Liberty, License & Leadership

The role America plays in the world today and for the foreseeable future—as her contribution to the health, wealth, and happiness of mankind in the 21st century—is something which is very much up to the American people themselves. They can, and will, choose whether that role is exemplary and determinant, the role of a leader and a guardian, or whether it is the role of a self-sufficient observer. America can shape the future—or withdraw from history.

The Numbers

America enjoys the material basis for leadership, there is no question of that. The demographic resources of the United States are growing faster than those of any of her military, economic, or political competitors. A year ago the U.S. population was calculated at 267.6 million, and at present growth rates should exceed 280 million early in the next century. In recent years, America has accepted, absorbed, and employed an enormous number of immigrants. Her birth rate is 14.4 per 1,000, much higher than those of Japan, Russia, Germany, and Italy—all of them below 10.5—and substantially higher than the British and French figures (around 12.5 per 1,000). This figure, combined with the lowest infant death rates in U.S. history and a steadily rising life expectancy, makes America the world’s third most populous country after China and India. Russia, the population of which was larger than that of the U.S. a generation ago, and expanding more rapidly, now has only 147 million and a birth rate which is falling fast.

The United States Gross National Product is by far the largest in the world, having grown from $6.38 trillion in 1992 to $7.57 trillion in 1997. In 1997, the GNP increased at 3.6 percent, a higher rate than that of any other advanced economy. The strength of the United States’s economy, which has been growing both absolutely and relatively over the past two decades, lies in its ability to create millions of new jobs, of every description and earning capacity, while keeping inflation low. At the time of writing, America has full employment (some would say over-employment) combined with zero or even negative inflation.

The record on productivity is much more difficult to establish, especially in comparison with other advanced economies, but all the evidence suggests that the American economy has never functioned more successfully. Indeed, it could be cited as a textbook example of a capitalist market economy. This may not last, of course; a long-overdue Wall Street correction could soon take some steam out of the economy. But even allowing for this, the general economic performance of the United States in the last quarter century augurs extremely well for the opening decades of the 21st century.

The expansion explains why the U.S. has been able to correct one worrisome economic weakness: a chronic budget deficit. This is worth dwelling on briefly because of its significance in U.S. history. Since Alexander Hamilton reformed the finances of the infant republic in the 1790s, the United States’s record of public financial management has been, on the whole, exemplary. The public debt was paid off completely under President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. Thereafter, it rose during the Civil War, fell after it, rose during the First World War, fell again, rose during the Great Depression and Second World War, and then fell again—a pattern entirely consistent with prudent management. From 1975, however, a historic change occurred; the debt rose without the excuse of either war or depression and continued to rise for twenty years. America appeared to be maintaining an extravagant lifestyle and loading its progeny with insupportable burdens. That was an historic change for the worse, which posed a genuine threat to the country’s future well being.

President Reagan characteristically dismissed the phenomenon with a jest: “I’m not too worried about the deficit. It’s big enough to take care of itself.” Like many of Reagan’s jests, this one encapsulated a serious point. The American economy was functioning so strongly that it was, as it were, expanding itself out of deficit finance. With comparatively minor adjustments to spending and no substantial increase in taxation, the rise in tax revenues in the mid-1990s wiped out the deficit and began to push the country into surplus. What seemed like a permanent structural change became, by the end of the 1990s, a temporary, if extended, aberration. The end of the budget deficit corrected the last ostensible weakness in the economy, thus completing the picture of a great economic power with all systems functioning as they should.

This survey of America’s vast and growing resources underlines my point that America plays the role that the American people choose for themselves. The physical restraints, although they exist, are not prohibitive.

America’s Geopolitical Position

The United States at the end of the 20th century inherits more than fifty years of increasing involvement in international commitments. This is the major difference between the historic America of 1780-1939, with its comparatively detached position in the world, and the America of today. I say “detached” because, in my view, America has never been isolationist either by nature or by choice, except for a brief and aberrant period in the 1930s. But the detachment has been severely curtailed by five factors. First is the acceptance, in fact if not in name, of the United States as the world’s policeman, a sheriff-of-last-resort position—a notion reinforced since 1989 by the blunt fact of America as the lone superpower. Second is the political fact of her supremacy in the United Nations and especially in the Security Council, which has taken an increasingly influential position in world affairs. The Security Council can now be said to be functioning roughly as its architects intended, and this in itself places an obligation on the U.S. to exert leadership. Third is the military fact of America’s premier role in NATO, which, far from voting itself out of existence as a result of its bloodless victory in the Cold War, has begun to feel its way, slowly but surely, to its permanent place as the military executive arm of the Security Council.

