“But it is the responsibility of our President to use America’s greatest power to shape history—not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.”
The quote above is from Mitt Romney’s speech on foreign policy—foreign platitudes?—at the Virginia Military Institute yesterday. Note that this is the quote as delivered, not as written in his prepared remarks (which said “great power,” not “greatest power.”)
I think the difference is telling. In Romney’s presentation, America’s military power is its greatest power. It is our ability to use coercion to achieve our ends that defines our significance. The American capacity to deploy military forces across huge swaths of the world has, Romney clearly believes, made the US the dominant global power, and will keep the US there for the forseeable future.
The thing is, Romney is utterly, entirely, absolutely wrong about this. Military power is a part of the US story, but it’s the secondary part. What really matters, the real key to US success, has been its cultural power … its cultural story.
Please don’t get me wrong. I know that the kindergarten history of America is ignorant, thoughtless, and hides much dirt behind its shiny exterior. But in a world filled with hate and violence and repression, lots of people have imagined that the United States was a place they could come to escape these evils. And if the escape was imperfect, well, what was the alternative? America became great because people were attracted to the idea of America—even if real America fell short of that ideal.
It is this appeal that scared the Soviet Union and led it to try to prevent its citizens from experiencing US products, entertainments and social practices. It is this appeal that scares the bejeezus out of China today as it tries to integrate 800,000,000 more Chinese people into the global economy without expanding political freedoms at home. And it is this appeal that worries—for perfectly understandable reasons—lots of less powerful, less global cultures afraid they will be overwhelmed and wiped out by globalization.
The thing that always gripes me about conservatives is that, in the end, they’re scaredy cat blowhards. They insist—as Romney did yesterday—that the United States is an exceptional nation blessed by God for its special role in the world, and then they insist that the only way to enact this role is to be ready to kill everyone who dares to disagree with us.
But that attitude completely misunderstands the nature of the United States’ power. It’s not guns—or only guns—that have made America powerful. The appeal of a society in which people are free to think and create and experiment, even if it is a dream that is achieved imperfectly, is a dream that isn’t going anywhere.
Which is actually America’s greatest power.