The name “America” may mean a number of things to the seven billion people living on planet earth. Both good and bad. The word “superpower” comes first to mind, and many do not like the world’s policeman (both at home and abroad). With about 800 military facilities overseas, including at least 140 “bases,” the American presence is virtually everywhere. But do people remember the American military and financial contribution to both world wars, the Cold War, and the billions of aid dollars from the Marshall Plan to development assistance?
Yet, the primary contribution of this country abroad should not even be measured in “hard” power resources and cannot even be defined by empirical designs. It is an abstraction but separates nations that live through law and order, however imperfectly, and those, that rule through fear, terror and the iron fist. The former, led by the US, are few and far between; the latter, sadly, represent almost all the rest of the political globe. The American “gift” is liberty, and there has been no other political authority in history that represents this concept more than the United States of America.
How, then, one might ask, can this be a “contribution” if most of the world rejects it? The answer does not lie in what the country does in its foreign policies, whether it is isolationist or interventionist, whether it has bases or not, how powerful or wealthy it is. The answer lies in what the United States stands for in the world, its political culture, its values.
These began with the observation, circa 1630, by the future Puritan Governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, when he observed that “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” This force of example has guided America throughout the intervening centuries and remains the essential difference between this country and the remainder of the world. Nearly two centuries later, the fifth president, James Monroe, concurred: “Our country may be likened to a new house. We lack many things, but we possess the most precious of all — liberty.”
The central role of liberty has been enshrined in almost every major event surrounding US political culture from the beginnings of the Republic. Political Scientist Paul Seabury reflected upon this reality in the bicentennial issue of Orbis:
“A concern about the relations between morals and politics is not uniquely American. But few nations take philosophic purpose in foreign affairs as seriously as Americans do … For better or worse, since the beginnings of the Republic Americans have displayed strong sentiments about their country’s role in world affairs. Liberty occupies a central thematic place among them. Emblazoned on monuments, sung about in anthems, stamped on coinage and expressed on placards, it still dominates our civic thought and language. Even as aspiration, the American view extends the hope that freedom may spill over into other lands, and from time to time this view affects America’s international activities in momentous ways.”
Almost all American politicians have reflected on this central reality. Consider the presidents. Many of them have alluded to the “fire” of liberty as representing a powerful force that would engulf all before it.
Start with George Washington in the first official statement of the new Republic. The new democratic experiment, he proclaimed in his Inaugural Address, represented “the sacred fire of liberty.” In 1809, Thomas Jefferson spoke of America as “the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth.” As if guided by the invisible hand of the same speechwriter, a century and a half later, John Kennedy echoed the same sentiments in his historic Inaugural: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” Coming full circle, George W. Bush brought the past alive with his own version of the fire of liberty: “By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well — a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.” In his first Inaugural, President Obama repeated this theme, noting that the ideals of the Founding Fathers “still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’ sake.”
Should this flame expire, for whatever reason, the world could well descend into what Churchill called during World War II “a new dark age.”
In 1998, journalist Tom Brokaw wrote The Greatest Generation, describing how Americans preserved liberty against Fascism in that same war. The question remains: Will the current generation keep the torch of liberty alive? The jury is out.