The renewal of NATO, in fact, is crucial to America’s role in world affairs. Now expanded to take in other European powers which subscribe to democracy and the rule of law, NATO may one day include even Russia herself. If democracy establishes itself permanently in Russia and she continues to play a responsible part in international crisis solving, then her membership in NATO is not merely desirable, but essential. As NATO expands and finds new tasks for itself in the enforcement of international law and the deterrence of aggression, so America’s institutional position as NATO’s natural leader will dictate a major role for America in policing military geopolitics.

The fourth and fifth factors are closely linked. The last half century has seen a steady integration of the United States into the world economy. For the U.S., foreign trade has ceased to be marginal. Imports and exports have become a salient part, and the search for markets has established itself as a central element in U.S. foreign policy. In consequence—and this is the fifth factor—the United States has felt herself obliged to enter into a permanent trade grouping designed to maximize its worldwide share, the North American Free Trade Area. This is only the beginning of the story.

Traditionally, the United States has been a protectionist, high tariff country, though often divided on the issue. For the past half century it has become, on balance, a free trader, and its support for the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs—one of the world’s best known but more unsuccessful international agencies—has been an essential part of GATT’s continuing progress. America continues to back GATT, if anything more strongly than ever, and aims to reduce tariffs from their present average of about seven percent to near zero. The emergence of the European Union as a major internal free trade area protected by a GATT-permitted external wall led the U.S. to form an even bigger union with Canada and Mexico, not so much in retaliation as in limitation. This may expand either into a Pan-American free trade area or a North Atlantic Free Trade Area, embracing the United Kingdom and other maritime European states such as Norway, Portugal, and Spain—or quite possibly both. The fact that the United States is by far the biggest single element in each and all of these combinations further enhances her structural role as the world leader.

Called by Destiny

These are some of the structural factors which push America into a world leadership role, but they are not the only ones. America is an exceptional country, by virtue of her origins and growth, and American leaders have always recognized this exceptionalism, indeed often dwelt on it. The Pilgrim fathers founded their colony, as John Winthrop put it, to be exemplary: “We must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.”

This sentiment was primarily religious but it has manifest geopolitical overtones, since the vast riches of America were seen, as the Pilgrims put it, to be “the natural inheritance of the elect nation”—that is, of a people ordained by Almighty God, as the Jews had once been in Old Testament times, to lead the world in virtue and faith. This sentiment has been echoed again and again in America’s public rhetoric: in Washington’s valedictory address, for instance, when he told Congress he hoped that “Heaven may continue to give you the choicest tokens of its beneficence” so that the Union and its constitution “may be sacredly maintained.”

The early presidential messages to Congress, especially in Andrew Jackson’s day, were read aloud in many European villages and reprinted in British and continental newspapers. They were seen as messages to the entire world to follow the American pattern of republican democracy. As the Dublin Morning Post put it in 1830: “We read this document as if it related purely to our own concerns.” All great American presidents—especially Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and, in our own times, Kennedy, Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Reagan, have spoken to the world, urbi et orbi, as well as to the American Congress and people. Longfellow’s famous poem, “The Building of the Ship,” epitomizes the sentiment of leadership by example and still has a resonance, especially its lines:

Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

The American presidency itself is an important element in the leadership role that fate and institutions combine to thrust upon America. It reinforces, with a personal element, the status of America as a cynosure of the world’s eyes. No other office in the world so clearly epitomizes the concept of democracy in action. The president is the only official for whom all American electors vote. Enormous powers are conferred upon him. He is head of state and head of government, chief executive, chief magistrate, and commander in chief. Presidents have also discovered all kinds of additional powers in their constitutional functions, including the power to break strikes, conduct entire industries, mobilize manpower, seize assets, and exercise economic and financial authority which, in most democracies under the rule of law, would require legislation.

The American president, then, is a superpower in himself, a sort of strongman or caudillo as well as First Citizen. That inevitably focuses world attention on his person and personality. Yet the president is also under law, and the fate of President Nixon and the troubles of President Clinton are reminders that this subjection to law is a reality, not just a theory. Despite all his majesty, the president is legally vulnerable and his power constitutionally fragile. This adds poignancy and drama to the way the world sees him and his office. For all these reasons, then, who the president is and how he conducts himself are of absorbing interest to the world. Like the pope, and in many ways more so than the pope, he is a world figure whose character and routine are minutely examined and familiar to countless millions everywhere.

That gives the U.S. president a natural global platform, or bully pulpit, if he chooses to use it. Unlike any other statesman, he has the world’s ear, and if what he says makes sense, it will have an impact. Of course, when the president speaks, he is addressing two audiences: American citizens and the rest of the world. If the president forgets his local constituency and speaks only to the outside world, as Woodrow Wilson tended to do from 1918 on, he will fail to carry the country with him. If his words are designed primarily to secure domestic political points, as President Clinton’s are, then he will be ineffectual in world affairs. But if he is adept at striking a balance between the two audiences as both Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, and more recently Reagan did, then he can exert powerful leadership in the world while ensuring the American people are behind him. Indeed it is true to say that the U.S. president’s ability to influence events by the force of his own personality and beliefs is immense—there has been nothing like it before in history. In the past, the actual authority and influence of world potentates, from Alexander to Hitler and Stalin, has tended to stop not far from the advance patrols of their armies. Under an able occupant, the American presidency stretches as far as the printed and broadcast word, and the shadow of his power is as long as his image on the TV screens. So that, too, is a factor pushing America in the direction of an active, major role in the world.

