BY MOST MEASURES, the first phase of America's war on terrorism has been extremely successful: The Taliban is in ruins, al-Qaida is on the run, Afghanistan has been liberated, our coalition has held up, security at airports is improving, and the worst fears of anthrax scares and other acts of domestic terror have so far not materialized.
As policymakers debate the next moves, I want to call attention to a step that President George W. Bush and other national leaders can make - a step that would at once be both simple and difficult to carry out, but one that might be seen as highly significant around the world. I have in mind a renunciation of American exceptionalism, particularly in its religious form.
I urge that the president and other leaders introduce a simple and permanent change in public rhetoric. Instead of saying "God bless the United States," say "God bless Afghanistan, the Americas and all the other peoples of the world." Declare "God bless our planet" or "God bless our world," instead of "God bless America."
From long before we became a nation, the American people have always thought of ourselves as special. Our land was unsurpassingly vast, beautiful, uncharted. Those in search of political, religious or personal freedom could come here and forge new lives for themselves, and our founding fathers were remarkably prescient in the forms of government that they fashioned. Given the heavily religious orientation of early waves of immigrants, the emerging colonies and the new United States were readily seen as God's chosen representatives on "the city on a hill."
This exceptionalism - the United States as God's chosen nation - has appeared to be confirmed by the events of the 19th and 20th centuries. Our remarkable growth continued, our form of government proved amazingly robust, all sorts of uniquely American voluntary organizations arose, "common" public schools for all citizens were launched, and the nation undertook, if haltingly, to repair the damage done to American Indians and to the victims of the slave trade - the latter through a painful civil war.
We were also capable of acts of selflessness, such as the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe after the second World War. It is not surprising that Abraham Lincoln characterized us as the "last best hope of Earth" and that Woodrow Wilson called America "the only idealistic nation in the world."
Every country is patriotic, and those countries that achieve great power have reason to be especially proud. Spain in the 16th century, France in the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain in the 19th century and Germany in 1940 are well-known examples of this hauteur.
But in the middle and late 20th century, America's triumph stood out above all other countries. Indeed, the unparalleled economic and military hegemony that we have achieved in the past decade has made us not only the world's sole superpower, but quite possibly the most successful nation in the history of the world. Our long-standing feeling of specialness has seemed to be vindicated by the objective march of history.
It is risky enough to suggest that a country (or a people) is special. It is riskier to make this suggestion when the eyes of the world are upon that country. And it is riskiest to suggest that this special status has been endorsed by God. Yet we do this regularly: Speeches delivered from the Oval Office routinely end with the words "God Bless the United States of America." Consciously or not, Americans insult the rest of the world by suggesting repeatedly that we are God's chosen vessel in the world and that our illustrious fate is a sign of God's providence.
None of us can know whether a divine force plays favorites. It seems unlikely. Individuals and organizations who have achieved much need not brag - indeed, they should be modest. Interestingly, Bush, as a member of a most accomplished and impressive family, seems to understand the virtues of humility on the personal level.
Clearly, calling upon God to bless the world instead of America exclusively is a simple step - one that calls only for a change in a line of type or editing by a blue pencil. Yet the change might not be an easy one to make. Since childhood, Americans are used to hearing our leaders invoke the divine in matters of state and close their speeches with a prayer or a blessing. Critics could accuse a president of being sacrilegious - even though the charge would have no merit. Still, I think such a change would be genuinely appreciated, by both our supporters and critics around the world, as an explicit recognition that our success as a nation is contingent, not mandated, and that in any event our fate is now inexorably tied to events and forces that we cannot claim to control.
This move toward a more universalistic sentiment would make it easier for us to call on our allies to work with us not only in fighting terrorism but also in building up global security, democractic institutions and better life chances for individuals all over the world. At a time of irrevocable globalization, such a simple change of words might just move us a bit closer to a more peaceful world.
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