The Best Reason to Bet on America
By JONATHAN TEPPERMAN
NEW YORK — Just a few days ago, in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn, I raised my right hand and — along with some 150 other immigrants from places like Bangladesh, China and the Dominican Republic — was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, something I’d been secretly longing to do for about 30 years.
I write “secretly” because growing up in a small border town in Canada, there was always something slightly shameful about that desire. Canadians, especially during the Reagan era of my adolescence, loved criticizing their benighted, warlike neighbor to the south (even while overlooking the ways the United States underwrote their comfortable standard of living).
And yet for many of us, the United States was also an object of desire. While proclaiming the superiority of our values, we gobbled up as much U.S. pop culture as we could. We would go to the United States to shop; for college, if we were lucky enough to get into to a top school there (and could find a way to pay for it); and for work, especially if we hoped to make it in a field like the media.
So when I finally moved south full time, in 1989, staking my future on the United States felt like a no-brainer. Though the U.S. economy was struggling, Canada’s was worse, and with the Cold War ending, Washington’s power and prestige seemed guaranteed to rise inexorably.
By the time I finally took my oath 24 years later, however, that rise had come to seem a lot less inevitable. These are, after all, not exactly the best of times for my adopted homeland. The Republican Party is tearing itself and the country apart. It has shut down the federal government and threatens even greater catastrophe in eight days, when the country must raise its debt ceiling or default.
Meanwhile, America’s international standing is near an all-time low. Last month, many of the foreign leaders gathered at the United Nations here were strikingly blunt (at least in private) about America’s diminished standing. Although the Syria standoff seemed headed for a peaceful resolution, the incredibly inept way Barack Obama had handled it — and the fact that it took intercession by Vladimir Putin, of all people, to save the president’s bacon — had shaken U.S. allies to their roots.
As one Asian foreign minister told me, if Obama hadn’t been willing to act even when a U.S. red line was flouted, and if Congress and the public wouldn’t have let him if he’d tried, why should other countries believe Washington would intervene if they needed it?
The real problem, another foreign minister explained, was that Obama’s fumbling, coming on the heels of George W. Bush’s pratfalls and deceits, has undermined what had long been one of America’s greatest assets: faith in its competence.
And yet I’m still here, and have happily pledged to foreswear all foreign princes and potentates — as do some 50,000 immigrants each year in that one Brooklyn courtroom alone. We keep voting with our feet. Why?
For me, at least, the reasons are both practical and philosophical. Yes, the U.S. economy is still weak. But it’s also showing signs of new life, whether the rebound in manufacturing or the country’s dazzling innovation in energy, high technology, and higher education. And the U.S. outlook seems a lot less grim when you compare it with Europe’s, or to the slowing economies of erstwhile superstars like India, Brazil, even China.
On a more abstract level, I’ve come to realize over my years here that many of the very same American beliefs that drive the rest of the world crazy, and that lead the United States down so many dark alleys — whether doggedly resisting gun control, or continuing to battle over universal medical care, or the way so many poorer Americans still vote against their economic interests — also make the country a powerful engine of invention and renewal.
So: that don’t-tread-on-me frontier spirit that gets you the Tea Party, side arms in schools, and that cussedly resists other forms of regulation also fuels the world’s fiercest spirit of innovation. The widely held myth that anyone can make it here leads Americans to reject a more humane and redistributive social-safety net — but also drives a start-up culture envied around the globe. Intense individualism produces irrational hostility toward government — but also makes this country unusually accepting of ex-foreigners who become citizens. And faith in the country’s exceptionalism produces hypocrisy and bullying behavior abroad — but also global leadership that’s done the planet enormous good, and that no other nation is willing or able to provide.
Remembering all that, of course, can be tough when Congress seems set on steering the country off a cliff. But it helps explain why, despite the cascading crises, my fellow immigrants and I were still so eager to join up. And judging by the numbers, it seems we’re not the only ones who feel this way. Corny as it sounds, we still believe, and we keep coming by the many millions — maybe that’s the best reason to bet on America.
Jonathan Tepperman, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, is a guest columnist.