By David K. Shipler
It’s not our fault. We can’t help it that others are less worthy, with flawed values, weak currencies, lame economies, oppressive politics, and anemic militaries. We Americans can hardly be held responsible for being “exceptional,” a relative term, after all. It’s no badge of honor to be exceptional in such a world, I’ll tell you.
If you want to blame us, blame us for being too good. Blame us for being the land of opportunity and justice and unbridled freedom, for being a frontier on which the humblest masses can carve prosperous futures. Blame us for doing battle for human rights and personal dignity around the globe. Blame us for thinking up solutions and then putting them into action. Blame us for winning all those Nobel Prizes every year.
And if you believe all that—if you see our Nobel brilliance and don’t recognize our political ignorance—it's not our fault. It’s the fault of those who imagine an America too beautiful to exist. It’s the fault of those who think—or who once thought—that everything that we have said about ourselves is true. It’s the fault of those around the world who desperately yearn for us to be a perfect beacon, and who feel lost and frightened when the light dims and flickers. People hate us when we fail to be what they want us to be. They need heroes.
That’s not our fault. It’s the fault of those who have not been paying attention. We have never been what we wanted ourselves to be. We have never closed the gaps between our myths and our realities. We have rarely solved our biggest problems, even when we’ve been smart enough to figure out solutions. We are in danger of becoming a do-nothing country. If you don’t see that this is happening, that’s not our fault.
Granted, we are too big for comfort. We are still too powerful economically, too formidable militarily, and too self-righteous to be a good fit on the global stage, especially in an era of extreme complexity that includes widespread hardship amid rising technological advances. We cannot sit astride the world and manage the unwieldy struggles that now course through the “emerging markets,” to use the cold label applied by financial advisers to the masses of humanity outside the industrialized West. We simply aren’t up to the role that we’ve been assigned—or that we’ve assigned ourselves.
Anyone who has taken an introductory sociology course learns that power is a two-way street, that it depends not only on the assertions of the powerful but also on the deference of others. A leader needs those willing to be led. It may be pleasing to us Americans to have our authority acknowledged, but given our behavior, it would be a stretch to call it healthy.
Abroad, there is not much policy in our foreign policy, as we mostly react to firestorms in the Middle East and elsewhere when we should be focusing on other regions, notably Asia, as Obama has proposed. But our president is easily hobbled by the small radical right in the House, who effectively prevented him from attending critical meetings last week to help implement his “pivot” to Asia. This advertised our incapacity.
At home, our income disparities widen dangerously, undermining the glue that holds a diverse people together in democracy. Our Supreme Court makes sure this will continue as it sweeps aside voting protections for minorities and campaign financing limits on the rich. There seems little chance for the public investment in people and infrastructure that would reinforce American preeminence.
So perhaps the Tea Party is a salutary development. It’s the world’s wake-up call. True, this radical right movement has come along 200 years too late. In the early 19th century it might have headed off big government; now government is intricately woven throughout the country’s everyday life, for good or ill.
But the Tea Party’s willingness—nay, zeal—to shut down the government and default on the debt tells the world that the United States is not fit to be the uncontested repository of financial stability, political wisdom, or regard for the common good. Whoever gets this dramatic message may recognize that America is too thinly committed to this responsibility, or incapable of exercising it, to be a reliable anchor any longer. It will be up to other countries, peoples, and interests to step into the void.
China? Europe? An array of oil producers? How much dispersal of power can the globe handle after the Cold War? The alternatives are unsettling. China is poised to compete economically with the U.S.—whether militarily is an open question. Europe is now beginning to pull itself out of its depressed state, but the future of the European Union does not appear robust. A good deal of oil and other essential natural resources come from countries that cannot be ruled, managed, or even influenced for the best, and are torn by low-level warfare.
That’s why the United States is too big to fail, at least now. It's a measure of the state of the world, but it’s not our fault.