Dreams on Independence Day
[NOTE: I originally drafted this post on July 3, but the FP staff was on holiday too so it didn’t get posted in time for the Fourth. I’ve updated it and reposted, with appropriate changes of verb tense] Independence Day is when Americans celebrate their two hundred year-plus experiment with self-government. After two centuries it’s ...
[NOTE: I originally drafted this post on July 3, but the FP staff was on holiday too so it didn't get posted in time for the Fourth. I've updated it and reposted, with appropriate changes of verb tense]
[NOTE: I originally drafted this post on July 3, but the FP staff was on holiday too so it didn’t get posted in time for the Fourth. I’ve updated it and reposted, with appropriate changes of verb tense]
Independence Day is when Americans celebrate their two hundred year-plus experiment with self-government. After two centuries it’s not really an experiment anymore, though it certainly feels like we are still making it up as we go along. On July 4th, my family read the Declaration of Independence outloud (an annual ritual) and talked about what we thought it really meant. And across the country, Americans grilled, drank, watched fireworks, and listened to John Philip Sousa, and probably spent a lot of time being grateful that they are not living somewhere else.
But what exactly are we celebrating these days? We are on a sour phase of our history, where hardly anyone seems happy about our condition at home or our position abroad. The economy remains dismal, where only the rich enjoy comfort and security, and our politics gets nastier and more dysfunctional with each passing day. Instead of working together to meet a growing array of challenges, a toxic combination of pundits, poseurs, and provocateurs is choking the life out of political system like so much kudzu. Our leaders continue to give speeches about our global responsibilities, but how many people now believe that America is leading the way to a safer, saner or more just world? We don’t bring peace to war-torn lands, we are not doing much to build more effective global institutions, and sometimes it feels like armed drones and special forces have become our primary export.
In such times, it is tempting to descend into world-weary fatalism, and merely chronicle the many ways that America’s reality falls short of our Founders’ hopes. But I am not going to succumb to that temptation-at least not today. For although the Founding Fathers were in many ways consummate realists–acutely aware of human frailties, mindful of the dangers facing a small, weak and new nation, and ruthless in pursuit of hemispheric dominance–they were also idealists who dreamt big. On Independence Day, we can honor our past by indulging in some dreams of our own.
On this 4th of July, I dreamt of an America at peace, no longer squandering its wealth and power in unnecessary global crusades. I dreamt of an America that knows there are risks in the world, but that does not allow fear to dominate its foreign policy agenda or its domestic discourse. I dreamt of an America that has regained the world’s respect, and where others trust our judgment and value our competence. I imagined an America where economic inequality is declining, not growing, and where people are judged, as Martin Luther King put it, by the content of their character and not by their race, religion, or sexual orientation. I thought about an America that is not afraid to talk to its adversaries, because it was confident that it wouldn’t get bamboozled and knew that talking is often the best way to persuade others to change. I dreamt of an America that does not torture, and that has the integrity to prosecute anyone who does. I dream of an America that does not lead the world in the number of people in its prisons. Like Woodrow Wilson, I yearned for an America with the "self-restraint of a truly great nation, that knows its own strength and scorns to misuse it." I looked ahead to an America whose first concern is the well-being of all its citizens here at home, instead of trying to tell the rest of the world how to live. And I dreamt of an America where political debate is unfettered but civil, and where those who seek to win arguments by smearing their opponents or distorting their arguments are regarded by their fellow citizens with appropriate contempt.
Do I expect to see this America emerge? Sadly, no (I am a realist, after all). But if we are truly the political descendants of the brave men and women of 1776, then we have to believe in the power of imagination and the ability of human beings to chart a new course. And in that knowledge lies hope.
I hope you all had a pleasant and inspiring Independence Day, and that in the next year we move a bit closer to the ideals we celebrated on Monday.
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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