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American Ideal

January 30, 2011

Among the things that stood out in Obama’s SOTU address were his frequent referrals to what other nations are doing better than the US. Those comparisons were used to rhetorically encourage improvement so that America will be the number one in the respective areas. Or at least that seemed to have been the intention.

Alternatively, pointing out how others are better at doing specific things than the US suggests an unhealthy discontent with the nation Obama happens to be president of.  But, personally, the French Cowboy doesn’t consider this to be the problem right here.

What’s more bothering when Obama points to other nations’ achievements in this envious fashion is his selective nationalism. For Obama, it is unacceptable that China has high-speed rails while the US doesn’t, and it’s embarrassing that South Koreans consider their teachers “nation builders” while Americans rail against teachers’ unions.

But what about China’s expansion of military and political power? Where’s the open discontent regarding Russia’s regional influence that expresses itself in forms like the invasion of Georgia? How acceptable is North Korea’s open defiance of America?

It appears that Obama thinks he has to sound like a guy who wants to see America dominating other nations while he himself is not feeling that way at all. He can’t get himself to pursue — or at least pay lip service to — military and political dominance, so instead he speaks of economic and social dominance.

This gives him a proneness to sound like an 18th century mercantilist who believes another nation’s economic gain must be his nation’s economic loss. And he ironically fails to convince conservatives who are usually much less interested in having more solar panels than India than in having more advanced jet fighters than China.

War and diplomatic tug-of-wars are zero-sum games. Trade is not, neither is economic or social development. Sure, there is such a thing as competition between nations to attract investment. But another nation’s economic successes don’t equate to America’s losses. If you think in this way, you stifle the economy that is strong because flexible. Obama sounds like he’s fallen into that trap. Either that, or he uses this type of competition talk as a sort of ersatz nationalism in an attempt to get conservatives behind him. He could actually believe that everyone to the right of the aisle simply wants to beat those ChiComs to that fantastic high-speed railway network: If we can’t have war, at least let’s have a trade war!

Here’s a message for the President: Americans don’t begrudge the economic or social success of other nations. It’s the contrary: Americans have a history of intentionally furthering prosperity outside of their own borders. To the extent that China’s economic advancement is not considered a good thing, it’s because of the — apparently easily overlooked — fact that it’s a one-party dictatorship, complete with gulags, forced labour, torture, inhumane “family policies” and what have you.

When during his SOTU speech Obama hinted at the lack of democracy in some other nation’s decision processes it wasn’t to hail the principles of liberty and human dignity, let alone to stand up for those suffering under oppression. It was to say that in spite of history’s accident that made America a nation built on the ideal of freedom, the USA can keep up with more efficiently run places like China if they only try hard enough.

You may argue that an American president isn’t obliged to care much about any other nation than his own, that the lack of liberty in China is a problem that concerns America only in so far as it influences her own standing and that this — at least for now — means an exclusive focus on economic issues. But the French Cowboy would strongly disagree. America’s greatness is not built on her economic power. It’s built on her high ideals and unwavering commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This, in turn, has made the economic successes possible. (With all the talk about China’s booming economy we often forget the millions of Chinese still living in abject poverty.)

President Obama looks at other nations and envies their economic successes without differentiating between those built on liberty and those built on oppression. If he had been president during the Cold War, you’d think the race to the moon would really have been all about the moon — not about the respective ideals standing behind the competitors.

The ideals America stands for aren’t necessarily expressed in big actions. More often they’re expressed in words or in small, symbolic deeds. Obama has done far too little in that regard. In fact, he has shown himself particularly talented in making gestures undermining American ideals (think bowing before the King of Saudi Arabia, sending back the Churchill bust, playing anti-American music at a state dinner for Hu Jintao etc etc).

The French Cowboy strongly hopes that the next President of the United States will be a person who doesn’t have to be reminded that behind the surface of high-speed railways, solar panels, PISA statistics and GDP growth rates, there stand ideals bigger than that. Ideals to which America has lived up in the past and, I’m hopeful, will do so in the future as well.

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