In mid-May, I will graduate with a Masters of Science in Foreign Service degree from Georgetown University. This program is within the School of Foreign Service, formed after World War I to train Americans to engage with the rest of the world both in business and in diplomacy. Today, about a third of our class consists of international students, and the topics we study involve international conflict, international business, statecraft, international development, peace-building, intelligence, and so on. Our students have all traveled to many countries and many of us speak multiple languages.
Without malice, people joke that our class’s party photos look like Benetton ads because so many different colors, cultures, and countries are represented. After a couple years of schooling in MSFS, we’ve been given policy toolsets and have been exposed to methods of viewing the world’s myriad quirky regions through different lenses. Multiculturalism is normal within our program, on campus, and in DC.
Now, I’m not about to start talking about how the environment here is perfect. Certainly it is an elite international class that is able to enjoy such an expensive education. And certainly most students end up associating mostly with those of their own nationality by default. But there’s nothing wrong with all that. We are, after all, inherently tribal, and we gather with those of the same cultural heritage and customs as ourselves.
With that in mind, through all my experiences thus far, both in personal travel and in academic research, I’ve been confronted more and more brutally and unavoidably with the conclusion that I am, despite any illusions or deceptions, an American, and an American citizen and ambassador at that.
This may seem obvious to you, but do you not feel some doubts about your own nationality at times? Assuming you’re “American”, do you not think of yourself as a midwesterner, or a Californian, or an east coaster, at times? Did you get caught up in the post-9/11 debate about who was a “real” American? Is it a flag-waving pro-military midwesterner or is it a liberal who thinks waving a flag is meaningless and trite? Is it an Iowan farmer? Is it a blue-collar union family from Detroit? Is it a productive east coast elitist New Yorker who was attacked on 9/11? Do you consider this or that party not in keeping with America’s original values? Did you ever feel embarrassed when traveling that people would know you were American?
If you’re anything like me, you have moments where you think, yeah, I’m American, but other Americans don’t speak for me; I don’t agree with a lot of things we’re doing. I didn’t vote for him. I don’t have the responsibility for this, or for the war, or for failing “morals”.
We don’t always claim ownership when things are bad. We’re discouraged from sacrifice. It must have been someone else’s fault.
Certainly I felt American when wearing the Army uniform and American flag every day for five years. And certainly I felt American when I deployed to Iraq and served my country. I felt pride when wearing my ACUs, representing the United States. But I also knew that while riding on convoys in Baghdad, that many of the people who gazed upon me wanted to kill me for my uniform as well.
I felt American despite the Constitution being tampered with, reinterpreted, and spun in order to justify treachery, classification, intimidation, rendition, torture, murder, and corruption. I felt American, rather alienated, when fellow soldiers completely disagreed with me on our presence in Iraq.
Yes, it was tough to swallow the things my country has done. It was tough to see and do things I was a part of as a soldier in Iraq.
I felt American, but I’m not sure I felt like a very good representative. I certainly didn’t share my patriotism with Bush’s words of nationalistic fervor.
Then I came to Georgetown and was exposed to a lot of different cultures and languages and ways of thinking. While I felt comfortable engaging with others, at the same time I began to notice my own differences with them more, perhaps standing in stark contrast against the backdrop of multiculturalism.
What really came out of me during this period was my desire to effect change, to free the oppressed (“de oppresso liber”, the motto of my former command, Special Forces), to help the poor, and to use new ideas and new technology to accomplish all of that. In short, I became very socially entrepreneurial and empowered to be so.
Such American traits. Respect and love for professional militarism (which the American public has become enamored with, if not detached from), highly entrepreneurial, desire to be creative and proactive and generous. I felt more American than ever.
With Barack Obama being elected, and the faux-Texan being kicked out, my American-ness was something I genuinely was able to share with others, spontaneously during the inauguration concert. It was something I had previously felt only when wearing the uniform in the Army, among other soldiers in my teams, platoons, or units. The pride returned, in the same way morale improved in the military once General Petraeus took charge in Iraq. The cycle of bad leadership had come to an end. [my friend MonkeyPope vehemently disagrees with this assertion -- he thinks Petraeus still makes poor, politicized leadership decisions, and says his unit didn't like Petraeus]
I think I originally came to grad school after feeling left in the dark about what my country was doing as I got older. Even as part of the military, I felt like there was a lot I wasn’t privy to. How did my country really conduct foreign policy? How did it set policy as representative of its people? Would I let my leaders deceive and mislead me again? Or would I do something to inoculate myself against ignorance?
