07/04/2013 11:10 am ET Updated Sep 03, 2013

The Moral Matters

Seven score and ten years ago, Americans fought the largest land battle in the history of the Western Hemisphere, resulting in nearly as many killed as in the Vietnam War. The ferocity of the fight at Gettysburg didn't owe to a clash over land or other riches at the behest of a monarch. The Civil War, after all, was a war of ideas about the ordering of society, governance, and as Abraham Lincoln said later that November "a new birth of freedom." War is ultimately a contest of wills, as Clausewitz put it, expressed in a moral purpose or cause. (Today we call this the "battle of narratives.") This ageless insight led Napoleon to observe that in war "the moral is the physical as three is to one."

Americans are a rarity in the world in that they identify themselves not by human categorization but by an idea forged 237 years ago in the Declaration of Independence. A state of mind as much as a state of being is what enables the United States to be the premier nation of nations: an integrated immigration and assimilation culture centered around the simple yet sophisticated principle of e pluribus unum -- a societal software that the Chinese can neither pirate nor hack into. This moral foundation of who we are is the great source of our strength and national power abroad as well as at home.

The moral foundations of societies and the governments that represent them are even more important in this century. As we are seeing on the streets of Egypt, Brazil, Turkey, and elsewhere, what holds sway is not just the power of ideas and values but how they are made to work in people's lives -- or how those entrusted to lead fail to do so.

Value-basing is essential to applied national strategy, a process of making choices about the future, based on what our collective will determines to be most important. Values shape interests, which in turn inform strategy and policy, and then the actions of those executing those policies. That's the connection between what we say and what we do as a nation.

Yet, the United States has had an ongoing image problem in a world that increasingly matters to it -- even before but especially since 9/11. It's because we have talked incessantly a good game on our national values, but often enough do much the opposite. Others watch the connection between what we say and do more closely and more critically than we do ourselves. It may not always be fair, but it's a fact that we have to take into account.

Besides, if you're the self-proclaimed leader of the world -- and want all the perks and bennies that go with it -- then you have to lead. And ever since I was a lieutenant, the best way I know how to lead is by example. When you lose your moral credibility as a leader, then you lose your right to lead.

It's not that the expectation here is a complete alignment of values and actions. The world, indeed, is complex and getting more so -- even more reason to have a moral compass. Still, when the gap between the ideal and the real is so large and when what we fear so consistently overrules what we aspire to be, then we are telling the world that we operate to cover weakness rather than play strengths. Playing not to lose is a losing strategy.

It's awfully hard to be taken seriously, for example, when your president preaches to Germans about "peace and justice" or talks with Africans about freedom, good governance, and human rights, yet has failed to close Guantanamo, averts more assertive action in protecting Syrian civilians, or tries to downplay the government's massive surveillance not only of its own people but those in other countries in ways far more intrusive than more clearly understandable in a time when there really was an existential threat to ourselves and our allies. Or when our measures of number-one-ness begin to include the highest rates of illiteracy, violence, incarceration, and wealth disparity in the developed world.

When "national security" is the dominant narrative that ends debate and makes everything else nice-to-do, it leads to practices abroad such as prioritizing killing bad guys over the primacy of civil authority when training foreign armies that habitually pull coups or abuse the very people they're supposed to protect (because it's really about us and not them). The United States can then hardly hold claim to being the world champion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. People don't hate us because they hate what we say we stand for -- they hate us because we don't stand for it. Or make ourselves the exception to the rules we invented but expect everyone else to follow.

No idea or value has validity if it isn't lived. And no one who doesn't live them can be respected for their values. A little less talk and a little more walk, please.

As we enjoy this holiday weekend, we should remember how much the moral matters more than the physical and draw inspiration from those who found a way to "pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor" and fulfilled that pledge time and again by giving "the last full measure of devotion" in places like Gettysburg or an Arizona wildfire. Independence Day should be an examination of our readiness in each of our own ways to live our American values, upholding responsibilities as well as rights.