Nations like people are full of flaws and inadequacies. On the bright side though, we believe that we can improve if we try. Nations are also like people when it comes to the habit of mind that thinks "things were better back when." "I wish I were a kid again... not a worry in the world." "I wish I were in my 20s again... Those were the days."
The temptation is there now when we look at our current situation in America, "America was better back when... things have declined so." But we know on a personal level that a forward-looking, self-improving frame of mind is healthier and more sound. When we take a closer, we quickly see that "those great days" weren't really all that my selective imagination chalked them up to be. This same snapping out of it and common sense should arise when looking ahead to America in the year to come.
Three guideposts can help chart our path forward and set up a good ground for progress as a country. The important but obvious inventory of strengths and weaknesses, and also noting which special areas or occasions stand in high relief as areas of challenge and struggle. By noting these, our plans move away from generic, ineffective lurching at vague efforts for betterment, and we can begin to design our improvement more clearly and with better focus.
For America in 2014, the areas and occasions of recent vintage that stand in this position of high relief are Syria, Benghazi, and Korea-Japan-China internationally, and the NSA, the Affordable Health Care Act, and the Phil Robinson-GLAAD-A&E fiasco domestically.
Whether as a person or a nation, being self-conflicted is debilitating and self-destructive. Greater internal harmony, and singleness and clarity of identity and purpose make us successful and effective. Self-conflict is the opposite. We commonly hear the cry against "partisanship." This is important, but it is not complete because the cure is a call for leaders to be "bi-partisan." Bi-partisan suggests a habit of "cooperating," but not the more radical call for greater substantial harmony among public servants.
Presently America is in an extended and deepening state of internal conflict caused by many factors. If this persists, our country will decline precipitously. But this debilitating divide need not prevail. The current internal conflict, intense though it be is not terminal. We can recover, even though current political environment and conditions are not conducive to begin this long trek to recover greater national unity. Nevertheless progress in this direction is possible.
The special and strong obstacles to our urgently needed greater national unity lies in the three things. 1. This is a time of radical transition in politics. 2. We still have a long way to go with Mr. Obama as president, and 3. We have a president and congressional supporters who are more extreme than moderate in their political impulses and behavior. Much of the opposition is like this too. These facts portend greater fracture and brokenness in our national fabric. Unfortunately we cannot afford that.
The radical transition mentioned refers to the impact of communications technology and social media on the electoral process. Between America's liberals, and her conservatives, it so happened that the left wing secured greater mastery and control of these new tools of politics first. And so we sit in the middle eight long years of the Obama administration.
Given the six areas-occasions, 3 international, 3 domestic that highlight America's divisions, we have to ask, are there any overarching elements we can identify and call upon that are greater than our divisions, elements that can help us rise above our current ideological conflicts? Does America have any universal ideals that are not subject to Balkanization and division, ideals held by all Americans? Yes. She does. They are the elements of our national identity that once made us both a good and a great nation, a nation that was admired and looked up to, even in a world of enmity, jealousy, and resentment. The true appeal of this country was never just about her god-given material wealth. This is not about papering over important ideological differences. It is about forging the capacity to benefit from difference, to grow stronger and better from it, even strong, fiercely held difference.
These unifying universals that once made America good and great, and that can help America now recover her health are two things, applicable to both domestic and foreign policy, one growing out of the other. They are the last 5 of "thirty-one words tightly compressed into one sentence, a sentence that is more universally known and more often repeated in America than any other." The 31 words? I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The last 5 still belong to every American. Liberty and justice for all. What is this liberty? They are found in the first amendment, the free exercise of religion; freedom of speech, freedom of the press; the right to assemble peaceably, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Delightful. A magnificent basis for a country of even the most intense diversity, sufficient to rally us when unity is so urgently needed. Left or right, Plymouth Brethren or atheist, rich or poor, there is not a soul who does not want these, and hopefully not a soul who would deny these to others. And should our bigotries arrogance, and intolerance tempt us to deem a group or two unworthy, then let us correct ourselves at least in light of self interest. Martin Niemöller, the famous Protestant and outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, wrote First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist... At the end of his musings it reads, Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me."
