Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday, even though its origins can be traced back to Old World harvest festivals. It is based in part on a romanticized story of the Pilgrims, which took on new life after Abraham Lincoln's proclamation of a day of thanks intended to help reconcile North and South after the Civil War. It is also celebrated in Canada, however, so Americans don't have a monopoly on gratitude.
Still, if you're an American citizen or a green card holder, you've probably got a lot to be thankful for, especially compared to citizens of a lot of other countries. But of course, we Americans often forget to be properly thankful for many of our blessings; instead, we seem to think we deserve them because we are So Darn Exceptional. With that thought in mind, here's a slightly contrarian Top Ten List of Things Americans Should be Thankful For (But Often Aren't).
1. We have a state of our own. Americans could start by being thankful that the rebellious colonists won their war of independence, straightened out the Articles of Confederation, and built a strong state of our own. Having your own state means that you can protect yourself against enemies and there's a government to go to bat for you if you get in trouble. By contrast, stateless peoples like the Kurds, Chechens, Palestinians, Romany, Tamils, Jews before 1948, and many others live at the mercy of others. Given our own revolutionary past, you'd think we'd have a bit more sympathy for peoples trying to escape oppressive foreign rule, but never mind. In any case, in the dog-eat-dog world of global politics, having a state of our own is clearly something to be thankful for.
2. There are no great powers nearby. Given our propensity to exaggerate global dangers, Americans often forget that they are remarkably secure. We haven't had any powerful states near us since the 19th century, and we haven't had to worry seriously about defending our own territory against invasion. (This is what makes movies like Red Dawn so laughable). Or as the French Ambassador to the United States said back around 1910: "America is the most favored of the nations. To the north, a weak neighbor. To the south, a weak neighbor. To the east, fish. To the West, more fish. " This extraordinary level of territorial security explains why Americans are free to go gallivanting all around the world "searching for monsters to destroy" and trying to tell the world how to live. We've forgotten what it is like to face a real threat to our independence, and that sort of amnesia is a luxury for which we should be very thankful indeed.
3. We didn't adopt the same austerity programs that Britain, Europe, and Japan did. A lot of Americans are still hurting from the after-effects of the Great Recession, and those who are still unemployed may not feel especially appreciative tomorrow. And it's clear with hindsight that the governmental response to the financial crisis could have been more effective. But compared with the other industrial democracies, the United States has done much better to eschew austerity and focus more attention on stimulus. So let's give thanks for that.
4. We got lucky when they handed out the natural resources. Americans like to attribute their rise to wealth and power to their virtuous and hardworking nature, embrace of capitalism, novel Constitution, and commitment to liberty. But just as important was the fact that the country happened to be founded on a continent with fertile soils, navigable rivers, abundant wildlife, and a temperate climate. It had lots of iron ore and other minerals, plenty of oil, and it turns out we've got more natural gas than we know what to do with. (Good for us, if not necessarily so great for the atmosphere). This Thanksgiving, Americans ought to silently acknowledge that our privileged status today owes as much to good fortune as it does to any unique American virtues.
And while we're at it, let's not forget that realizing our "Manifest Destiny" involved the deaths of millions of native Americans and taking vast territories from other countries by force. Recalling the uglier side of America's rise to world power is a good way to keep overweening national pride in check.
5. In (many) Gods we trust. I don't know about you, but I for one am thankful that the Founding Fathers didn't try to establish a state religion and instead celebrated theological diversity, including the freedom not to believe. Over the past two centuries, the idea that free men and women could worship whatever gods they choose has protected this country from a powerful cause of civil strife in many other parts of the world. We can give thanks that anti-Semitism has been discredited and marginalized and Islamophobia confined mostly to far-right whack jobs and a few desperate politicians.
Just look at the last presidential election: a Christian with a Muslim name got 70 percent of the Jewish vote, while his opponent -- the first Mormon to be nominated -- didn't lose by that much (i.e., he had over 48 percent of the popular vote). That's America.
And maybe one of these days we'll have a serious presidential candidate who openly proclaims her or his faith in science and reason and rejects allegience to any unseen superhuman entity. Amen.
6. Another successful election. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you should give thanks that this country has once again conducted an election where peace prevailed, citizens voted, and the losers conceded, mostly with good grace. Some GOP leaders may be baffled by the results, but they didn't take up arms or hire a lot of lawyers to try to reverse them. Who knows? They may even start pondering why they lost in a serious way, and beging move their party away from some of its antideluvian notions. That would be something to be grateful for too.
