Foreign Policy Blogs

The Core of American Nationality, the Hole In American Discourse

What So Proudly We Hail …

Think tanks, academics, now even the politicians, often call America a “creedal nation.”  Most bend the idea to serve partisan arguments. But it has an independent meaning which should inform our discourse and underpin foreign policy, and not be used for polarizing politics.

The Declaration of Independence’s “self evident” truths inspire the titles of books that support both left and right.  Jill LePore’s “These Truths” focuses on African Americans’, Native Americans and womens’ struggles to realize their unalienable rights.  Matthew Spalding’s “We Still Hold These Truths” argues against the transgressions of social science-based rule and the discarding of rights’ cultural formation.  But both start with the Declaration’s words.

Americans bear reminding how that creed defines this nationality.  No nation-like entity existed before the Continental Congress: the colonies set their own relations with each other and the British sovereign.  The signers, all British, renounced that nationality: the Declaration opens by noting that “one people” was dissolving its ties to another.  It does not name this people, but proceeds in the voice of “we (who) hold these truths.”  The truths constitute a faith – they are “self evident” – in persons’ equal and universal endowment of rights, and that government exists to secure those.  The rest of the text lists British transgressions, to justify the divorce.  The Constitution, and the Bill of Rights amending it, form the nation’s second state, a governing edifice on the creed’s national foundation.  The Constitution’s preamble says “We the people”( the same “we” that divorced Britain) aim for a “more perfect Union” (not a new one) and other goals that secure the unalienable rights (the Declaration’s prescribed purpose).

This nation rests on its primal, yet rationally expressed, founding principle.  The principle, that all persons carry inherent rights, and that governments’ legitimate purpose is to secure those rights, leaves each person to address issues, from material need to divine morality, by her or his own lights.  It unites everyone only in commitment to the rights of each and all.  

This abstract national creed provides little guidance for politics.  As shown by LePore and Spalding, it can be cited for left or right.  It mandates neither Liberal World Order nor dismissal of goals beyond tangible self-interest – and proscribes neither.  It carries very few imperatives, spare in their content, that leave wide latitude for people to work out their various interests and concerns.  In this big sandbox, two factions calling themselves progressive and conservative now dominate public discourse.  Both show more interest in refuting the other than anything else.  Both buttress themselves with moral claims, moving political disagreement toward a polarized cultural divide.  

U.S foreign policy, the nation’s collective conduct, reflects this split.  In our political arm-wrestling, the clenched fists constantly quiver, a bit to one side and back to the other.  Whichever has the edge at election time then resets the foreign policy agenda to its preferences.  Narrowly oscillating fortunes can create big swings in national conduct.  America eventually becomes unable to state coherently what it stands for.  Such vacuums never go unfilled, and other countries and actors have learned to paint us in their chosen colors, to serve their own interests.  

In the post modern age, with more people than ever given a view of each others’ lives, national narrative names the base of that nation’s legitimacy.  Narrative becomes a matter of security.  The nation that shows its base unpalatable, or cannot fulfill a good base’s mandates, stands at risk.  The Russians know this from the Soviet collapse.  Xi Jin Ping’s fear of losing narrative control underlies the repression, and its creeping nature, in Hong Kong.  Islamist jihadists exploit weak narratives of Muslim-majority states. Liberally governed nations are learning the perils of elites taking their wider populations for granted.  

Americans fear our narrative weakness, yet no political leader makes a priority of fixing it. If only today’s two dominant factions could find the humility to know their place, to see that their political tenets are means to the nation’s fundamental ends, not ends in themselves, we could start on this repair.  Adversaries’ challenges will prove all the more effective if we do not.  We also need a base on which to work out responses to new issues of demographics, environment and technology.  The partisan misuse of America’s creed impedes this work.  At the same time that creed of inherent rights frees each to follow not only their choices, but also their best fulfillments.  America truly carries the hopes of humankind and will, if we remember what we are.

 

Author

George Paik
George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.

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