In the pilot episode of the HBO series “The Newsroom,” a college student asks Atlantis Cable News anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” McAvoy responds candidly, stating the United States is no longer the greatest country in the world. His answer not only creates uproar in the on-screen auditorium, where McAvoy is a guest speaker, but also sparks debate in real life. While producer Aaron Sorkin may have deliberately chosen a controversial debut to attract viewers and receive media coverage for the newly created series, “The Newsroom” pilot does bring up a valid question: what does make a country the greatest in the world?
In 1991, the United States asserted itself as the dominant global power. The collapse of the Soviet Union signified an end to the Cold War and ushered in a mono-polar era where several indicators proved the U.S. triumphant: political stability and a strong democracy, a robust economy and various trading partners, scientific advancements and innovations, a powerful military, and a growing dominant popular culture. Americans and foreigners alike considered this moment as the zenith of this nation. But many things have changed in the last twenty years.
To support his claim, Will McAvoy offers some statistics on literacy rates, math and sciences education, life expectancy, infant mortality rates, and so on. America ranks first in none of these. A further look into many other rankings not only reveals that the United States is not the leader in all aspects but also shows how poorly the U.S. does in some: the U.S. stands at seventh place for starting a business, 47th for freedom of the press (so much for the First Amendment), 10th in economic freedom, 41st in income equality, 42nd in life expectancy, and dead last at 193rd in current account balance. Indeed, it appears that there is no definitive evidence to support the statement that America is “the greatest country in the world.”
In 1990s, the United States’ gross domestic product per capita was still behind Norway, Sweden and some other European nations. The U.S. refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and it certainly had one of the least diverse group of representatives holding office. Despite the common perception of the ’90s that American was in the best shape, it did not top every chart. Perhaps it is safe to say that at no point in history was America number one at everything. But then again, was any other country?
The proponent of American exceptionalism often brings up the values and morality that this country was founded upon and still aspires to follow today. Greatness not only indicates a position of power but also denotes a sense of moral paramount. For all the criticism on American intervention and military expansion, the U.S. is always on the forefront of responding to natural disasters worldwide. For the past few decades, the U.S. Navy’s primary mission has been assisting in disaster relief, not participating in wars. American institutions, both public and private, usher in and facilitate social progress, public health, and economic advancements throughout the globe.
Nonetheless, for all the debate on empirical data and moral impetus, the notion of assigning one country supreme greatness is misleading at least and ignorant at best. “The greatest country” is a title legitimized only by subjectivity and perception. It is a judgment call based on personal ideals and beliefs, and thus the position can be substantiated by neither mere factual claims nor numbers and statistics. The debate on the greatest country in the world is just redundant, inconclusive, and serves no particular useful end.
The question is not “Is America is the greatest country in the world?” The true question is: “Can Americans objectively evaluate America and realize that there are problems?”
In an address on law enforcements and racial issues, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey said, “All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty.” Amidst the ongoing chaos and outrage, a simple statement of acknowledgement speaks volume about the ethics and culture of this nation. A high-level government official coming forward and admitting that everything about this superpower is not beautiful or praise-worthy goes a long way in changing the attitude and solving the problem.
This superpower is able to produce leaders that are not clouded by their own glory and victories, public perception and personal judgment, and the widespread facade of jingoism and the constant pressure to be seen patriotic. Therefore, while this country may not be the greatest in the world, it is certainly up there on the list.
Duy Mai is a freshman in School of Foreign Service. The Worldernist appears every other Thursday on thehoya.com.