7. Tolerance of diversity. In addition to religious freedom, Americans can be grateful for the progress we have made in embracing those who at first seem different. This includes immigrants, who are often viewed with suspicion yet consistently become some of our most ambitious, energetic, hardworking, and accomplished citizens. Consistent with our liberal ideals of individual human liberty, our country is gradually ending discrimination against gays. We continue to work to reduce the long legacy of racial discrimination. Our reward is a country whose cultural life has been enriched by diverse currents and whose society has managed to take advantage of the best the world has to offer. We are far from perfect, but the American melting pot remains a phenomenon that richly deserves our thanks.
8. No war with Iran. Having wound down one losing war and positioned us to end another, at least President Obama has had the good sense not to start a third war with Iran. Keep your fingers crossed that he remains as wise in his second term, but be grateful that he didn't succumb to all the fear-mongering, even in an election year.
9. Health care for all Americans. I don't want to go all partisan on you, but unless you're one of the One Percent (and maybe even if you are), you ought to be grateful that we've finally taken steps to insure that all citizens get basic medical care. True, most of the industrialized world got there long before we did, but better late than never. It's not a perfect system and it's bound to need improvements over time, but we all ought to feel good about helping our fellow citizens feel good. And say a word of thanks, too.
10. What about the rest of you? Here's a suggestion: if you're not an American, this Thanksgiving you might give thanks if you haven't gotten a lot of attention from Uncle Sam lately. You might not want to be totally ignored (especially if the South China Sea laps your shores) but getting a lot of attention from the United States hasn't been such a good thing in recent years (see under: Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc.) So if you're citizen of one of the many countries that Americans like to visit but American troops and drones don't, you can be thankful, too.
Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no.
As others have noted before, journalists and commentators find it easy to rely on an essentially narrative style of analysis. It’s easy to tell a story largely in terms of day-to-day events and process, and to frame it all in terms of the rise or fall of different personalities. First Obama can do no wrong, then he’s a failed president, then suddenly he bounces back and is a transformational figure once again. Or Rahm is in, then he’s out, then’s he bigger than ever. Pelosi is dismissed, then she’s hated, then she’s ineffectual, and then suddenly she’s vindicated and revered. Analyzing politics in this way is certainly exciting, but it's not very informative. It also creates the sense that political fortunes are always swinging wildly back and forth, instead of stepping back and looking for the larger structural forces that are shaping events and constraining choices.
My sense is that yesterday’s House vote isn’t going to translate into a lot of new political clout, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Passing the health-care bill may mean that Obama doesn’t need coddle quite as many congressmen on foreign-policy issues they might care strongly about (such as trade policy or the Middle East), and that might give him a bit more flexibility to do what’s in the national interest. But overall, I don’t think yesterday’s vote in the House will have much impact at all.
To begin with, Obama’s No. 1 concern still has to be the U.S. economy. The Democrats are going to lose seats in the midterm elections, which will make pushing domestic reform efforts much harder. It might be tempting to focus on foreign policy, therefore, except that everyone knows Obama’s re-election hinges largely on getting Americans back to work. If the economy and especially employment turn around by 2011 he’s golden; if it doesn’t, he’s in trouble.
More importantly, there isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011.
Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons. And somehow I don’t think those drug lords at war with the Mexican government are going to go out of business because 32 million uninsured Americans are about to get coverage. And even if Obama does seize the moment to push Middle East peace talks -- a risky step in an election year -- only a cock-eyed optimist would expect a deal in short order.
So I’d ignore any stories you see about how this "historic legislative victory" gives the president new clout, greater momentum, or an enhanced ability to advance his foreign-policy agenda. Today’s euphoria will pass quickly, opponents at home will regroup, and enemies abroad don’t care. Bottom line: Obama's foreign-policy in box will look about the same at the end of the first term as it did when he took office.
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Not my favorite line from last night's speech, but it still caught my eye....
...the plan I'm proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years - less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed at the beginning of the previous administration.
Keep that in mind when your local school district is forced to cut a few more programs or lay off a few more teachers, when your car hits another pothole on a bridge that needs repair, when your public transit system cuts service or raises fares, and when the federal budget deficit continues to rise. Stupid foreign policy decisions don't just cause problems overseas; they undermine our quality of life here at home. And as I said once before, it remains a puzzle why the GOP is eager to tax us to pay for ambitious social engineering projects in faraway lands, yet loathe to fund programs designed to benefit Americans here at home. It's equally puzzling (to me at least), why Americans have gone along with this idea. So far.
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I'm no expert on health care, so I don't have strong views on how to reform the current U.S. system. But watching the lies, chicanery, and sheer wing-nuttery of the "debate" on health care reform (along with the birther controversy, the revelations about "The Family," and various other manifestations of what Richard Hofstader called the "paranoid style" of American politics) led me to wonder about possible foreign policy implications.
