Daily Archives: July 4, 2007

July 4, 2007 — Contents


(1) Happy Birthday, America!*

(2) America: The Power that Counts

(3) A Russian Hopes for Russia’s Independence Some Day, Too

You’re a Grand Old Flag

by George M. Cohan

You’re a grand old flag!
You’re a high-flying flag,
And forever in peace may you wave!
You’re the emblem of
The land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev’ry heart beats true
‘neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there’s never a boast or brag.
And should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag!

*Actually, as explained below, today isn’t really America’s birthday, it was two weeks ago. Today is the day on which America was conceived, rather than born, and it’s admittedly somewhat odd that of the two dates Americans should choose to celebrate only the former rather than (at least) both, and should call the former the latter. Then again, the rest of the world probably thinks it’s odd to point out both America’s flaws and its virtues on its birthday — which is why American keeps leaving the rest of the besotted world in its dust! Many Americans, however, at least correctly refer to this holiday as “Independence Day” and not America’s birthday, and since this is the only chance we get to wish the grand old girl many happy returns, we happily do so.

Happy Birthday, America!

In 1893, at the age of five, Israel Isidore Baline (pictured above) immigrated with his family from the city of Mogilev in what is now Belarus (then, imperial Russia) to the United States. He would change his name to Irving Berlin and go on to write some of the greatest popular songs in the American pantheon of music, including this one in 1938, as America stood on the brink of war with Germany (the lyric still rings true today, as we watch the rise of the neo-Soviet state far across the sea):

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:

God Bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above!
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam,
God bless America, my home sweet home.

Russians like to brag about their achievements in the arts but has Russia, in all her hundreds of years of history, ever attracted person from a truly foreign land to come to Russia and write a song like that about his new homeland, a song that was adopted and beloved by all the people of Russia thereafter? Perhaps the answer sheds considerable light on why, today, Russia’s population is violently shrinking whilst America’s is booming.

Happy (belated) 219th* birthday, America!
You don’t look a day over 150!

*America, of course, was “born” as a country on the day the U.S. Constitution became effective, which according to its terms was when the 9th state ratified it. That state was New Hampshire, and the date it ratified the document was June 21, 1788 — America’s actual birthday. So by celebrating its birthday on July 4th America is actually two weeks late, and this year it turns 219 years old — not 231 years, as they July 4th date implies (July 4, 1776, was the date the Declaration of Independance was signed, but America didn’t become a country then nor when it later won the Revolutionary War in 1781 — at that time nationhood was rejected by the people of the country, fearing that a new central government would mean a new dictatorship, and only accepted years later as the threat of new invasion by Britain loomed; the British did in fact invade in 1812).

America: The Power that Counts

The Economist reports:

Wounded, tetchy and less effective than it should be, America is still the power that counts

EVEN the greatest empires hurt when they lose wars. It is not surprising then that Iraq weighs so heavily on the American psyche. Most Americans want to get out as soon as possible, surge or no surge; many more wish they had never invaded the country in the first place. But for a growing number of Americans the superpower’s inability to impose its will on Mesopotamia is symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

Nearly six years after September 11th, nervousness about the state of America’s “hard power” is growing (see article). Iraq and Afghanistan (another far-off place where the United States, short of troops and allies, may be losing a war) have stretched the Pentagon’s resources. An army designed to have 17 brigades on active deployment now has 25 in the field. Despite bringing in reservists and the National Guard, many American troops spend more than half their time on active duty; the British spend a fifth.

Other demons are jangling America’s nerves. There is the emergence of China as a rival embryonic superpower, with an economy that may soon be bigger than America’s (at least in terms of purchasing power); the re-emergence of a bellicose, gas-fired Russia; North Korea’s defiance of Uncle Sam by going nuclear, and Iran’s determination to follow suit; Europe’s lack of enthusiasm for George Bush’s war on terror; the Arabs’ dismissal of his democratisation project; the Chávez-led resistance to Yankee capitalism in America’s backyard.

Nor is it just a matter of geopolitics. American bankers are worried that other financial centres are gaining at Wall Street’s expense. Nativists fret about America’s inability to secure its own borders. As for soft power, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, America’s slowness to tackle climate change and its neglect of the Palestinians have all, rightly or wrongly, cost it dearly. Polls show that ever fewer foreigners trust America, and some even find China’s totalitarians less dangerous.

