U.S. needs national humility to enact global change
Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address. While he focused on many issues ranging from education to the minimum wage, the speech had an overarching theme of citizenship and the role America plays on the global stage.
Obama spoke of reclaiming elements of what has traditionally been considered the American identity through supporting the re-expansion of domestic manufacturing and increasing funding for basic scientific research initiatives. The speech also touched on citizen involvement in America’s future by addressing equal pay, the role of women in the workforce, and appropriate immigration reform.
In essence, Obama called for a return to the American dream and focus on the American citizen — to empower the American people by calling for the return of the middle class and, with it, traditional American values.
Serving the nation, historically, has been a key element in the American vision of citizenship, one that, some may argue, has waned in recent years. President Obama made a concerted effort to place responsibility not only on Congress, but also on business leaders and the American people to come together to improve the country, and it was certainly refreshing in an age of pandering and steep divides.
While this move is an excellent idea, and a change America needs, the reality is that the President still faces severe Congressional roadblocks in opposition to any legislation he plans on proposing, which may explain his shift to higher citizen engagement.
The President also hinted at increasing his use of the executive order when meeting these challenges, but it remains unclear as to whether he will follow through with this threat.
When speaking on foreign affairs and terrorism, Obama brought up America’s responsibility as a nation for setting a good example for the world. His speech extended this obligation from the purely symbolic to the practical, restating his desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, and draw the wars in the Middle East to a close. Coupling these statements with many references to being “the greatest nation on Earth” would make any proud American pleased as punch, but Americans are not the only ones hearing this speech. We certainly do play a large role in the world’s politics, but we cannot responsibly fulfill the duties this confers without recognizing our own shortcomings.
All of the other nations of the world know these shortcomings, and when we use this overly nationalist tone, it lessens our credibility in the international sphere. This idea is particularly true when we have so much to learn from other nations on issues embroiling the country such as healthcare, legally- mandated parental leave, and public education.
Other nations will not be willing to respond to our calls for change, when we as a country are unwilling to acknowledge our shortcomings as well. Humility is an important virtue, and one which was rhetorically lacking in this speech.
The State of the Union focused on many ambitious goals, but ultimately failed to recognize that if we wish to be a credible leader for international change and development, we need to understand our own flaws first.