Here's my question: What impression do people in other countries get when they observe the divorced-from-reality nature of contemporary American political discourse? American pundits like to talk about how "irrational" our adversaries are (usually when they are trying to scare us into spending more on weapons or launching preventive wars), but do they ever stop to think about how goofy and irrational we appear to be to others? And I don't just mean the buffoons on talk radio and Fox News; I'm talking about Senators, Congresspersons, and other prominent politicos. When I see some of these folks in action, even a realist like me begins to question the validity of the "rational actor" assumption.
The United States doesn't have a monopoly on extremist politicians, of course, but it is a lot more powerful. No wonder unpolarity makes even our allies nervous.
A while back I commented on the two imbalances of power that drive American grand strategy. The first is the gap between the United States and the other major powers, which makes Americans think they are responsible for managing much of the world and convinces them that they can do so with near-impunity. The second imbalance is the strength and political clout of a host of different institutions and interest groups whose common agenda is encouraging greater international activism on the part of the United States. In recent decades, the forces in favor of "doing more" have been better-funded and better-organized than those who favor greater restraint, which is one reason why we spend so much on defense and why we find ourselves entangled in intractable conflicts on several continents.
But when I read some early reports about the Obama administration’s health care plans, I began to wonder if the various forces that favor global activism are going to face stiffer opposition in the future. We are likely to have a sluggish economy for some time to come and the U.S. population is getting older. Virtually everyone agrees that serious health care reform is badly needed but will cost a lot. Plus, Obama's various economic recovery measures are going to saddle us all with record deficit levels. Us baby boomers are not exactly noted for our altruism, and my generation is going to put a lot of pressure on politicians to deliver the entitlements we've been promised. All of this means that budget dollars are going to be very tight, and the Pentagon is going to face tougher scrutiny when it brings in gold-plated requests. The Nation and Mother Jones may not be all that formidable a political opponent, but what about the AARP?
One of the great triumphs of Reagan-era conservatism was to convince Americans that paying taxes so that the government could spend the money at home was foolish and wrong, but paying taxes so that the government could spend the money defending other people around the world was patriotic. Ever since Reagan, in short, neoconservatives supported paying taxes to promote a U.S.-dominated world order, while denouncing anyone who wanted to spend the money on roads, bridges, schools, parks, and health care for Americans as a “tax and spend liberal." But if I'm right about the emerging fiscal environment, that situation may be about to change.
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I'm about to leave town for a conference on civil-military relations sponsored by the Eisenhower Project, so I won't be posting much until next week. But several thoughts occurred to me as I watched the world's nations rally to address the swine flu problem.
Potential pandemics appear to be one of those issue-areas where global cooperation works pretty well. By most accounts the response to SARS back in 2003 did a fairly good job of containing what might have been a much more serious problem. By contrast, the global response to climate change has been much more halting, and collaboration in other areas (the Doha Round, arms reductions, etc.) has been even more disappointing in recent years.
I think there are three features of the pandemic problem that encourage effective international collaboration. First, the dangers are immediate and somewhat indiscriminate, in the sense that lots of countries are likely to be affected and within a relatively short time-horizon. Mishandling a pandemic would not only impose major short term costs, it could also affect the political fortunes of incumbent politicians around the world. So nobody sits around twiddling their thumbs. Global warming, by contrast, is a long-range danger, which makes it easier for today's politicians to waste a lot of time haggling and push the problem off on future generations.
Second, pandemics are not an issue where "relative gains" loom large. States don't see this as an opportunity to improve their strategic position by getting others to bear all the costs or by trying to free-ride (or god forbid, by trying to encourage the disease to spread to one's rivals). Infectious diseases are too mobile and the world is too interconnected for that approach. If Country A responds vigorously but Country B does not, B is likely to have a more serious problem. But the worse things are for B, the bigger the problem that A might face (think Mexico and the US in this regard). This situation encourages joint efforts, and makes it more likely that each state will do all that it can to contain the danger and mitigate the effects.
Third, public health is a highly professionalized and comparatively de-politicized field, and the relevant international and national institutions (e.g., the World Health Organization) have a lot of prior experience. Many of the responses to these events are based on uncontroversial science and straightforward best practices, which means there is less debate about what measures to take and less time spent trying to devise solutions. One might contrast this with the current economic mess, where different national authorities have rather different ideas about the best way to respond and international coordination has been pretty paltry.
All this is not to say that the global response will be perfect, or that the potential pandemic will be contained as effectively as SARS ultimately was. But it does remind us that global cooperation is possible, and that some global institutions do provide valuable protection. Libertarian neo-isolationists and neoconservative institution-bashers should take note.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.