Why We Do What We Do

“All in all … there is no more profitable and sound step for a nation without money or credit to take than declare war on the United States and suffer a total defeat.”
— Duchess Gloriana XII, Duchy of Grand Fenwick

(from The Mouse that Roared)

What pride I feel in my own government for the role it is playing, at great cost in both blood and treasure, to help bring Democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan.

It has not been uncommon for countries to wage war. Typically, though, it is done to gain territory or natural resources or to enslave a people. Only the United States seems to wage war, defeat its enemy, then do all it can to help its former enemy achieve economic prosperity and a successful polity.

Of course, one didn’t have to wait for elections in Iraq to know how the United States does things. Just look at the world following the end of World War II and contrast the behavior of the Soviet Union with that of the United States. Wherever the Red Army reached, it never retreated. Forming an “iron curtain” — as Churchill put it — across the continent, the Red Army remained in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and controlled those countries right up to the day the Soviet empire collapsed and the Berlin Wall fell.

On the other hand, the way the United States treated Japan and Germany was most generous. The United States so clearly coveted nothing except peace that in 1955 an Irish writer named Leonard Wibberley published a famous satire, The Mouse that Roared, in which a small, impoverished nation finds a pretext to declare war on the United States. Certain it will quickly lose, the nation’s leaders conclude they will profit greatly from being generously rebuilt by the U.S.A.

Of course, not everyone recognizes U.S. generosity. There was that U.N. official, for example, who declared American aid to tsunami victims “stingy”. His comment told you more about the limited vision of U.N. officials than about America’s contribution to disaster relief.

When all is said and done, the U.S. government will donate more than anyone else to the relief effort. This has been true of every major disaster since World War II. More importantly, all the official records will dramatically understate the American contribution. They rarely take into account in-kind donations, and the United States is the only nation in the world capable of delivering much in the way of true emergency aid.

It is not even a question of national generosity; it is a question of national capabilities. Only the United States has a navy with helicopters at the ready to help people. That U.N. official may not like it, but an early delivery of aid is actually priceless. What is more, an awful lot of American aid is delivered through private charities.

The U.N. is such a statist institution that it seems able to recognize only official state contributions. But that is not the way Americans do things. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville notes the U.S. penchant for forming citizen groups to solve all problems: “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations…In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.”

So don’t be surprised if Americans funnel their contributions to tsunami relief through private charitable groups. This kind of American donation will exceed those of the rest of the world combined.

And long-term, many nations that tout their generosity give money to help alleviate suffering in poor nations but do almost nothing to help poor people and poor nations to join modernity.

No country lets in immigrants as the United States does, and there has been in the history of the world, no more certain lift-up than to move to the United States. And despite a few protectionist rules, by and large, the U.S. economy is the most open in the world, and that creates opportunities for poor people and poor nations to trade so they can build prosperity for themselves and their nations.

What ties together American relief efforts is America’s own experience of nation-building. For in the United States, we have as diverse a population as exists in the world, and we fought a hard and bloody civil war to keep our nation together.

The way we have come to keep the peace domestically is by providing an infrastructure of peace and stability, property rights and education, and then allowing each individual the freedom to pursue happiness.

Maybe some will recoil, but a society obsessed with getting new washing machines, the latest car or visiting the hottest vacation spot is unlikely to invade its neighbors and plot terrorism. It is likely to be a society that values peace, accepts compromise and recognizes people have private differences. There is something very noble about that.