Power to the wrong people

A sense of waning power is not just bad for the self-esteem of Americans. It is already having dangerous consequences. Inside the United States, “China-bashing” has become a defensive strategy for both the left and the right. Isolationism is also on the rise. Most Democrats already favour an America that “minds its own business”.

Outside America, the consequences could be even graver. Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have both bet in different ways that a bruised Uncle Sam will not be able to constrain them. [LR: Hear that, Russians? You’re being talked about in the same breath as the crazed fundamentalist state of Iran, one of America’s most hardened foes. Is that really what you want?] Meanwhile, a vicious circle of no confidence threatens the Western alliance: if Italy, for instance, concludes that a weakened America will not last the course in Afghanistan, then it will commit even fewer troops to the already undermanned NATO force there—which in turn prompts more Americans to question the project.

Yet America is being underestimated. Friends and enemies have mistaken the short-term failure of the Bush administration for deeper weakness. Neither American hard nor soft power is fading. Rather, they are not being used as well as they could be. The opportunity is greater than the threat.

It is hard to deny that America looks weaker than it did in 2000. But is that really due to a tectonic shift or to the errors of a single administration? Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld reversed the wise Rooseveltian doctrine, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. After September 11th the White House talked up American power to an extraordinary degree. In that brief period of “shock and awe” when Americans were from Mars, their Venutian allies were lucky to get invited to the show (indeed, in Afghanistan some “old” Europeans were initially turned away). Meanwhile, Mr Bush declared a “war on terror”, rather than just on al-Qaeda, broadening the front to unmanageable dimensions (and paving the way for Guantánamo).

While the talk was loud, the stick was spindly. Defying his generals, Mr Rumsfeld sent too few troops to Iraq to pacify the country. Disbanding the Iraqi army compounded the error. Regardless of whether Iraq was ever winnable, it is hard to imagine any future American administrations making such schoolboy howlers when it comes to regime change.

America the indispensable

Yet in one way Mr Bush is unfairly maligned. Contrary to the Democratic version of history, America did not enjoy untrammelled influence abroad before he arrived. The country that won the cold war also endured several grievous reverses, notably Vietnam (where 58,000 Americans were killed—16 times the figure for Iraq). Iran has been defying America since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and North Korea for a generation before that. As for soft power, France has been complaining about Coca-Cola and Hollywood for nearly a century.

From this perspective of relative rather than absolute supremacy, a superpower’s strength lies as much in what it can prevent from happening as in what it can achieve. Even today, America’s “negative power” is considerable. Very little of any note can happen without at least its acquiescence. Iran and North Korea can defy the Great Satan, but only America can offer the recognition the proliferating regimes crave. In all sorts of areas—be it the fight against global warming or the quest for an Arab-Israeli peace—America is quite simply indispensable.

That is because America still has the most hard power. Its volunteer army is indeed stretched: it could not fight another small war of choice. But it can still muster 1.5m people under arms and a defence budget almost as big as the whole of the rest of the world’s. And it could call on so much more: in relation to the country’s size, its defence budget and army are quite small by historical standards. Better diplomacy would enhance its power. One irony of the “war on terror” is that Mr Bush’s hyperventilation worked against him in terms of getting boots on the ground: neither his own countrymen nor his allies were sure enough that they were really under threat. (And why should they be? An American-led West spent four decades tussling with a nuclear-armed empire that stretched from Berlin to Vladivostok; al-Qaeda is still small beer.)

The surveys that show America’s soft power to be less respected than it used to be also show the continuing universal appeal of its values—especially freedom and openness. Even the immigrants and foreign goods that so worry some Americans are tributes to that appeal (by contrast, the last empire to build a wall on its border, the Soviet one, was trying to keep its subjects in). Nor is it an accident that anti-Americanism has fed off those instances, such as Guantánamo Bay, where America has seemed most un-American. This is the multiplier effect that Mr Bush missed: win the battle for hearts and minds and you do not need as much hard power to get your way.

