What makes America great?
Is it maybe the two mighty oceans that help insulate us from the world? Is it our massive landmass? Is it our incredibly long, incredibly friendly border with Canada?
Well, my answer is Canada. Canada makes us great. (But not just Canada.) Should the wrong candidate win come November, Americans say in jest or in seriousness, “Let’s move to Canada.” But we can conceive of landing in Toronto not just because it’s next door, but because it’s hardly a foreign country. Similar in culture and in language, these two countries are also very close partners, who enrich and stabilize and strengthen each other. And the best part? It’s hardly the only example.
In an election season obsessed with American “greatness”—how to save it or how to lose it—we seem to have forgotten, if we ever truly knew in the first place, what actually makes our country great: our allies.
Sometimes people with shallower roots in a place can see more deeply. Because most of my family lives abroad, I tend to think about the world in ways that many Americans probably don’t, or can’t. And because I am a student of foreign policy and international relations, I find myself endlessly curious about what keeps America ahead of the rest of the world (and how to keep things going that way).
The answer? The only part of the world that has political coherence is the West. Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, the French, the Germans, these nations have all fought alongside each other. Fought for each other. We have pledged to defend each other. Culturally, we also share many of the same values and have many of the same ideals. And this helps keeps us wealthy, secure, prosperous and powerful. You’d think this remarkable and historic achievement would be front and center, at the heart of our every political conversation or strategic discussion.
And of course you’d be wrong.
On the political right, US politicians drone on and on about an allegedly overwhelming threat from the Islamic world, as if Islam is a coherent, unified political concept. Really? Iran and Saudi Arabia would sooner overthrow each other than do anything to jointly enrich their region. Turkey and Egypt can’t stand each other. Indonesia and Malaysia hardly work together. The Central Asian countries barely even look at each other.
The Muslim world is badly divided against itself, consumed with rivalry, suspicion—and significant parts of it with bloody infighting. But it’s not just the Middle East. Who is Russia’s ally? Who is China’s? Who is India’s? Who is Brazil’s? I don’t just means convergences of interest, tacit or explicit cooperation to some short-term end. I mean deep, rich, surprisingly productive relationships that can turn into the European Union, a voluntary project to cede sovereignty in the name of a greater, larger cause.
Most countries would probably kill—possibly literally—to have friends like Taiwan, South Korea, or Japan. These friends are wealthy democracies with advanced, high-tech economies. Then there are the so-called “Five Eyes,” the Anglophone democracies of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, who have an enviable level of cooperation. Now add the rest of NATO and the European Union. Together, these countries are what make America truly great.
Because they’re also great. Combining the GDPs of these economies gives you roughly $45 trillion per annum, or four times the size of China, with a smaller population.
But while Western leaders seem to have completely forgotten how important their alliances are, you can rest assured our global competitors have not.
Russia’s war on the Syrian people is exacerbating a refugee problem that’s already threatened the European Union’s project of closer union. Yet politicians act as if this is a merely coincidental outcome, like Vladimir Putin doesn’t know or want this. Putin has his sights set on Angela Merkel, who governs Europe’s most powerful country, the anchor of the European Union. His government is funding far-right anti-European, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration parties who traffic in Islamophobia. They’re his Trojan horses. He exploits their outsized concern for the alleged threat of Islam—Slovakia’s recent election was decided on Islamophobia, even though the country has almost no Muslims, and has received no refugees—to advance his agenda.
And we seem to be none the wiser.
There’s an old colonial adage: Divide and conquer. Russia cannot possibly stand against America, let alone the combined wealth of the United States, the European Union and NATO. But without the EU, no single European country is big enough to stand up to Russia on its own, not even Germany. Moscow can pick them off, play them off one another, or simply separately intimidate them into collective acquiescence. We can’t see the forest for the Syrian refugees.
Once Russia dominates Europe, America loses its greatest national security and economic advantage: A deep and abiding fraternity with an economic and political bloc with more people, and more money, than even our own country.
But none of our Presidential candidates seem to have even thought seriously about Putin except for Trump, who—the exception proving the rule—praised him, even as he has insulted many of America’s closest allies.
Even ISIL understands the importance of a united Europe for Western and American power, and boasted that its attacks would break up the European Union. So why is it so hard for American politicians to see this, and offer any meaningful strategy for preventing it from coming to pass? Republican rival Ted Cruz wants to “patrol and secure” Muslim neighborhoods, but that’s not a strategy. It’s an ill-conceived and counter-productive tactic. Trump himself advocated for leaving NATO, and forsaking the EU, the very day before a coordinated terrorist attack on the city that houses the NATO and EU headquarters.
Instead of beating the war drums or ignoring the wider world altogether, our various presidential candidates should be going out of their way to talk up Europe and the West, to praise our allies and allay their concerns, to lay out serious plans to address the most important foreign policy questions of our time. These concern the refugee crisis and ongoing European integration, Russian threats against our Baltic and other allies, the consequences of a Brexit or Scottish separatism, as well as our eagerness to build walls between friends instead of bigger bridges.
What makes America great are our alliances, and that there is no better way to undermine us, and our friends, by eroding the ties that bind us.