The cultural pull is strong, too. The extraordinary energy, adaptability, versatility, and vast resources of the English language have created a cultural background against which American world leadership seems increasingly natural. English is clearly in the process of becoming the first world language. This is partly a technical matter, as the pressure is on to adopt uniformity of terms and speech for scientific publications and instructions, computer programs, air traffic control and safety, and the world of international organizations of all kinds. But it is also partly a matter of taste and choice. Language is one of the most democratic of activities. What is spoken, and so ultimately what is written, is decided by ordinary people and works itself upwards, not the other way around. All the power and grandeur of the French government and the Academie Française have failed to halt the penetration of democratic French by English words and expression. Changes in language are largely determined by young adults, who are guided by convenience and enthusiasm. Despite the large numbers of Spanish speakers, Spanish has made no progress as an international language because of its prolixity. I find that when my books are translated into Spanish, they expand by twenty-five percent; there is no way round this linguistic inflation, which is structural. English is uniquely well suited to the sharpness, brevity, and force of modern vernacular demands.

The linguistic preeminence of English both accounts for and is promoted by what the older European powers, especially the French, call “American cultural imperialism.” Again, this is a democratic phenomenon, not something decided by elites and directed by governments. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Madison Avenue, like Detroit in its day, are the products of American freedom, and their influence in the world is promoted by the spread of freedom of choice everywhere. Coca-Cola and McDonalds, Disney and American comic heroes like Superman and Batman depend for their sales and impact on their ability to appeal to ordinary people. They are the triumphant products of a highly competitive market system, and as that system is accepted and takes root all over the world, the most successful products, with all their cultural implications, will establish themselves everywhere.

Imperialism is really a misleading word, therefore, because the key to it all is freedom. America’s cultural success is rooted in the fact that, in the United States, competition flourishes with the fewest possible restrictions. The products which emerge are most likely to be able to conquer world markets as well as domestic ones. Nor should we assume, as many Europeans do, that this triumphant American culture is likely to be lowest common denominator in its substance and appeal. Competition serves the cities as well as their masses. America is in the vanguard, not merely in producing animated cartoons, but in quality movies, novels and plays, poetry and paintings, sculpture and architecture. With its 3,500 universities she has the world’s largest and most versatile system of higher education, one that is likely to be increasingly used by an international clientele as incomes rise and travel costs fall.

Freedom in Balance

As someone who has studied 400 years of American history in detail, I have reached the settled conclusion that there is no mystery about the country’s continuing success: it is freedom based. Almost from its first settlement, America has offered a uniquely free environment—political, economic, religious, and social—in which men and women have been able to maximize the use of their talents and take the fullest advantage of the bounty nature offers. When we talk of American exceptionalism we are really talking about a society that always puts freedom first. As long as the United States continues to accord freedom the highest priority, her cultural impact on the world, as well as her political and economic influence, is likely to be greater than that of any other nation.

However, it is important to remember that this 400 year tradition, still robustly maintained, of upholding freedom of choice and action, has always been balanced by an equally tenacious tradition of voluntary religion. America was founded for religious purposes, and the religious dimension in American life, public and private, has been maintained by a series of religious resurgencies, which continues to this day and have been important in guiding the country’s development. The First Great Awakening was the dynamic behind the American Revolution, and the Second was the catalyst for resistance to slavery which made the Civil War inevitable.

America remains, in many key respects, the most religious country in the world, as well as the most materialistic. It is this paradoxical combination of other-worldly idealism and worldly success which makes her so formidable. If there were ever a serious possibility of America abdicating the global responsibilities that power thrusts upon her, the religious zeal which is so potent in shaping American policy would prevent it. With her present unrivaled resources, America, at the outset of the 21st century, is not merely a City on a Hill, a beacon for all to see and get their bearings by, but a city which contains police vans and fire engines and ambulances and every conceivable kind of emergency service, ready to come to the rescue of her global neighbors on the plain below. These responsibilities to a world which is often badly governed and impoverished, subject to catastrophes both natural and man-made, are often onerous, expensive, and occasionally costly in life. But I am confident the American people will continue to shoulder them, sometimes cheerfully, sometimes with resignation, but always dutifully, knowing that it is God’s will and ultimately in the interests of all, including America’s own.

Originally Published in the September 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine

Paul Johnson


Educated at the Jesuit independent school Stonyhurst College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, Johnson first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. A prolific writer, his books are acknowledged masterpieces of historical analysis.

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