America Never Stopped Being Great

‘America never stopped being great’ was one of Hillary Clinton’s slogans in the United States Presidential Election campaign last year. An election campaign which had been one of the worst choices in a lifetime between a racist, aggressive, fundamentally flawed, multi-millionaire with no political experience and no real interest in foreign affairs, and a US Secretary of State who oversaw US foreign policy at a time when the world order collapsed, was untruthful about Libya and untruthful about her emails and was chatelaine of one of the most dishonest and self serving White Houses in recent US history.

Hillary you are right the US didn’t stop being great. The question for me is how and when did we begin to understand that it was intrinsic American moral religious and economic and family values that we should continue to admire and maybe seek to emulate, and not the political values that have been at the top of the US export list for fifty years.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States made an enormous effort to deliberately spread American values, especially in broken Germany and devastated Japan and subsequently in worldwide attempts to fight the spread of Communism. As recently as the Bush years, a majority of Americans thought it was a good idea to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and to remake the laws and institutions in those countries in accordance with their own.

But an influential Poll in Atlantic magazine recently found that Americans themselves now have a low opinion of their country’s values, believing that they are in decline.
Americans think family values, moral values, and religious values, things that are almost impossible to export, are most important; and that political values, are of comparatively little importance. They, like most of us believe that that their governing elites are corrupt, that they lack strong moral leaders, and that money rules in their political system.

In 1993 I was asked by Linda Chalker UK Minister of overseas development to go to Malawi, where I had a special relationship with President Banda, to tell him that he should step down and introduce more democratic governance. (a codeword for Westminster style democracy). I did so against all my better judgment. A year later he was gone and Malawi has sunk, from being a stable relatively benevolent autocracy into an economic and political morasse.

And so it has been since the end of the cold war with the influence of the United States. Except for those wiser heads in the non-aligned movement it had, for more than a generation, been a choice between the good and evil, between ‘freedom’ and the evil empire. For most of us not a difficult choice, and if alongside motherhood and apple pie the US sought t to export, by force if necessary, its political system,,,,,then so be it. From Korea to Vietnam to Central America, and then Iraq and Afghanistan the US used its military superiority its military leadership to buy the respect that it thought was needed to exercise moral influence around the world, and ensure that the United States of America could actually play the role that it believed the world was expecting from it.

Joseph Nye Jr. in the late 1980s, invented the term “soft power” — the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. Nye argues that successful states need both hard and soft power — the ability to coerce others as well as the ability to shape their long-term attitudes and preferences. The United States, and its allies can dominate others, but they should also exert effort projecting soft power, with the help of their companies, foundations, universities, churches, and other institutions of civil society.

The US and its confrontational and corrupt political system are not models for the rest of the world. It is perfectly possible for people and governments to admire US intrinsic moral values but resist U.S. foreign policy. As Nye would say U.S. security hinges more on winning hearts and minds than on winning wars.

And to end with a particularly timely if uncomfortable observation. We know from other surveys that a majority of Americans support drone strikes abroad where the CIA kills alleged “militants” without any sort of transparency or legal process, sometimes without even knowing the identities of the targets. That’s an extraordinary power that America’s governing elite asserts: the power to kill anyone based on the judgment of a few people in Washington, D.C.

It is this fundamental contradiction in the moral stance of a US public that believes its leaders can be trusted to exercise that awful power in secret, and at the same time believes that its leaders lack strong morals, are prone to scandal, and are easily corruptible that leaves the rest of us bewildered and unconvinced.