America is not a perfect country. Like all nations, it is a collection of human beings, and human beings are notorious for occasionally making bad decisions, being selfish, or otherwise simply blowing it. However, there is a lot right about this country, though often we get so caught up in the rhetoric, that we miss it. It’s not that other countries can’t make claims regarding their own unique and positive qualities, or that America is the only country that matters, but I feel compelled to stand up for the nation of my birth.
As a veteran, I thought a top ten list outlining what makes America great might be in order, especially today. Obviously, critics will be able to name exceptions to almost everything I write here, but I stand by each main point, even if there are failures to be occasionally found. And so here, in no particular order, is my list — incomplete as it may be — of ten things that makes the USA a great nation.
Granted, we are a wealthy nation, so it might be expected that we would pony up first, but the amount of aid we provide other countries when compared to the rest of the industrialized world is remarkable. Fully one percent of America’s budget goes to help other nations and, while that may not seem all that much, that’s over 26 billion dollars annually to countries around the world (and that figure doesn’t include interest-free and low interest loans).
Now granted, a big chunk of this comes in the form of military assistance—mostly to Israel and Egypt—but most of it goes to aiding countries’ efforts at either rebuilding infrastructure, anti-terrorism efforts, or stopping widespread hunger or disease. Consider, for example, that in 2011, the U.S gave Kenya and South Africa half a billion dollars each to fight AIDS, malaria, and TB. What’s truly remarkable is, we even send aid to countries that are antagonistic towards us like Pakistan, Sudan and even North Korea! What other countries give billions of dollars of aid to countries that don’t even like them?
Yes, some of it ends up going into some foreign dictator’s bank account, and the U.S.—like most countries who provide assistance to other nations—does sometimes let political and strategic considerations determine who gets what and how much. For the most part though, Americans are a generous lot who are among the first to come to the rescue when disaster or famine strikes, not just with taxpayer dollars, but with private relief efforts as well.
9. Creativity, Productivity, and Innovation
The number of cutting edge inventions and refinements of existing technologies that have come out of America in the last two hundred years is staggering. Everything from the airplane (1903) and phonograph (1877), to the drinking straw (1888) and feather duster (1870), have been the by-product of American ingenuity and resourcefulness. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine any modern convenience or piece of technology that doesn’t have America’s fingerprints all over it.
How big of a fingerprint? Consider that, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, of the over 4.5 million patents issued since 1790, the United States owns over half of them, or nearly 2.5 million! Much of this creativity has to be credited to America’s entrepreneurial spirit and quest for knowledge, the two elements essential to getting things done. Of course, many of America’s finest inventors came here from other countries, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it was in America that they found the right combination of freedom and financial resources to do amazing things.
8. Freedom of Religion
Sadly, history is replete with citizens suffering religious persecution and violence at the hands of both their own government, as well as from other religious groups (and, sometimes, even from factions within their own faith.) This has rarely been the case in America, however, where citizens are guaranteed the right to worship as they wish—or not worship at all if that is their desire—without fear of being arrested, persecuted, or shunned by the rest of society, as is so often the case in some countries.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been religious-based tensions from time to time but, for the most part, the degree of religious tolerance in America, especially when compared to many countries, is extraordinary. Consider, for example, that in parts of the Middle East, one can actually be incarcerated, or even executed, for insulting Islam or making fun of the prophet Mohammad. No such “heresy” laws exist in this country, and never will. In fact, this is the one country people can come to find the freedom to practice their religion denied them by their own country. While some find the preponderance of different denominations, religious practices, and belief systems a negative, it is actually evidence of America’s tolerance and diversity, and proof that in America, everybody is welcome to believe as they wish.
7. Entrepreneurial Spirit
The ability of anyone to start a business and become wealthy in this country, as compared to most other nations, is one of the hallmarks of what America is all about. The United States is replete with stories of immigrants who stepped off the boat at Ellis Island, speaking no English and carrying $10 in their pocket, and who went on to become fabulously wealthy within just a few years. Of course, there are no guarantees that everyone will succeed, as business failures and bankruptcies are a part of capitalism, but in America even if one fails, they have the chance to dust themselves off and start over again if they wish. In contrast, most other countries are so over-regulated and heavily-taxed, that it is almost impossible to start a business from the ground up, which is why we see so many people coming to this country to set up shop.
Additionally, it is America’s industrial power that has done much to guarantee the peace over the last century. Certainly, it would be difficult to imagine the Allies winning two World Wars without the awesome industrial strength of the United States behind them, all of it a by-product of our entrepreneurial spirit.
6. Compassion in War
America is no stranger to war, and has suffered through nearly a dozen of them throughout its long history. However, with a couple of debatable exceptions, America has never started a war, nor has it engaged in wars of conquest, even when it had the opportunity to expand its frontiers considerably. The Mexican-American war of 1845 is a good example of this; though the brief war ended in a Mexican rout, America not only didn’t annex the country, but quickly withdrew once hostilities ended. How many countries would have done that?
Further, with the exception of World War II—when, sadly, fire-bombing civilian population centers was practiced by both sides—America generally makes every effort to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage whenever possible, even at considerable cost to itself. Another of its great strengths is seen in its humane treatment of POWs (which may explain why German soldiers, in the closing days of World War II, preferred to surrender to the Americans rather than the Russians), and its willingness to assist its defeated enemies to rebuild after victory. The most noteworthy example of this was the Marshall Plan that rebuilt most of Europe—particularly war-ravaged Germany—at a cost of some $44.3 billion in grants and loans over a period of five years (nearly $400 billion in today’s dollars).
