An article published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) summarized the results of a poll of millennials regarding their political attitudes. That article emphasized two findings: that millennials do not believe America is the greatest nation, and that millennials believe America should reduce its involvement in the world. On both counts, I ask my peers to reconsider their opinions, and regard the unique place that America occupies in the world and history.
Before delving into these specific questions, it is important to step back and remember the principles that found this nation. When the people of the United States declared their right to rule themselves, such an assertion was ridiculous — scholars then knew that republics always fail, and democracies always burn to the ground. By asserting a government by, of, and with the continual consent of the people, those colonial Americans embraced a crazed political philosophy. They did so because they believed that they were right, that popular rule is and would always be the best and most just form of government.
This conviction has been repeatedly vindicated by history, as chiefly evidenced by the torrential spread of democracy across the world, especially to every great European power (with the tragic exception of Russia). Given that European democracies, like the United Kingdom and France, have historically played larger roles in the affairs of developing nations, it is odd that most countries and people look to the United States as their example of political liberation. To be sure, many countries have constructed Parliamentary constitutions along the British line, but overwhelmingly, fledgling popular governments look to America for inspiration.
These nascent republicans do so because the United States is unique among nations. It was founded fully on the principles that an individual ought to live his lives as he chooses, that he must have a say in how he is governed, and that he has the right to change who governs him if needs be. I can find no other nation — past or present — that was so formed. By these principles, Americans have both intrigued and inspired non-Americans to dream of such a life. A life that is one’s own to direct, where one’s government fears him more than he fears it, and where one makes his own destiny.
We Americans have not always lived up to this esteem; we are imperfect, we err and digress, we make choices that we regret. However, America have never inspired by its deeds, but by its promise. The idea of America is great; this is why America is the greatest country in the world, not because of its vast wealth, high standard of living, or strong military. We are great as a symbol of greatness.
Yet as a symbol, Americans bear a responsibility to remain a constant guide towards that idea. This requires that the United States engage with the world at large. World War II provides the most horrific example of the consequences possible should the US remove itself from global affairs. Adolf Hitler’s war resulted from the unwillingness of the European republics to resist him. It is not difficult to imagine that the resolve of Europe (namely Britain) could have been stiffened by an America that was both present and in resolute adherence to its principles.
That counter-factual is not a cute mental exercise, but the lesson learned by America’s leaders in 1941. FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower realized that if peace was to be had, popular rule must be ensured, and America must play a part to ensure it.
To engage with the world does not require the aggressive use of our military, nor the imposition of our political and economic systems on other nations. Either route is coercive, and belies our high ideals. We did not become the symbol of liberty, and the free dream of millions, by removing from those millions their freedom to create their own systems, and to make their own mistakes. We did so by example. By its nature, such a strategy is ephemeral and appears weak, but so are the markets that have made the United States the most prosperous nation in history.
Such a non-aggressive posture should not be construed with martial weakness. Our nation has been kept safe by its technologically strong military and passionately competent soldiery; each time we let that military weaken, our country is assaulted. It is imperative that the United States maintain a robust, technologically superior, and well-funded standing military. This force is first and foremost for our own security, but it is also another symbol, one that signals to tyrants and emperors that American freedoms will not be coerced or dampened. The military is a physical manifestation of the strength of American ideals.
Belief in the superior greatness of the United States does not exclude the greatness of other nations, nor does a global presence require that the United States pursue military adventures at every opportunity. Patriotic fervor can be married with thoughtful restraint. Throughout the 2016 election, pundits have noted that the political debate is shifting from conservative versus liberal, to national versus international. While this observation is true, such a dichotomy need not exist.
So it must be again. As Ronald Reagan reminded us in his farewell address, our nation is a “shining city upon a hill,” an example of what could be to the oppressed of the world. This is our purpose and our national destiny. Key to realizing that purpose is a strong military, a force strong enough to protect our people, and to manifest our ideals. Pride in one’s country does not mean blindness to its faults; it means pursuit of the ideals for which one’s nation is constituted. Those ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are my ideals, and are what make America — my country — great.