Normative Narratives

The Maturation of America

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The 4th of July; something about America’s “birthday” lends itself to personification. America is a country by the people and for the people; our strength has always come from investing in our citizenry.

America has historically been at the forefront of progressive politics, championing democratic and capitalistic values both at home and abroad. But “progressive politics” is, by its very nature, constantly evolving. Like a person, America has been maturing over the course of it’s 238 year history (the following is necessarily oversimplified…):

Childhood (1776-1812): The United States was born out of 13 British colonies revolting against a tyrannical sovereign. In order for the colonies to overcome the British, they had to enlist outside help, most notably from the French. This was America’s infancy, a time when America readily understood we needed help from outside powers.

Adolescence (1813-1913):  The 19th and early 20th century lent itself to the vast expansion of the American empire both domestically (within what is now the continental U.S.) and abroad (mainly in Latin America, the Spanish American Wars), known as “Manifest Destiny”.  The hubris and supreme belief in American exceptionalism, which underpinned Manifest Destiny, has many parallels to the image of a teenager that believes they are “invincible”.

Young Adulthood (1914-2008): Starting with WWI, America took on the roll as the world’s hegemon. This is the beginning of what I call the era of “Team America, World Police”. America began to recognize the concept of “extra-territorial human rights obligations”; how we interact with people abroad should reflect the values we champion at home.

The hubris of imperialism gave way to the paternalism of hegemony. While well intended, America’s young adulthood was marked by a number of failures (and successes!) due to the supreme confidence and closed mindedness often associated with young adulthood. The U.S. rescued the Allied powers in both WWI and II, rebuilt Europe with the Marshal Plan after WWII, and took the lead in building a system of institutions for global governance–all great achievements of the 20th century. But America’s folly was its  “White Man’s Burden” approach to both economic development (which ended with the failure of “Washington Consensus” policies in the late 20th century) and global security (which ended with the failure of the War in Iraq).

Middle Adulthood / Maturity (2008-Present):

In the Wake of the Great Recession, and in light of the failures of both the “Washington Consensus” and War in Iraq, America had some serious soul-searching to do. How could we take a leadership role in an increasingly globalized and multipolar world? America had to learn to work within the global community.

In my previous blog, I said America finally found its “Post-War-on-Terror Identity. We cannot afford to fight the world’s wars unilaterally, we need our allies to play a bigger role in global security (on this front, Japan recently amended it’s Constitution to allow it to play a greater role in global security). We cannot tackle issues such as climate change and tax avoidance by ourselves; the greatest challenges of the 21st century are diverse, but all involve “global commons”, and therefore require cooperation and coordination with other countries.

America has to assist with the democratic modernization of developing countries, providing technical / financial / security assistance while supporting the local capacity development and policy space. Instead of dictating how countries should modernize, the failure of the Washington Consensus emphasized the need to empower our partners to address the context sensitive impediments to development in a sustainable and self-determined manner.

The self-awareness and maturity needed to recognize the limits of ones own powers does not come easily. However, it seems that from past failures and successes, America may have finally arrived at this point. Of course the next presidential administration could come and flip the “Obama Doctrine” on its head, but for the sake of both America and the global community, hopefully it does not.

Happy Birthday America!!!

As a nation, we have come a long way, pushing the frontier on progressive governance as we go. To paraphrase Obama and many Presidents before him, “If we do not lead, no one will”. America must continue to push this frontier, while recognizing its limitations and the roles of our allies in this process.

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