Compare this to how the Soviet Union treated its former enemies; it demanded—and received—reparations from the conquered nations of Eastern Europe under its control, nearly equal to that provided by the Marshall Plan. This not only further crippled their already devastated economies, but delayed their recovery by decades.
5. Guardianship of Democracy
America’s willingness to defend democracy and prevent oppressive regimes from expanding their totalitarian rule around the world, often at great cost in terms of lives, resources, and money, is one of the hallmarks of America. Its willingness to take the lead in defending democracies whenever they are threatened, as was the case with Western Europe during the Cold War, and of getting involved in humanitarian efforts, even when they were not to our advantage to do so (such as in Somalia in 1992 or Kosovo in 1997), is legendary.
It doesn’t always end in success, of course (i.e. Vietnam and Somalia), but the willingness to stand up to tyranny and oppression is unique among nations throughout history, who have oftentimes been all-too-willing to turn a blind eye to genocide and oppression if it weren’t in their strategic interest to get involved. Yes, we’ve been burned a few times in the process and, unfortunately, have been willing to prop up oppressive, anti-Communist regimes over the years but, for the most part, America tries to get it right. To get an idea of how valuable its contribution has been, imagine the 20th Century without the United States taking an active role in world affairs. Scary, huh?
4. Ability to Right Past Wrongs
As I wrote in the opening, America is not a perfect country. It has made mistakes in the past, and doubtlessly will in the future. What makes it great, however, is its ability to admit when it is in error, and change the way it does things. It’s not always pretty, and it may take some time to work through the process but, once it identifies something about itself that needs to be changed—be it slavery, segregation, racism, etc.—it eventually does the right thing.
It’s also willing, albeit begrudgingly at times, to admit to past mistakes and attempt to redress those wrongs; for example, America has repeatedly acknowledged its oppression of Native Americans, and has worked diligently to redress the issue. Additionally, in 1988, Congress passed legislation that apologized for the grievous error it made in judgment when interning some 110,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II; they even paid out $1.6 billion dollars in reparations to their descendants, to compensate for lost business and property. In contrast, many countries to this day not only refuse to make amends to those who suffered under their care, but in many cases even refuse to admit to their sordid past at all, preferring instead to live in a state of denial.
3. Ability to Meld Different Cultures
America’s historic role as a melting pot of many different cultures is unique among nations on the planet, who tend to naturally segregate their populations according to race and religion. As a result, people today, of many different ethnic or religious backgrounds, proudly identify themselves as Americans. Meanwhile, in some other countries, people still identify themselves according to their culture, language, religion, or ethnicity.
This process did not come easily or quickly, of course, for the natural inclination of human beings is to shun those outside of “the tribe”, but because of the unique character of this country, such divisions proved to be impractical, and they eventually fell by the wayside. This was most fortunate; consider what the history of this country would have been like had it broken into numerous nation-states based on ethnicity, religion, and culture. Most likely there wouldn’t even be a United States today, but a plethora of small and mid-sized countries much like we see in Europe, with all the strife such divisions naturally manifest.
This melding also has the advantage of making American society a unique blend in which each assimilated culture brings a touch of itself to the table, much in the same way that adding different spices to a dish creates a unique taste all its own.
The impact of American music, literature and entertainment on the cultures of other nations cannot be underestimated. When people turn on their television sets in Abu Dhabi, South Korea or Brasil, chances are they’re watching an American sitcom or drama that has been dubbed into their language; when they turn on their radios, or plug in their iPod, there’s a pretty good chance they’re listening to an American singer or musician; when they go to the movies, it’s often an American film they’re going to see.
This has had the effect of spreading Western concepts of freedom and personal liberty around the world, igniting democratic movements and making America a driving force for change—especially among the young. They may be part of the reason that 80% of the countries on this planet are either democracies or proto-democracies; a sharp contrast to the beginning of the twentieth century, when the world’s great democracies numbered fewer than a dozen. Despite a lot of America bashing over the decades, apparently people still like what they see, which is why so many are willing to risk deportation and, in some cases, even imprisonment, to come here.
There are many places of breath-taking beauty around the globe, with each country lying claim to its own natural wonders and extraordinary scenery, but no one country possesses such a broad range of natural wonders as does the United States. Stretching from California in the West, to New England in the East, the United States of America covers an area of 3.79 million square miles, making it the third largest nation on Earth, by area. Also, the U.S. is as diverse as it is huge, containing expansive national parks and vibrant cities which are visited by foreign tourists, local visitors and business travelers alike.
In what other country on the planet can you go from snow-capped mountain peaks to white sandy beaches, and from the desert to forested mountains, all within a few hours driving time of each other? That’s why America is one of the top tourist attractions for foreigners; few of whom have anything like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Everglades, or Pikes Peak back home.
How popular are we? According to the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), each year the U.S. consistently places second on the list of the top ten most visited countries (second only to – who else – France), with a whopping 60 million foreign visitors coming to our shores each year. Not bad for a country everyone loves to hate.
By Jeff Danelek, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.