We hear much today about “making America great,” and certainly we as a people should see this as an aspirational goal. But what does it mean to be “great?” And importantly, we must recognize there have been forces throughout history that are beyond the control of any individual, any country, and perhaps beyond the control of humanity itself.  No nation is free of these evolutionary trends.


Economically speaking, one of the leading indicators that a globally preeminent nation has reached its apex, is how it “earns” its living. Does the nation produce real goods and services that benefit humanity, or has it evolved to the point where the manipulation of money to make money (finance) is the major source of “income?” At this juncture, the nation becomes a burden on the rest of the world, and historically, its moment in the Sun is coming to an end. Concerning America today, author and political/economic historian Kevin Phillips states it well in his book Bad Money:


“In a new-economy milestone, the precise timing of which is unrecorded, financial services pulled ahead of manufacturing as a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product in the mid-1990’s.”

“Proponents of this sectoral assistance, including Clinton advisor Robert Rubin, saw finance leading the nation into a new postindustrial era in which services, especially the lucrative financial ones, would replace manufacturing, just as the latter had ushered out a shrinking agricultural sector. Finance was the next great elevator ascending into the luminous temple of global progress. The hour had come, and the United States, caught up in its own market millenarianism, would take the lead.

Skeptics invoked a warning that went against the tide: this faith in finance was not new, but old – and it had played wayward pied piper to prior leading world economic powers. On the edge of decline the Spanish had gloried in their New World gold and silver; the Dutch in their investment income and lending to princes and czarinas; and the British in their banks, brokers, and global financial network. In none of these situations, however, could financial services succeed in upholding the national preeminence that had been earlier built by explorers, conquistadors, maritime skills, innovative science and engineering, the first railroads, electric dynamos, and great iron and steel works. Invariably, power and greatness passed to new explorers, innovators, and industrialists.”


The United States is no exception to evolutionary trends. We are unwittingly following the historic patterns of previous empires “on the edge of decline.” Mirroring preeminent powers of the past, we now spend more on militarism and weaponry than the next ten largest nations combined. This not only does not make us safer; it is impoverishing us as a people. While over the past decade China has built more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined, our roads, bridges, and other infrastructure have crumbled. While over the past decade China has become by far the world’s largest exporter of manufactured goods, America has resorted to “stock buybacks” which invest nothing in a manufacturer’s plant and equipment, but temporarily drive stock prices higher, allowing rich investors to make a quick fortune through financial manipulation. While the U.S. continues to subsidize fossil fuels far more than alternative energies, China has become the world leader in renewable energy technology. The list goes on.


This is certainly not to suggest that any nation, including China, is nirvana. There is no such place. But it is to say that the U.S. as a nation is but a 250-year-old moment in the 2-million-year-old saga of human evolution on planet Earth. We Americans are no special “children of God,” no “exceptional people.” There is no “indispensable nation.” Nor should we aspire to be any of these. It is a recipe for our own undoing.


America can, and must, be “great.” We necessarily led the world in the years following World War II. America was the stabilizing force. But time moves on, and technology has made the world a very small place. Our hope for greatness now lies in understanding we are co-equal members of the larger human community. It is in understanding we have a critical role to play in helping humanity solve the enormous and urgent problems we all now confront.


The laws of physics accept no argument, and care not what we “believe.” Global warming and the growing threat of nuclear war now endanger all life on Earth. They can only be resolved by all humans working together in concert. We literally do not have a choice if we wish to see our kids and grand kids have a future worth living, or perhaps even a future at all.


Greatness is having the courage to trust others, to work in their behalf, to see them as fellow travelers on the great human journey. Greatness is the courage to see beyond one’s self, to accept, to cooperate for the common good. Greatness is the courage to lay down arms, to express a desire for friendship. Greatness is the courage to work in peace and seek human well-being.


We Americans desperately need to come together – – for our own sake, and for that of all humanity. We need to be great. Our options in the upcoming election are certainly far from perfect. When we vote let us seek candidates most likely to unite us as a people, and America with the rest of the world.