Stephen M. Walt

Happy Birthday, America!

I’m still on vacation out west, and I haven’t seen a New York Times in nearly a week. In fact, I even spent three days in the Sierra Nevada mountains away from all cell phone and internet access, and my sense of withdrawal was palpable. I’ll assume that nothing too significant happened, but I’m not ...

I’m still on vacation out west, and I haven’t seen a New York Times in nearly a week. In fact, I even spent three days in the Sierra Nevada mountains away from all cell phone and internet access, and my sense of withdrawal was palpable. I’ll assume that nothing too significant happened, but I’m not going comment on current events until I have a chance to catch up.

Instead, I thought I’d offer two brief suggestions for your reading lists. To commemorate the Fourth of July, make sure you actually sit down and read the Declaration of Independence. (The Times usefully prints a copy on the 4th, but if you’re reading this, you can also find it online here). And then ask yourself whether you think the United States is still living up to those ideals in its dealings with other countries. Are we the heirs of Thomas Jefferson, or the descendants of King George III?

The second suggestion is the book I’m reading on vacation: Piers Brendon’s
The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997. It’s a terrific read — both entertaining and informative — and I’m learning a lot from it. I’ll have more to say when I’m finished, but so far it’s been fascinating.

Of course, lots of patriotic speeches will be made on the 4th, and particular attention will be devoted to our armed forces. I’m frankly in awe of the sacrifices that many of them have made in recent years, along with their families. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, and reservists who have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve our thanks and respect, even if the missions they were assigned by their political leaders were misguided.

But let’s not forget that the United States was founded by dissenters — indeed, by revolutionaries — and that someone who challenges the reigning orthodoxy can be just as patriotic as someone who faithfully executes whatever the current policy might be. Indeed, sometimes those who dissent turn out to be right, and the country would have been better off had it listened to them earlier. Free speech and vigorous debate are the hallmarks of a truly open society, and so I’m going to spend a little time tomorrow thinking about the rebels who challenged the conventional wisdom — sometimes at great personal cost. Our pantheon of heroes should have room for them as well, and it would be nice of some of our current politicians honored them too.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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