Defining America Down
Many years from now, when historians look back on this period in our history, I fear that they will describe it as the moment when the idea of America lost its resonance in the world, when America became just another country.
I've traveled enough to know that America has long occupied a unique place in the collective consciousness of people across the globe. The idea of America has long encompassed a number of adjectives: some complimentary, some derogatory, but all distinctive and uniquely American. America is viewed as a nation of unparalleled decadence, of conspicuous and unapologetic consumption. But it is also viewed as the land of opportunity, a place where innovation and industriousness are rewarded like nowhere else. People around the world have long complained of American arrogance and self-importance, but on some level, they understand why Americans are proud of their country. They grudgingly admit that America has, for most of its history, been a powerful force for good in the world.
Americans' sincere and earnest belief in their founding principles, in freedom of speech and religion, the rule of law and constitutional democracy, have popularized those concepts throughout the world. America's continued success and vitality have proven not only that a government based on such principles can survive, but that it can flourish. The power of the American dream is ultimately what doomed communism.
America has long been a country dedicated to leading by example. It has been a country that tries to hold itself to its own high standards, regardless of how its enemies behave. That's why there have been countless documented examples over the years of enemy soldiers seeking out American troops in order to surrender, knowing that Americans would not mistreat them. That's the idea of America boiled down to its essence. It's a belief that America, for all its arrogance and annoying self-righteousness, is a country that stands for something important. It's a country that very much believes in its own principles and endeavors heroically to live up to them. That kind of reputation did not develop overnight; it was earned, slowly and painstakingly, by the deeds and actions of countless Americans over many decades.
And it's exactly that reputation that the Bush administration has carelessly pissed away over the last four years. Confronted by a particularly brutal and unprincipled enemy, our leaders decided that our principles were the problem. They were just too confining. So almost immediately, the Administration began defining America down. Torture was essentially defined out of existence. Novel legal theories were introduced justifying the circumvention of long-standing prohibitions. International treaty obligations and rules of war were disregarded. The rule of law itself was up-ended--in secret, by executive decree. Many of the most celebrated American principles were hastily cast aside. Just yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon has decided to omit the prohibition on "humiliating and degrading treatment" from the Army Field Manual on interrogation. Just add it to the list.
This defining down of American principles has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. They see a country famous for its embrace of freedom and individual rights spying upon its own citizens without warrants and locking away its own citizens without due process of law. They see a country famous for its humane treatment of captives building secret torture prisons, engaging in widespread abuse and humiliation of detainees, and using an off-shore prison at Guantanamo Bay as a way of circumventing its own laws and constitutional principles. And worst of all, they see a country that appears to have no more interest in leading by example, a country more concerned with getting itself out of prior commitments and finding ways to exempt itself from the rules. A reputation that took the better part of a century to earn may soon be little more than a memory.
If America ceases to hold itself to a higher standard than the rest of the world, it will lose any legitimate claim to exceptionalism. If America ceases to value and abide by the very principles that it introduced and popularized to the rest of the world, it will no longer capture the imaginations or influence the thinking of people outside of its borders. America will become just another country, remarkable only for its size and strength. It's time to stop defining American down.
UPDATE: Having now reread my post in a less sleep-deprived state, there are some points I'd like to clarify. First, the idea of America that I'm talking about didn't really emerge until the 20th century. I'm talking about the period in our history from roughly World War I onward. Second, I don't mean to suggest that during that period America and Americans did nothing but good. Far from. But I think America did enough good and was true enough to its guiding principles that it became associated with certain ideals. What's troubling about the last four years is not so much that we've not lived up to those ideals; we've often failed in that regard. What's troubling is that in many respects we've disavowed those ideals, openly repudiating them in the name in expediency. It's one thing for the world to see Americans failing to live up to their own professed standards (e.g. by mistreating prisoners of war). That's damaging, but not unprecedented. It's quite another thing, however, for the world to see America, as a matter of policy, defining its standards down. That's what has been happening under the Bush administration, and I find it deeply troubling.