Against the Free Market Radicals
This is a peculiarity and a peccadillo I learned during my time here at Georgetown, partially through my own experience, partially through watching the election cycle, and partially through studying democratization theory and poverty reduction: Friedmanism, Reaganism, whatever it’s called these days, detaches people from their responsibility to anything beyond themselves.
Those who seek bare minimum government, lower taxes, a volunteer military, and Ayn Rand-style objectivism fall into a peculiar situation where they have no sacrifices they must give to their country. Thus, while they promote war abroad, disengagement from the poor and disadvantaged, and massive privatization, they are also reducing funding to these areas and taking part in civic engagement less and less.
Sadistically, Reagan cut off the head of the EPA (Bush would do the same to USAID and State) so that it couldn’t operate, and then said, hey, look, government can’t operate. Republicans cut federal and state budgets and then said, hey, look, government can’t operate. Welfare and re-distribution programs (which help to forestall, well, a freaking rebellion) were cut, and they said, hey, look, these poor people are lazy and don’t want to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Sort of a self-fulfilling strategy to kill off undesirable policies.
Being taxed means you lose your hard-earned money, yes, but it also means you should have a say in how that money is spent. The possibility of being drafted means that you will care a lot more if your government decides to mobilize for war. Feeling a responsibility towards helping those less fortunate than you (i.e. through equal rights) means you might decide to support welfare (or the new favorite, “workfare”) programs.
Joe Scarborough on MSNBC and The Colbert Report just devoted large segments of their programs towards making fun of Glenn Beck, who has been crying embarrassingly like a pussy on his show about how much he loves his country. Somewhat similar to the House Representative John Boehner, who is constantly crying on the House floor about how he hopes we don’t sell out the troops.
Quite outrageously insulting to me, given that Beck seems to have served not a lick of public service, and Boehner washed out of the Navy after 8 weeks with a bad back. It’s a humiliation as a war veteran to look at grown men who’ve sacrificed little for their country crying on TV in front of a large domestic audience and a potential international audience of Iranians, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Russians, Chinese, etc. who see weakness in men crying. These men do not speak for me. I use the term “men” lightly, since such crying nancies with no spine (literally, in one case), are hardly the pinnacle of virility and machismo that they make themselves out to be the spokesmen for. It’s like watching Jim and Tammy Faye Baker drenching their cheeks with mascara on Dallas Christian TV.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Until I went to Georgetown, a private university, I was a product of many public institutions. I went to public schools in Texas and then to the University of Texas at Austin, a state school, for undergrad. After that, I joined the Army, a massive socialist institution within the US bureaucracy (an inconvenient truth for the pro-military right-wing hawks). These public/state institutions gave me the opportunities to get to where I am today. Were it not for the many teachers, administrators, and support systems within them, I wouldn’t be here today. I almost decided to go to UT Austin for grad school as well, but luckily, in an extremely competitive higher education system, I could also choose among private schools.
And I was lucky enough to be admitted to Georgetown, with the help of the amazing administrators within MSFS who gave me a chance, and my classmates, who helped me along the way. Georgetown, I might add, is private, yes, but it supports within its walls Jesuit priests who support the Georgetown community spiritually.
The point is, there are many people responsible for everyone else’s success, and pursuing complete self-interest breaks down such social fabrics through neglect and fiscal strangulation. I would argue that it might even make us less American, less patriotic for our country.
Service and Responsibility
So I now feel beholden to my country, responsible for its well-being. The program started by a Jesuit Catholic, Edmund Walsh, to prepare Americans to be ambassadors of their bold country, has rubbed off on me. I seek to show the world what’s best about my country. What I perhaps didn’t expect, studying how to interact with other countries, was that the best way to show others as an ambassador would be to lead by example.
Certainly this is the sergeant ethos in the military. Lead from the front. Don’t ask your soldiers to do something you wouldn’t. Be proactive, take the initiative, drive on, etc. etc. Most people WANT to do something, but they need leaders to show them the way, to give them bravery, to give them focus, to allow them to do their work.
I did my concentration in international development to apply technology to reducing poverty. I’m not sure, though, that I ever thought I’d be applying my development background, being an ambassador to the world, to solving problems in my own country.
But I think that’s where I’m probably going. The US is beset with all sorts of internal problems: massive unemployment that might be sustained over a long period of time, badly uncompetitive infrastructure (weak public transport compared to, say, Japan and Germany), expensive telecommunications compared to its peers, dwindling educational competitiveness at the high school level, a collapse in innovation policy, anti-commons regulatory thickets in pharma and spectrum and patents and copyright, bizarre limited government theory within the context of a massive deficit, etc.
