationally, we wielded our overwhelming military and industrial power as a benevolent hegemon. We led the coalitions against the ideological empires of the 20th century and protected the global commons. We remain the world’s sole superpower, looked to by most of the world as a leader distinctly better than any of the alternatives.
Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion. When a Marco Rubio talks of the greatness of America, it’s not bumptious self-congratulation. Our greatness comes with the responsibility to preserve our traditional dynamism and status as a robust middle-class society. To paraphrase the Benjamin Franklin of lore, we have the greatest country ever — if we can keep it.
Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard:
Over at NRO, you can read Rich Lowry’s engaging year-end column about America, “Yes, the Greatest Country Ever.”
The day after Rich’s column appeared, on January 1, President Obama asserted in his weekly address that “we’ve had the good fortune to grow up in the greatest nation on Earth.” Then, in case anyone missed it, Obama repeated eight sentences later that he’s confident we can “do what it takes to make sure America remains in the 21st century what it was the 20th: the greatest country in the world.”
And sources now tell us that Lowry’s been called to the White House this week for a secret meeting.
Meanwhile, we look forward to denunciations from the usual enlightened quarters of this vulgar expression of American chauvinism and boastful claim of American exceptionalism by an American president.
The last thing you need is more proof of the mindlessness and vapidity of the right’s attack on Obama for allegedly not believing in “American exceptionalism.” But Bill Kristol’s latest rendition is really worth savoring, because it unwittingly shows what nonsense it all is.
Kristol has a post up making the case that Obama has finally caved to the right’s attacks and has grudgingly conceded America’s greatness. The evidence? Kristol notes that in his weekly address on Saturday, the President hailed America as “the greatest nation on earth,” and “the greatest country in the world.”
This, Kristol says, showcases the “new, revised Obama.”
It’s unclear whether Kristol is joking, but given the idiocy we keep hearing along these lines, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume he isn’t. So allow me to point out that Obama has been using these phrases for literally years now.
In his breakout speech at the 2004 Dem convention, Obama hailed the “greatness of our nation” and the “true genius of America.” And he’s repeatedly stated as president that we live in the greatest country evah. Way back in August 2009, Obama described America as “the greatest nation on Earth.” In October of 2009, Obama declared that “we live in the greatest country on Earth.”
In January of 2010, Obama described America as “the greatest nation in the world.” He called America the “greatest country on Earth” on September 25, again on September 29th, and still again on October 21st. And so on.
Bill needs no defense from me, but let me explain the joke to Greg. It is not Obama who is the target of Bill’s humor, but the left and its disinclination to project American power and values. Bill, like many conservatives, has supported the president’s policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s been quite generous in his praise of a number of Obama speeches. The point of the barb is to make clear that not even the liberal icon Obama adopts the left’s disdain for American exceptionalism, nor its desire to retreat from the war on Islamic terror. Conservatives, me included, are prone to marvel at the left’s propensity to sneer at George Bush’s formulation of American exceptionalism while remaining mute as their liberal hero does the same.
The point, you see, is not to discredit the president, but to discredit those that would pull him ever leftward on matters of national security. To the degree Obama sounds much like his predecessor and conducts a robust foreign policy (e.g. use of drones in Afghanistan, a continued presence in Iraq) conservatives will applaud and, candidly, take some glee in recognizing that a president cannot adopt a leftist world view and hope to successfully defend U.S. interests.
Paul Gottfried at The American Conservative:
Unfortunately, I can’t resist pointing out minicon stupidities, and the latest example of this problem came to my attention in a recent syndicated column by Rich Lowry. In what is intended to be a discourse on American exceptionalism, Lowry goes through the anti-democratic evils of continental countries and then gets to England, which is awarded a clean bill of health. England previewed our “liberal democracy,” practiced “benign colonialism,” and was in many ways a “jumping off” point to our “exceptional nation.” “It was a bulwark against the dictatorships of the Continent, from Napoleon, to the Kaiser, to Hitler.”
Let me point out some of what is wrong with such hyperbole. The English bear many of the same “black marks” that Lowry ascribes to continental countries, and as the descendant of Irish peasants, Lowry might recall at least some of England’s many misdeeds. English rule abroad was not always “benign colonialism,” and in the Boer War, which the Salisbury government launched against the Afrikaners to grab their land, the English practiced naked aggression and engaged in atrocities against their fellow Northern European Protestants, as opposed to such customary English victims as Highland Scots, Irish Catholics, and the inhabitants of Chinese coastal cities.
It is also ridiculous to see all English entanglement in wars against continental powers as driven by a democratic struggle against dictatorship. As an insular empire protected by a large navy, the English had an interest in keeping hegemonic powers from emerging on the continent and pursued this interest with whatever allies they could find. What the English typically practiced was Realpolitik, which meant siding with some undemocratic, feudal regimes against other more powerful states. During the Napoleonic wars the English allied themselves with a reactionary Russia against a much more progressive France, which abolished serfdom and proclaimed religious liberty wherever its armies went. English Tories feared the rise of Germany from the time of its unification not because they viewed it as a “dictatorship” but because it was becoming a continental powerhouse. Later, in order to defeat its rival, England pulled the U.S. into the First World War, thereby setting the stage for playing second fiddle to England’s American cousins.
There was a lot of chest-thumping, or weasel-whacking or monkey-strangling or what have you, about the awesomeness of the United States among the wingerati over the past few days. Rich Lowry declared that the United States is the best because we are the best, no one rocks as hard as we do, bitch.
Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion.
Bill Kristol then gave Lowry some kind ironic boo-yah about the fact that Obama talked about how great the US is right after Lowry wrote his column.
The exchange was fairly typical of what passes for high-brow conservatism these days. And yet there are those who why conservatism has such little appeal for intellectually-inclined voters.
Somehow Lowry fails to grasp why this kind of assertion is so, well, fatuous and irritating. Imagine that once a month or so, Michael Jordan called a press conference, confidently listed his achievements as a basketball player, and insisted, “My greatness is simply a fact.” He’d be correct: he was a spectacular basketball player, arguably the best in history. Same with Tiger Woods. Or Stephen Hawking. On the other hand, we’re put off when people announce their own greatness – experience has taught that they’re usually doing so because they’re a braggart, or a narcissist, or a bully. (In Rich Lowry’s case, it’s intellectual bullying – wielding the collective club of nationalism against genuine worries about America’s fiscal bankruptcy, academic decline, and economic stagnation).
So it goes when conservatives invoke the greatness of America. The rhetoric that follows is inevitably political. When Marco Rubio lauds the USA, we roll our eyes because we have not had our skepticism of politicians sugically removed: we understand that politicians pin on flag lapels and talk about the greatness of America because they’re calculating pols, not because they think more highly of the United States than the rest of us. Our eyes tend to roll when politicians kiss babies too. That isn’t because we object to the notion that babies are lovable – merely because most politicians aren’t. Especially when uttering fatuous platitudes.
Or, as DougJ at Balloon Juice put it, America Fuck Yeah.
I’ve really got to wonder what the purpose of stuff like this is. The GOP has been obsessed in recent years with the idea of national “greatness” and conservatives are quick to condemn and political leader who doesn’t make the appropriate statement about how the United States of America is the greatest country ever. It all strikes me as rather silly schoolyard boosterism. It doesn’t inform policy decisions, and it tends to lead to the rather dangerous idea of “My country, right or wrong.”
This is what passes for political insight from the right these days, apparently.
Rich Lowry and Glenn Loury at Bloggingheads