America looks like a perfect nation, but upon deeper reflection, one gets a very unflattering image. The nation is angry, grumpy, indulgent, violent, fearful, divided, distracted, in debt, addicted to power and material stuff, and in a self-inflicted siege
On September 9, 2013, the United Nations published its second World Happiness Report, but the top ten happiest nations in the world did not include the United States of America. A week later Forbes magazine published a list of the richest 400 Americans. On September 16, a lone gunman shot and killed twelve innocent people at a Washington Navy Yard. On Saturday afternoon, September 21, 2013, the peace enjoyed by Kenyans was shattered by a vicious terrorist attack by Al-Shabab, a Somali “non-state actor”, in a standoff that left at least 68 dead and 175 injured.
On September 25, the United Nations General Assembly convened in New York, in United States, for the usual annual ritual of speech making, shopping, and compiling reports. Among the numerous reports of the United Nations was one by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the environmental state of our planet earth. The expectations from such an event were scaled so low so that the world should celebrate that the United States called off a military attack against Syria for using chemical weapons against its people. And we are supposed to be jubilant because of fifteen minutes of a telephone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
On October 1, the United States Federal Government was shut down over budgetary disagreements between the ruling political classes. On October 3, the United States Government imposed sanctions on five countries (Rwanda, Syria, Burma, Central African Republic and Sudan) for use of children soldiers in deadly conflicts. On the same day, the White House announced that U.S. President Barack Obama had cancelled his trip to Asia due to the U.S. Government shutdown.
On October 4, in Lampedusa, Italy, a shipwreck left over 111 Africans dead. The Africans were heading to Europe in search of a better life.
We may ask ourselves what these seemingly isolated or ‘chance’ events have in common: a lone gunman, a terrorist non-state actor like Al-Shabab, rogue state actors that send their children to war instead of schools, Africans dying on high seas, a super power that shuts itself down and an American president who cancels a trip to the world his country is supposed to shape, and a global body like the United Nations which is both taken serious and ridiculed for its impotence…
I am an African from Rwanda who lives in Washington DC. Logically, I am the least qualified to comment authoritatively on the business of these United States. But, like millions before me, I am grateful that I was welcomed as a life-long nomadic refugee into this nation. My family comprises of American citizens. I must say I am fascinated and intrigued by the bold human experiment that these united states represent. This nation has endowed itself and human civilization with giants in all walks of life. It has, at the same time, received much from the world. It has created abundance far beyond what human beings could possibly imagine.
On deeper reflection, one gets a very unflattering image of this nation. It is angry, grumpy, indulgent, violent, fearful, divided, distracted, in debt, addicted to power and material stuff, and in a self-inflicted siege. Like the Biblical prodigal son, it has squandered its wealth and now, as America looks at herself in the mirror, she does not like what she sees. Millions of Americans are hurting and uncertain of the future. Hundreds of millions worldwide would have hoped for inspiration because the United States is supposed to be the place where dreams are fulfilled.
Yet, how can it engage in self-destruction and hope to lead itself and the rest of the world? How will the United States deter the likes of Al-Shabab and Al Qaeda when here in America it is fine to buy automatic weapons from a shop next door and kill innocent children, men and women? How will the United States be taken serious by Syria, Iran, Rwanda, Korea and Sudan when it threatens to use force and sanctions, and its friends and foes discover it is a fractured superpower, torn asunder by petty quarrels, greed and selfishness? How will America claim to fight poverty and disease abroad, when it is divided over something as basic as health care and job opportunities for all Americans?
How can this “American problem” be fixed?
America must find a balance between the quest for individualism and the needs for community and society. Individualism in America has been pushed to the extreme. Human beings do not solely exist to always be “I, Me, and Myself”, where, like a fool, one thinks, “let me drink, eat, and be merry for tomorrow I die”. All Americans should benefit from common pools of knowledge and material wealth. Nor should Americans accept a society and communities that impose unnecessary restrictions and burdens on the individual’s quest for responsible fulfillment.