That lesson is worth bearing in mind when it comes to the challenge of China. China is likely to be more and more in America’s face, whether buying American firms, winning Olympic gold or blasting missiles into space. Merely by growing, China is disrupting the politics of the Pacific. But that does not mean that it is automatically on track to overtake America. Its politics are fragile (see article) and America’s lead is immense. Moreover, economics is not a zero-sum game: so far, a bigger China has helped to enrich America. An America that stays open to China—an America that sticks to American values—is much more likely to help fashion the China it wants.

If America were a stock, it would be a “buy”: an undervalued market leader, in need of new management. But that points to its last great strength. More than any rival, America corrects itself. [LR: Want proof? Just check out this post, published on America’s birthday by a proud American, which is full of criticisms of the United States along with its much-deserved praise] Under pressure from voters, Mr Bush has already rediscovered some of the charms of multilateralism; he is talking about climate change; a Middle East peace initiative is possible. Next year’s presidential election offers a chance for renewal. Such corrections are not automatic: something (a misadventure in Iran?) may yet compound the misery of Iraq in the same way Watergate followed Vietnam. But America recovered from the 1970s. It will bounce back stronger again.

A Russian Hopes for Russian Independence, Some Day, Too

Writing in the Toledo Blade, Russian-American journalist Mike Sigov records his sadness and hope for Russia:

Democracy is in the public eye this week as we mark its birthday in this country – July 4, 1776, when the United States claimed independence from Britain. Millions suffering from oppression the world over will join us, celebrating the United States as the “land of the free and the home of the brave” and hoping either to be able one day to come here and begin their American Dream or to live to see democracy won in their home countries.

Some of them will come from Russia, a country whose leadership has reneged on promises of democratic reforms and has restored an autocracy, with effectively a one-party system, secret police supremacy, government-controlled media, persecution of dissidents, and an aggressive foreign policy. Those hopefuls belong to a minority group in Russia – 20 to 30 percent of the population – according to different official estimates.Russia’s government-controlled media report that most people in Russia – 70 to 80 percent – support President Vladimir Putin and are happy with the autocracy or the “sovereign democracy,” as the Kremlin calls it. Unfortunately, independent reports from Russia suggest that it may well be true.

The basic reasons why this sentiment prevails in Russia include a lingering nostalgia for the lost superpower status, poverty during the period that followed the crumbling of the Soviet Union, and the current windfall of petrodollars associated with the Putin presidency. Besides, there is Kremlin-fanned propaganda that uses the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the U.S. missile-defense initiative in Europe to dredge up a good, old image of a foreign foe to better cement the ranks of Putin supporters. Absent fresh assassinations of investigative journalists, ex-secret police whistleblowers, or incorrigibly honest bankers in Russia and vicinity, Kremlin watchers are mulling what reporters in Moscow call “the problem of 2008” – a constitutionally mandated departure of Mr. Putin from the presidency when his second consecutive term expires next spring.

There are several overreported scenarios that would enable Mr. Putin to bend the rules to stay in power, from changing the constitution through a referendum to anointing his faithful wife as his successor. Both would work without a hitch, given Mr. Putin’s popularity and the servility of his electorate. Many pundits, however, assign enough value to Mr. Putin’s repeated promises to step down to discuss the chances of two of his most probable successors – Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov, 54, or First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, 41 – or a possibility that some other Putin loyalist will pop up later as a “surprise candidate.”

“People may call him an autocrat, but I would consider him a responsible autocrat,” Dmitry Trenin, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, reportedly told the Associated Press.”He clearly wants out of the Kremlin, but he doesn’t want the system to crumble the minute he leaves.”First, I would not be so sure. Second, whoever is in charge in Russia come next summer, it will most definitely be a leader, or at least a figurehead, backed by Russia’s present ruling class – the secret police, which permeates Russia’s political and business elite.

Despite a stringentU.S. immigration policy, most of my Russian childhood friends and college buddies now reside in the United States, while others are in the European Union. Others are in Russia, some by choice and some by necessity. We stay in touch by phone and e-mail. This week we will be celebrating Independence Day. We’ll watch fireworks and raise a glass to a wish we all share – that those of us still back in Russia also get to be part of a civil society some day