Within the context of a tenuous pause in Iraq, a near-failed Pakistan, massive indecision in Afghanistan policy, 2005/2006 Baghdad-like low-level violence in Mexico, a belligerent Israel acting with impunity in the face of policy failure under the auspices of the US, an increasingly dismissive but also increasingly influential Iran, and an embarrassing energy policy, the US is in danger of losing itself in all the distraction.
So yes, I do feel like an American citizen, and I do feel responsible for my country, and I do think what problems there are in the world must be fixed by starting at home.
Universal Human Rights
Through my development reading, I think what I’ve settled on is that the US can easily start fixing its problems by fully investing itself in its Bill of Rights, and adhering to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as much as constitutionally possible. Created in 1948, endorsed weakly by many countries, and consisting of 30 articles guaranteeing fundamental freedoms for every person on the planet, this Declaration is no where close to being completely implemented within the United States, where as Americans we are raised believing that we are all guaranteed equal rights.
Having been in the Army and living in some of the most segregated areas in the country (Georgia, DC, Texas), I’ve seen plenty of racism, sexism, and sexual bias. Hell, the military has a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and gays can’t marry. Never mind that some of the best leaders among my friends and cohorts in the Army are gay, and have served more time in a warzone than many of those who don’t want gays in the military.
American Exceptionalism is Made Up of Myths
There are many traits that are not uniquely American but that we associate with ourselves. That first trait is that Americans believe all are created equal. I strongly disagree that Americans really, innately, believe this. I would also say that it’s not just Americans who are hard-working, although we love the image of the toiling blue-collar worker or farmer or, more recently, business executive. We are not very good at sustainable management, despite our fanaticism for leadership roles and legendary success as Gordon Gecko/Carnegie robber barons. We’ve sunk entire cultures and countries with our international development “strategies”. Many of our stalwart institutions and companies have been placed on life support by fraudulent, unethical, insipid senior management who, in the case of insurance and auto companies, still feel they deserve large bonuses and lives of decadent privilege while their businesses lose billions of dollars a quarter.
When I look for the closest model to the Americans, strangely it seems like sub-Saharan Africa is the most similar. Not, say, the Europeans. Africa is bursting with social entrepreneurial energy and an innate desire to do business no matter what the environment is. Its continent has the fastest growing Catholic population in the world. It has been tainted by colonialism and by bailouts and aid. The spirit and vigor I see in today’s Africans, I identify with as an American. How odd is that?
This presents a deep problem if I had earlier stated that entrepreneurialism is one of America’s unique traits. In running a draft of this post past my good Army buddy MonkeyPope, he noted,
“You seem to hint at entrepreneurship and innovation, but instead go off on a tangent about how our character resembles Africa, but you’re so much more interested in your analogy that it obfuscates and does not illuminate. Also, how do we play to our business strengths? Relatedly, again something you hint at, but don’t outright express, couldn’t it be argued that in addition to the E and the I, another American strength is public works and volunteerism? Thus furthering the irony of self-isolated bootstrap Republicans opposed to goverment initiatives to improve the public good, such as Obama’s lip service to a broad American-wide volunteer service initiative.”
He makes very good points. Africans and, now that I think of it, Indians are quite entrepreneurial. Is the difference that Americans enjoy a high scientific and educational capital base for advanced technical entrepreneurship, while Africans and Indians tend to mobilize their low capital base for cheaper, yet perhaps more populist alternatives? How long can such an American edge last if it’s losing its technical edge (from less funding and fewer engineers) while paying less attention to social entrepreneurship?
Philanthropy most certainly is a unique American trait for the moment. Perhaps the Scandinavians and Europeans are more effectively using their money to help others, but do other countries have the history of reformed monopolists and robber barons and political families and business moguls turning into philanthropists as we do? Is that something we can maintain if we lose what little collective spirit we have?
What of collective spirit, anyway? Do I feel sympathy for that point of view because I am part Chinese? Most certainly the Chinese, after Deng Xiaoping institutionalized it, think in terms of collectivism over the “cult of the individual” (a thinly veiled euphemism for Chairman Mao’s chapter).
Perhaps, then, one unique American trait is its ability to assimilate cultures. Maybe in my being American, what I derive uniqueness is that combination of traits melted and reformed together from my heritage. American acceptance of high risk, high reward individualistic entrepreneurship, a British appreciation for education, Chinese discipline and collectivism and high-context communication and desire to work hard. Fused with having lived in the deep south, raised in Texas, born in the midwest, educated for a bit on both coasts, served as property of the US military.