Once we have it right at least for our fellow Americans, foreign policy should naturally extend from this identity as people from every stripe who valiantly, shoulder to shoulder and without exception stand risking even our lives for liberty and justice for all. For all.
The struggle to forge an effective and righteous foreign policy is always challenged by the strong force of ugly, crass, national self interest. To see this in light of the person-nation metaphor again it is the national and international version of the fact, nobody likes a selfish bastard, no matter how rich or important you are or think you are.
Self interest is a natural and healthy part of human affairs, both for people and for nations. We cannot live nor survive without it. The point is though, it cannot be the main thing, the first thing. We must lead with our goodness. This has been missing from our foreign policy for some time. It began with our acceptance of fear.
What is America's goodness? Yes, we are a vast, wealthy, powerful, and beautiful land, but above all we should be known as the people who seek everywhere and all the time liberty and justice for all. America's foreign policy should grow from this core goodness. Hello, I am an American. We believe in liberty and justice for all. The freedom to practice your beliefs, to express your beliefs, to write and publish without threat, and to gather peaceably. Just do not exercise these liberties in ways that deprive even one other of her right to do the same.
The 3 domestic and 3 foreign policy challenges that are central in our struggle to grow and get better, are best met in this transcendent American ideal to become a nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The first amendment opens our way. Each has the right to our beliefs and to express and practice them. To make our nation whole we need to recover this. It is properly the way of every American and of its government, to emulate the ideal coined by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The actual Voltaire quote was stronger "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write."
In sum, in America we should converse. Let ideologies rage, but never let them override our pledge of liberty and justice for all. On wedge issues, even extreme hot button, sexual orientation issues, there never should be a day when an American is deprived or denied his or her first amendment rights. It is not easy, but that is who we are, and what we are about.
With the NSA horrors that were exposed by Edward Snowden last year, the issue is this; are there government agencies violating the constitution, especially the 4th amendment, privacy of the person and possessions as against unreasonable searches, and the 5th Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination, which provides protection for the privacy of personal information? If there are, then lawmakers must correct and modify these agencies, or else shut them down. It is better to live under the threat of harm, than in an America whose citizens are surreptitiously invaded and deprived of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
On universal health? Is there an American who thinks some Americans deserve medical care and others do not? Is there anyone who would prevent people in need from getting medical help and attention? On this matter of simple human compassion, there is no difference among ideological adversaries. The difference lies in the political and social concepts that would make health care good, fair, and efficient. A great many of us find government to be meddlesome, prone to excess, wasteful, intrusive, and inefficient. A great many feel that even with the noblest aspirations, the federal government is the exact wrong place to seek a more fair and more efficient management of health and medical needs. But this is a question of political ideology. It is not a question of different ideals. Unfortunately for those hostile to big government, we are in a time of big government. But that's just how it is. So, yes let political challenges abound, but no, do not let us divide as a people. We cannot afford it. With common ideals, we can converse.
As we re-weave our identity on even the most contentious and embattled arenas domestically, our identity and core goodness can gain strength naturally, and then can begin once again to define and guide our foreign policy decisions. In time, hopefully we can act and come to be known as the nation and the people defined by the ideal of liberty and justice for all. Yes, a nation with self interest, but not self interest at the expense of all else.
Because of America's wealth, power, and influence, she must be involved in world affairs. Important theaters include the Middle East in concert with Europe, the repair of the intensified destabilization of North Africa caused by aggressive, Western self-interest, and investment in America's Pacific Rim, most importantly among the North Asian nations Korea, Japan, and China. In the Middle East, the greatest center of raging flames happens in this moment happens to be Syria, and in North Africa, Egypt and Libya and bordering lands are crucial.
The precise path for each track, diplomatic, political, military, economic, and cultural is complex. Ideological contenders will battle fiercely to define positions on a broad spectrum of approaches ranging from dialogical to militant and militaristic. But these hues are natural to the ebb and flow of political life. More important than the calculus of any given strategy or design is that American foreign policy grow to recover and reflect the identity in which America's greatness and America's goodness are synoptic. Regardless of which ideology has the upper hand at any given moment, it should always and at least be the case that legislators are committed to policies that rise above the unwelcome ugliness of pure self interest. American actions in world affairs should bolster our founding identity as a nation devoted to liberty and justice for all.