When the likes of Marco Rubio, the new Republican senator from Florida, say this is the greatest country ever, sophisticated opinion-makers cluck and roll their eyes. What a noxious tea-party nostrum. How chauvinistic. What hubris.
Yet, what other countries deserve this designation? For the sake of convenience, start at 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia ratified the modern system of nation-states. And grade on power, prosperity and goodness.
Is Spain the greatest ever? It had a nice run a couple of hundred years ago based on plundering the New World of its gold and silver. By 1800, it was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Today, it teeters on bankruptcy.
Is France? Its model of centralizing monarchy in the 17th century was extremely influential, and admirable — if you like elaborate court ritual, religious persecution and expansionistic wars. It gave the world the template for modern ideological madness in the French Revolution and for the modern tyrant in Napoleon. After the debacle of World War II, it recovered to a power of middling rank. If there’s no doubting the greatness of the French, their history comes with the implicit admonition: “Do not try this at home.”
Germany? In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a cultural jewel. And one of the most talented statesmen ever, Bismarck, forged a nation that became an industrial behemoth. It also had an illiberal heart. Germany today is an anchor of democratic Europe, but with a hellish black mark against it that will last for all time.
Russia? By the beginning of the 20th century, a decrepit autocracy sat atop a mass of misery. Then, things went south. The communists murdered and enslaved many millions across seven decades. Russia remains an important, if vastly diminished, power, governed by a prickly, grasping kleptocracy.
Britain? Getting warmer. It invented the rights that are the bedrock of liberal democracy. More than most European powers, it lived by Adam Smith’s formula for prosperity: “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” From a tiny island, it came to govern an enormous extent of the globe in a relatively benign colonialism. It was a bulwark against the dictatorships of the Continent, from Napoleon, to the Kaiser, to Hitler. And it spawned the countries that have made the English-speaking world a synonym for good governance and liberty: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and America.
Which brings us to the U.S. We had the advantage of jumping off from the achievement of the British. We founded our nation upon self-evident truths about the rights of man, even if our conduct hasn’t always matched them. We pushed aside Spain and Mexico in muscling across the continent, but brought order and liberty in our wake. Our treatment of the Indians was appalling, but par for the course in the context of the time. It took centuries of mistreatment of blacks before we finally heeded our own ideals.
The positive side of the ledger, though, is immense: We got constitutional government to work on a scale no one had thought possible; made ourselves a haven of liberty for the world’s peoples; and created a fluid, open society. We amassed unbelievable wealth, and spread it widely. Internationally, we wielded our overwhelming military and industrial power as a benevolent hegemon. We led the coalitions against the ideological empires of the 20th century and protected the global commons. We remain the world’s sole superpower, looked to by most of the world as a leader distinctly better than any of the alternatives.
Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion. When a Marco Rubio talks of the greatness of America, it’s not bumptious self-congratulation. Our greatness comes with the responsibility to preserve our traditional dynamism and status as a robust middle-class society. To paraphrase the Benjamin Franklin of lore, we have the greatest country ever — if we can keep it.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.