Perhaps defining what it is to be American is so difficult precisely BECAUSE of the inability to approximate its characteristics. Multi-racial people are becoming the norm in the US, a fascinating blend of cultures and attitudes and perspectives. Where else can claim a mixing of cultures as ours combined with the freedom to go forth and create something new from that background, to become high-profile celebrity-entrepreneur-scientist-philanthropist-businessman-politician legendary stereotypes?
From what MonkeyPope suggested, can I take this further? Can I say that this all suggests that supporting diversity, increasing self-actualization through affirming human rights, and seeking to build human capital through social programs is something that leads to massive gains in American well-being?
It’s a possible lead that I want to think more deeply about, for sure. What makes you feel most American, if you are one? What do you see as America’s defining traits?
Exclusion vs. Inclusion
Given that the Republicans seem comfortable with worsening and increasingly privatized education such that ignorance can be exploited through tabloid politics and not enlightened debate (as they should want according to their love of the Founding Fathers), they seem to willingly be obstacles in expanding the American Dream. Wall Street seems comfortable withholding access to information in the markets it created and which have sucked money out of the peoples’ wallets and into a select groups’ coffers. So Wall Street also seems to want to antagonize the American Dream. Anywhere where people believe you do not have the need or intelligence to access their information, you can guarantee that they are trying to fleece you of your rights.
Which is why the American Dream must be defined as providing universal human rights. Such a legal basis, true freedom for all people, provides a foundation for a sustainable future. Such a basis leads to the need for true accountability, reciprocity, and transparency — which is why I’m trying to build an ecosystem for reputations and identities.
Here’s what Barack Obama said about the American Dream at the 2008 Democratic National Convention:
“What is that promise? It’s a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect. It’s a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road. Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves – protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology. Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work. That’s the promise of America – the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper. That’s the promise we need to keep. That’s the change we need right now.”
Scandinavia is now the leader in providing the most access to its people to universal human rights, despite the American self-love as a nation of “freedom”. The US could immediately take the lead through a sweeping redefinition of American identity using the UDHR as a basis. Reengagement of its citizens with the government by incentivizing non-disenfranchisement. It’d make for a great start. The observation effects worldwide would be massive. Just as Britain, India, and the US (eventually) inspired positive world events, such as widescale decolonization of Africa and abolition of slavery (read David Brion Davis’s “Inhuman Bondage”), this would be impossible to ignore. Public diplomacy? It’s done mostly through example, not through force or subversion.
De oppresso liber.
How to Move Forward
This is a long rant. But I’ve been sorting out all these thoughts as I come in to my own, as a fully aware American citizen. Americans have a particular opportunity right now to invest in science, technology, IT, solar power, infrastructure, innovation, and all those things it’s always been good at, to build a new future economy and to free ourselves from the constraints of the past like energy and inefficient ways of conducting health care or producing food.
By understanding ourselves, and fully embracing our characteristics, we can increase our fundamental independence, which can show strength and leadership by example. As JFK said (and corrupted by Reagan, McCain, and Palin), 60 days into his administration just as about where Obama is in his new administration: “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”
He went on to say,
“History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these.
“For of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us—recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state—our success or failure, in whatever office we may hold, will be measured by the answers to four questions:
“First, were we truly men of courage—with the courage to stand up to one’s enemies—and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one’s associates—the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed?
“Secondly, were we truly men of judgment—with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past—of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others—with enough wisdom to know that we did not know, and enough candor to admit it?
“Third, were we truly men of integrity—men who never ran out on either the principles in which they believed or the people who believed in them—men who believed in us—men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust?
“Finally, were we truly men of dedication—with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest.”
Getting Our House in Order
Increased independence brings flexibility in decision-making, which we can use to promote our image, and to change the nature of our relationships abroad from less dependent/aggressive to more equitable/positive. At that point, we can begin to work on fixing our massive foreign policy restraints.
It starts at home. As cliche as this sounds, it only took me taking a pretty round-about path of exploring the world outside of the US to realize that. And I’m still pretty young, so I have a lot to learn. Certainly being among my many peers in the Army and in grad school has been immensely humbling — both other Americans and those from other nations are exceedingly strong, full of stamina, intelligent, creative, proactive, and beautiful to observe and interact with. All our differences, though, are good differences, and they can be used constructively by all. It is not a zero-sum game.
We have the internet, rapidly linking us all closer together. The US has Barack Obama, currently mesmerizing world leaders in London at the G-20, even doing a thumbs-up in some official photos. We have an opportunity now. The pieces are in place.
What we need now (as is always needed) is courage to live up to the potential to do great things that everyone knows and hopes that we have as Americans.