Why is the United States a global superpower? There are many responses to this question, all of which have played an important part of the answer. Among these are the geographical fortune to be surrounded by oceans and non-threatening neighbors, enormous expanses of land and vast natural resources, a constitutional and democratic system of government, wise leadership, wildly talented citizens, and an unparalleled military. These and other reasons explain why American power was predominant for nearly the entire 20th century, why we emerged as the sole superpower after the Cold War, and why we remain unchallenged in our ability to project influence across the globe.
But there is one reason that stands out to me above the others, responsible not for American hard power but American influence and soft power, and it is this: America is not just a place. America is an idea. The immigrants who flocked here in droves in the 19th and 20th centuries were not doing a cost-benefit analysis of the relative strengths of the American military or land mass compared to other European countries. The billions of people around the globe today who lap up American culture do not do so because they admire the separation of powers laid out in the first three articles of the Constitution. The strength of American brands is not because McDonalds has some sort of culinary secret that eludes Chinese fast food companies. It is because people around the world have historically seen the United States not just as a place on the map, but as something bigger. The power of the American dream and the iconography of the Statue of Liberty mean something. They have value far beyond feel-good expressions of patriotism. They represent America as something for which to strive, as an expression of hopes and dreams for a better life, as a fulfillment of a quest for ultimate safety and prosperity and liberty. They represent America not just as a place for Americans, but – as Ronald Reagan so aptly put when borrowing from John Winthrop – a shining city upon a hill for the entire world. The power of the United States comes from many sources, but more than anything else it comes from the strength of the American idea.
Leave aside your politics for a moment. I don’t care whom you voted for, which party you identify with, whether you think we are stronger together or want to make America great again. If the power of America as an idea dies, American power will shortly follow. Keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism is vital, but the executive order signed by President Trump on Friday temporarily keeping citizens – including U.S. green card holders – of seven countries from entering our own, halting the admission of refugees from anywhere in the world, and shutting the door indefinitely to refugees from Syria does not do that. What it does is irreparably damage the American idea, the one that Emma Lazarus described as a world-wide welcome for those yearning to breathe free. Surely we are better than this. Surely we can agree that we face legitimate and scary threats from overseas without casting a viciously wide net. Surely we do not want to become just another country with a large economy and a powerful army. Surely we do not want to stop being Americans.
This is the challenge that we now face. I have never made any secret of how I felt about Candidate Trump, and my reservations about President Trump are even bigger. But in evaluating everything that comes over the next four years, do not lose sight for a moment of how powerful and important for all of us it is to maintain America as an idea. Doing so will be more important than the sum total of every individual policy outcome. In all instances, do your best to ensure that we continue to lift our lamp beside the golden door. Because when the idea of America is snuffed out, we forever become just another country.