Imagining being on one's death bed can help greatly to improve decision-making: focusing on all that remains of one's decisions in the long-run -- one's life's legacy, if you will -- can help one attend to what really matters.
And what is true for men is true for empires.
I was born in a country that was once a great empire -- just a couple of generations after it had fallen.
Like most empires, the British empire was brought to its knees by financial and military overstretch, and a shift in the globally dominant energy source (from coal to oil in Britain's case). The empire of the USA is falling because of two of these. (Exercise for the reader: which two?)
I've been comparing and contrasting Britain today to a potential American future as an ex-empire -- an exercise that has caused me to recall Tony Blair's speech to Congress in July 2003. While I disagreed profoundly with the invasion Iraq (for which Blair was arguing), he distilled something that is now of the essence for America:
Tell the world why you're proud of America. Tell them when the Star-Spangled Banner starts, Americans get to their feet, Hispanics, Irish, Italians, Central Europeans, East Europeans, Jews, Muslims, white, Asian, black, those who go back to the early settlers and those whose English is the same as some New York cab driver's I've dealt with ... but whose sons and daughters could run for this Congress.
Tell them why Americans, one and all, stand upright and respectful. Not because some state official told them to, but because whatever race, color, class or creed they are, being American means being free. That's why they're proud.
As Britain knows, all predominant power seems for a time invincible, but, in fact, it is transient.
The question is: What do you leave behind?
And what you can bequeath to this anxious world is the light of liberty.
... Each civilization has a unique capacity to enrich the stock of human heritage.
... [D]estiny put you in this place in history, in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do.
Many Americans don't realize that there are parts of the world that still look to America and what it stands for as inspiration. I was in Poland last year, teaching. If an American wants to go anywhere and feel welcomed and appreciated, he could do little better than go to Poland. Most Poles are very clear on what side America was when they were stuck behind the iron curtain and the example that America set for them by being a successful society with individual freedom at its core made a material difference in their lives -- and continues to do so today through the political changes that they perceive the USA helped materially to bring about. The same can be said for millions of people around the world who, under various forms of repression have looked to the American project for inspiration and information to improve their own lives.
Even for me, a Brit, that light of freedom pulled me in as my continent began to reverse its democratization of eight centuries, culminating in December 2009 in the elimination of 27 sovereign nations in a Constitution that was voted down by all of the nations whose people were allowed to vote on it.
In other words, some of the most important ideas for which America has historically stood for still matter, and in many instances, it is only America that really stands for them at all -- or, at least, holds those ideas as ideals that are worth fighting for.
This "light of America" is rooted clearly in the fundamental principles of the Constitution and the American spirit that has prevailed since it was written -- a spirit of celebration of the individual, live and let live, and delight in the successes of self and others.
If the American empire is coming to an end, then all of those things should be its legacy. Until not many years ago, we still had reason to believe they would be.
But what now?
Today, most of the actions of America's politicians, and therefore the actions of American force -- both economic and military -- are based on a reversal of those principles. Under the monopoly of force that is the American government, human beings are held without evidence or due process, wealth is redistributed from some to favored groups, and the President uses military force that kills civilians in foreign lands against the law of his own land and without even the consent of the representatives of his own people.
As if that weren't enough, the government has lost respect for the basic human rights of its citizens (such as those enshrined in the Fourth Amendment), passing such evils as the Patriot Act, allowing surveillance and invasion of privacy without any warrant or due process of any kind. Meanwhile, it continues to borrow more money than Americans can ever possibly earn, making them debt slaves even as they try to put their own private finances in order.
This money funds programs that have technically bankrupted the country; all but destroyed the currency, and have made millions of individuals no longer responsible for themselves. Still, those politicians insist on trying to take the speck of out of China's eye (for example), not even noticing the log in their own. Democrat and Republican alike.
For all these reasons, America's legacy to the world is already changing. As evidenced on sites such as mine, WatchingAmerica.com, which translates foreign views about the USA, much of the world is looking at America in wonder, asking how it could have gone so badly wrong, and why it continues to act at odds with its own foundation and all that has served it best in the past.
However, America can still easily leave a legacy to be proud of, and that would ensure America's influence in the world for hundreds of years. Nothing new has to be invented or conceived. Rather, the nation needs to look to what is in its blood -- to the founding principles, which Presidents of the right and the left through the generations have used to inspire us, and in pursuit of which America has seen its finest moments -- and may see many more if it gets a grip, finds its confidence and re-creates its true identity.
Practically, that means refusing to prosecute wars when not under threat, supporting people for taking responsibility for themselves, refusing to manipulate the nation's finances in a way that redistributes wealth en masse from those who work to those who manipulate money and those who do not work. Most certainly, it means following the rule of law (including the Constitution), which is our only protection against the arbitrary rule of men, especially in times of alleged crisis or war. It certainly means not trying to be an empire in the first place. The irony is, of course, that by no longer trying to be a physical empire, America has a chance to remain a philosophical one.
America, as proven by its history, does have something exceptional to offer the world - the primacy of the individual and a philosophy of the restrained exercise of power, which acknowledges the robust ethical position that a man is entirely free up until the point his freedom bears on someone else's, and will continue to have the power to change, by example, the course of history for the better.
Holding fast to that raison d'être and leading by example will ensure that America remains the indispensable nation long after its "empire" ends. Ironically, giving up those principles in a fear-driven attempt to maintain the empire (and the power of those who run and fund it) will ensure not only that that empire will die, but that America's influence will die with it.
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