The idea of capitalism, the source of entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth must be managed wisely in the interest of all stakeholders of society. Unfettered capitalism that produces a minority of winners and a majority of losers is very unstable. Like communism that promised utopia but ended up with chained societies, the American brand of macho capitalism is inherently unstable and unsustainable. Health, education and job opportunities for Americans are not privileges but indispensable conditions for America’s existence.
The critics of the Obama administration say the government has been transformed into an overbearing welfare state. The Obama people say, in crisis, a responsible government must extend help to those who find themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. In normal times government must invest in common pools that citizens must draw from: health, education, infrastructure, security, institutions, laws, etc. This is a healthy centuries-long debate that must continue. There is, however, a middle ground occupied by the top performers in the UN World Happiness Report 2013 (Norway, Denmark, Sweden...). May be America, too used to being a teacher, might be a humble student as well and learn from the world beyond itself.
American society must come to terms with violence at home. The image of America from the margins is that of a superpower always itching for a fight abroad, because its citizens love violent movies, guns, and shooting people. This is a mistaken view in reference to the majority of American people. Why do American citizens need guns? Some say because there are bad people out there! Yes, but the evolution of the state historically has entailed a tough bargain that we should consider: if the state can monopolize the means of violence, then we can all draw from the common pool of security. At the end of the day, no amount of individual weaponry could provide 100% of one’s required security. History simply shows how weapons have generally fallen in the wrong hands and American society continues to pay a heavy price in innocent lives lost.
Americans, especially the politicians, must learn to tame the appetite for demonizing each other, which, driven to the extreme, has led to the shutting down of the government, and in worst case scenario, can lead to rapture within the whole of American society. Coming from Rwanda, a nation that has suffered for too long from hatred fueled by political competition and ethnic fears, I detect a very pernicious and poisonous atmosphere here in Washington DC. The political class seems to be busy shuffling chairs, throwing stones at each other on the deck of the ship, America, while it is on the verge of sinking. There are undertones of race, ideology and sheer opportunism in the saga. Be careful America, you too are not immune to the ultimate consequences of extreme hatreds. Democracy is messy, but it must be managed so that it does not gravitate towards chaos and destruction.
A strong, secure and prosperous America needs a strong, secure and a prosperous world around it. When Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America are strong, America has a lot to gain. The picture of Africans dying on high seas, pirates on the Indian Ocean, terrorists striking at will, conflicts fueled by dictators and marginalized populations, HIV-AIDS, widespread global joblessness, global warming and poverty are not the conducive atmosphere for America to be secure and prosperous.
The United States is often called upon to act or not to act. The United States must engage. Often, America does not engage. It rules. The too familiar image is one of the trigger-happy nation, with drones, aircraft careers and soldiers rumbling on like Rambo of the Hollywood movies. Yet America has tremendous soft-power resources that can shape for good the 21st Century. This requires deploying its hard power multilaterally with others, and when done unilaterally, with exceptional humility and responsibility. An atrophied United Nations and regional organizations that are conveniently ignored or manipulated by the United States, does little good to the United States and the peoples of the world.
Most importantly, the United States must regain balance and rediscover its moral purpose. For a long time, America has packaged itself as the city on a hill, leading by example, the nation whose ideals and practices are so powerful because they are so endearingly smart and fair. If democracy leads to shut down of governments because, in simple terms, some politicians feel sections of the populations should not be allowed to have health care, should that model be emulated, ignored, or avoided?
Americans, this is your teachable moment. The poignant words of Jeremiah, an ancient Jewish prophet, are right and fitting for the moment: “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you……pray to God for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." A broken America will ultimately break all Americans, and with it, the world. A strong and fair America, with a moral purpose, will lift all American individuals, families, states, the nation and the world.
* Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa is former Ambassador of Rwanda to the United States, and the author of Healing A Nation: A Testimony: Waging and Winning A Peaceful Revolution to Unite and Heal A Broken Rwanda (CreateSpace, April 2013)
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