Maybe President Donald Trump was right that we needed a “Salute to America” last week, because apparently some Americans have lost sight of the greatness of our country. Case in point: To mark Independence Day, The New York Times posted a video op-ed challenging what it called the “mythology” of American greatness. “America may once have been the greatest,” the Times video declares, “but today, America, we’re just OK.”
The video is like a caricature of how conservatives think the left sees America — except it isn’t a caricature; it’s real. It’s a straw man come to life. As evidence we’re just OK, the video cites statistics showing that other developed countries, such as Luxembourg, Sweden and Norway, have lower poverty rates or better education and health care outcomes than America. And as for our “kick-ass democracy,” the Times says, it’s not that big a deal because “a lot of countries have freedoms.”
Put aside for a moment all the misleading data the video uses to show America is not so great. The fact is, all the freedom and progress those other countries enjoy today would not be possible without the United States.
The reason that “a lot of countries have freedoms” today is because our Founding Fathers pioneered the principle of popular sovereignty, where governments answer to the people instead of the other way around. At the time of our founding, the rest of the world was ruled by monarchs. Our founders established the first country in human history that was built on an idea — the idea of human liberty.
For most of our history, American democracy was a global outlier. In 1938, on the eve of World War II, there were just 17 democracies. It was not until 1998 — just two decades ago — that there were more democracies than autocracies.
That dramatic explosion of freedom didn’t just happen. It was the direct result of the rise of the United States as a global superpower. The U.S.-powered victory over Nazi tyranny in World War II and our triumph over Soviet tyranny in the Cold War defeated the hateful ideologies of fascism and communism, and unleashed a wave of freedom that has spread across the world. Today, 4.1 billion people live in democracies. (Of those who do not, four out of five live in China.)
The unprecedented expansion of liberty has produced unprecedented prosperity. Last September, the Brookings Institution reported that “for the first time since agriculture-based civilization began 10,000 years ago, the majority of humankind ... some 3.8 billion people, live in households with enough discretionary expenditure to be considered ‘middle class’ or ‘rich.’”
None of that would be possible without the Pax Americana guaranteed by U.S. military. Americans liberated a continent, rebuilt much of it from the rubble of war with the Marshall Plan, and then stood watch on freedom’s frontier and prevented a Soviet tank invasion across the Fulda Gap. And today, the only thing that stops North Korea from invading South Korea or China from invading Taiwan is American military might.
So, let’s be clear: Every country that enjoys democratic governance today owes its birth of freedom to our Founding Fathers, and the continued existence of their democracy to the U.S. military.
Today, for all its flaws, America remains the freest, most innovative, most prosperous country in the history of the world. We invented the lightbulb and the iPhone. We put a man on the moon and a rover on Mars. We are a nation of unparalleled military power and unlimited opportunity. There’s a reason we have a crisis on our southern border; millions want to come here so that they can share in the abundance of American prosperity.
The men and women who flew those fighters and bombers over the Mall last week make it all possible. They provide the critical foundation of peace and security upon which our freedom, and the freedom of all the world’s democracies, is built. Maybe Luxembourg scores better on some measures, but no one is counting on Luxembourg to secure the peace of the world. Trump was right to shine a spotlight on our men and women in uniform and to remind those who have lost sight of it that the United States is not simply the greatest nation on Earth; we are indispensable. Without us, the world would be mired in the darkness of totalitarianism rather than the light of liberty.
That is better than “just OK.”