- Aug 9, 2009
I am not American.
I have been to the United States on three occasions (not counting the time I took a night train through Maine that dipped into New England travelling from eastern Canada to Montreal -- lots of nice, dark trees...): once to a youth congress in the tiny town of Macomb, Illinois, once when driving through northern Michigan, Duluth, Minnesota, and Grand Forks, North Dakota (again, en route from one part of Canada to another, taking the fastest route(!)), and in the summer of 2001 when I flew from London to Washington, and took the train up through to New York, and then on to Boston (eerily, about three months before the (second(!)) World Trade Center attacks).
I have, however, lived in a country 50% of whose population lives within 100 miles from the US border, and more than 50% of whose television is piped directly up from America, ie, Canada.
I have also lived in two other Western countries (Britain and Germany), and have travelled in the Middle-East (Israel and the Palestinian territories), Morocco (twice), West Africa, post-communist Eastern Europe, etc.
So, is America the greatest country in the world?
America Might be the Greatest Country in the World in Some Ways?
Of course the first thing to say is that a country is not its government.
America, much like all of the rest of the world, rarely has a particularly impressive government -- on the whole, usually governments everywhere are a mixture of the good and the bad (even Saddam Hussein's government gave its people free university tuition, and even extended this to foreign students; it was also religiously moderate and the place of women in Iraqi society was relatively modernized in general -- if one can talk in generalities about individual lives...).
A times American governments have acted heroically; usually, as with all governments everywhere, much of what is done is suspect or, at any rate, mediochre.
But a country is not its government, and so, as much as millions around the world feel slighted, bullied and ignored by the present Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-etc oligarchy, these people are not America as a whole.
Extremists Who Attack America are Hypocrites
Of course, Osama bin Laden and those who are inspired by the Wahhabi sect that represents such a miniscule minority of the millions upon millions of sensible, peaceable, Muslims spread across the world, are at the pinnacle of hypocrisy to target innocent lives (not just American, but in Morocco, South Africa, Bali, Saudi Arabia, England and Spain) as a reaction to various acts peformed by various American administrations.
It may be, perhaps, an abomination for American troops to be stationed on holy Saudi soil (though in truth there is nothing holy about the Saudi regime itself in the first place, and US bases are far away from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, at the other end of a country forged out of the desert in part from alliances with Western powers in the past), but it makes no sense to attack "America and her allies" in such a bloodthirsty manner, as a reaction to violence done to you. Indeed, it goes contrary to Islam, an important tenet of which is a ban on targeting innocents, and a general attempt to give people the benefit of the doubt where possible.
So, whether or not America is great or is the Great Satan, its people deserve to live in peace and dignity.
Do Americans live in Peace and Dignity?
And there are many ways in which Americans do live in peace and dignity.
As is the case for all of us lucky enough to live in constitutional democracies, there are rules about police and legal organs infringing upon us, there are rules about our ability to protest in public, to consume media and arts, to speak freely on any topic, to vote if we are over a certain age, to appeal to higher courts if we feel we are being discriminated against.
These things make America one of the best places in the world to live, and confer on its people a measure of peace and dignity envied by those not fortunate enough to live in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and those other territories that uphold such ideals.
Many Countries are as Great as America
Of course there are lots of ways in which a country can be "great."
It is difficult to imagine rivaling the greatness of either India or China in terms of the breadth and length of cultural and religious history. Surely there is a sense in which these are the two greatest countries in the world.
Even in terms of modern definitions of social justice and fair governance, European countries, certain Asian countries, and parts of the Commonwealth, for example, show equal and perhaps superior "greatness."
Certainly, both Europeans and Canadians scratch their heads at the American attitude both to health insurance and guns.
Similarly, in countless countries across the world post-secondary education is free, both in parts of Europe but also in certain non-democratic nations.
Admittedly the American Revolution kicked off a form of government that was to be echoed in many parts of the world and, unlike in France or Russia, here it did not descend into tyranny after a few short years (or even months!).
But Athens had a form of democracy hundreds of years before Christ, and England had a formal parliamentary charter by the Middle Ages, in the Magna Carta. Similarly, both urbanized and rural societies around the world have had some sort of debate-based government -- it is not wholly an American invention by any means.
On balance, then, we can say that America stands for and exercises a large number of hugely important principles, many of which support, uphold and encourage basic human rights. In many ways it is worthy of immense respect, though not, perhaps, more than is the case for, say, Australia, Belgium or South Korea. Of course many of these countries would lie under the yoke of tyranny were it not for the efforts of the allies during the Second World War (and arguably the Korean War also), and naturally the United States was a mighty, central and essential player in this combined effort. Similarly, the (perhaps self-interested) efforts of America to prop up economically and philosophically the fledgling democracies and recovering nations of Europe and Asia saved the world from a new Dark Ages.
And of course, without America, Stalin may well have succeeded where Hitler failed.
But like most questions, everything has two sides.
The involvement of American corporations in all sorts of atrocities does not make the United States stand out -- this sort of exploitation and oppression has been handed down by all sorts of nations, Western and non-Western alike: it does not, however, stand as an example of where Americans have refused to take part in a moral wrong, either...
Similarly, clearly Britain, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, Japan, China, the Greeks and the Romans have all been a party to the evils of colonialism and Empire -- here too, America is not a stand-alone, but has collaborated with colonizing nations or actively sought out colonies for herself.
In the End
In the end America is not THE greatest country in the world, though she does have some extremely admirable qualities -- in some senses she is definitely the "joint-best" country in the world.
But often such judgements depend on where you sit. For many, America continues to collude in all sorts of evils (the weapons trade, the tobacco industry), and its leadership has at times been lacking to the point of disaster.
Thus, while it is very important to remember that without America the world might well be a much darker place, there are other ways in which this great country does nothing to improve some dreadful things, and is often instigator or collaborator in such matters.
This is my opinion. I am not American. But I feel that all questions should be met with a mixed set of perspectives, and an eye for balance. The question of the greatness of a country is one such type of question