The United States is the 800 pound gorilla in our livingroom. And just about everyone else's living room.
Not only is an 800 gorilla large and powerful enough to beunremovable, but it is also clumsy and may do more by way of damage than itadds to the pleasure of the others in the same living room.
The United States got to that status by being the last onestanding at the end of World War II. The Soviet Union was also standing, buthardly erect due to the loss of some 20 million residents and massive damageand dislocation in its homeland.
In the 70 years since then, the United States has used itsweight for good things and other things. Aid to help with the reconstruction ofEurope and Japan were the best achievements, along with nudging Europe awayfrom conflict and toward something like a new super country. Europe's historyand culture were the closest to those of the United States, and that helpedwith the relationship. Japan was a different story, but its history aided integrationto the enlarging group of democracies.
Also to the credit of the United States was containing theexpansion of the Soviet Union. It did a better job in Korea than Vietnam.
The story of the United States in the Middle East is farfrom over, and judgment to date is problematic. Its record in Latin America andAfrica is mixed, but they are not on the top of on anyone's agenda but theirown.
The gorilla is clumsy, in part, because Americans do not knowthemselves.
Perhaps all nations are parochial to an extent. I am, afterall, writing this from the political and spiritual center of God's ChosenPeople.
What I know about history also tells me that it was worsefor those having to endure the gorillas of earlier imperial powers. That is,the provinces and colonies ruled by Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, oneor another variety of Muslims, the Christians of Spain, Portugal, Belgium,France, the Netherlands and Great Britain, or the Communists of Russia.
Filipinos, Cubans, and a few others ruled by earliergenerations of Americans, not to mention the Indians and the people broughtover from Africa, suffered a lot worse than post-World War II WesternEuropeans, Japanese, Koreans, and Israelis.
The United States limited itself while being dominant amongthose creating the United Nations, with a veto shared in the Security Councilwith Russia, China, Britain, and France.
The best measure of the gorilla's poundage is its economicresources.
The American GDP in total is 2.5 times larger than thesecond largest economy (China, followed by Japan, Germany, France and Britain).
Americans are not the richest on a per capita basis, butthey do rank #11 among almost 226 countries and other places. Richer are thefolks in some tiny energy producing locales, as well as those of Liechtenstein,Bermuda, Luxembourg, Singapore, Jersey, and Norway (also thanks to energy).
What I mean by Americans not understanding themselves is a lackof sense as to where they fit in comparison with others.
It may be part of being the imperial giant that Americansdon't bother to compare themselves to others. Boasts about their extremes comenaturally to those living in the center of the world. Maps reinforce this.Those I remember from my schooldays put the Americas at the center, with anawkward division of the distant European-Asian landmass.
Maps used elsewhere keep the continents whole, with theAmericas on one side of the Atlantic and the cluster of Europe-Asia and Africaon the other side.
Israelis use Atlantic-centered maps. We recognize the shortcomingsof those that put Jerusalem at the center.
It'sappropriate to begin the discussion of Americans who do not know themselveswith claims of being over taxed. Insofar as taxes pay for the whole range ofwhat governments do, this claim is more central than others. It is also onethat gains prominence in a political campaign where Republicans are competingwith one another on dimensions of conservatism. And the claim of beingovertaxed is one of the most bizarre, evident to any who look at the data.
Theeffective tax rate for all levels of government added together in the UnitedStates is 26.9 percent of GNP. There is no western democracy with a lower taxrate than that. Denmark's rate is 49 percent, Israel's is 36.8 percent, and theaverage of OECD members (most of them Western European) is 40 percent.
There arethose who claim that low taxes is the hallmark of democracy and that the UnitedStates is the most democratic country, or--in some extreme formulations--the onlytrue democracy. I can only urge people who believe that to open a text oncomparative government.
Americans also moan about the high cost of gasoline, andfear its escalation if their country moves too forcefully against Iran.
Americans are nowpaying somewhere around than $3.75 a gallon. Israelis and most Europeans arepaying more than $8 a gallon. A recent survey showed American fuel pricesranked #101 from the top in a list of 141 countries.(Americans who look at these data may be confused, insofar as the numbers arecost per liter, which is the conventional way of measurement outside the UnitedStates. For those who have trouble with metrics, a liter is about one fourth ofan American gallon.)
American claims of excessive generosity often appear withcomplaints about high taxes and giving so much to foreign aid. Several of myinternet friends have accused me of anti-Americanism, and ask how that fitswith Israel being the largest recipient of American aid.
The United States is the world leader in total aid, but lagssignificantly in aid as a percentage of its economic resources.
One has to be wary of the numbers. Aid comes under differentcategories. On a measure of "development assistance" which may notinclude military aid, the United States ranks 19th out of 23 countries withrespect to the amount given in relation to economic resources. By this measure,the countries most generous are Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg and Netherlands.
On a measure of countries receiving intergovernmentaldevelopment aid as a percentage of their resources, Israel ranks way down thelist, #97 out of 120 countries.
By some measures, the United States does give more aid toIsrael than to any other country. Virtually all of it is military aid. By othermeasures, however, what we might call the "military aid" that theUnited States has allocated in recent years to Iraq and Afghanistan dwarfs thatgiven to Israel.
One can also argue about the component of generosity inforeign aid, as opposed to the component of self-interest.
Most American aid is tied to purchases made within theUnited States that benefit American farmers, industries, and workers. Ownersand workers in those sectors are amongthe supporters of foreign aid.
Another benefit that the aid provides to the United Statesis the willingness of recipients to coordinate their actions with Americanpolicy. The United States may not "dictate" to the countries thatreceive its aid, but there is pressure.
Health is another sensitive area of public policy. TheUnited States is the world leader in total health expenditures per capita, andhealth expenditures as a percentage of GDP. On health expenditures per capita,it exceeds the second highest country (Norway) by almost 50 percent. On healthexpenditures as a percentage of GDP, it exceeds the second highest country(Netherlands) by about the same ratio.
What the American citizens receive from those expendituresis--on the whole--shameful when measured by conventional measures of publichealth. In average life expectancy, the United States ranks #36, below mostEuropean countries as well as Japan, Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore, Macao,United Arab Emirates, South Korea, and Chile.On one measure of longevity, the United States is tied with Cuba. On infantmortality, the United States ranks in about the same place, #34.
America firsters shout at these statistics as unfair. Theyclaim that Americans suffer on health indicators on account of certainpopulation groups, poor diet, and other bad practices. They assert thatAmericans benefit from the world's best medicine, that all can obtain athospital emergency rooms.
Claims about the world's best medicine may be partly true,but only for those with the best insurance. They do not explain the huge gapbetween national wealth and overall expenditures on health on the one hand, andabysmal life expectancy and infant mortality rankings on the other hand. Othercountries, including Israel, also have minority populations that are outsidethe mainstream in knowledge or practices that contribute to health. Whatdistinguishes the United States is the lack of comprehensive health insuranceavailable to the entire population, and what that means for routine treatment, healtheducation, preventive care, and follow up after a crisis that has brought oneto an emergency room. President Obama's health reform, assuming the SupremeCourt cooperates, may fix some of these indicators over time. However, theheavy reliance on profit-making health insurers may limit thoseaccomplishments.
A recent visit to Rome added to my understanding of Americanpretensions. Rome was arguably more powerful and dominant in its time than theUnited States has been since 1945.
All those monumental buildings and heroic statues look a lotlike what Americans have built in Washington. Mussolini was responsible forsome of what we see in Rome. We know how empty was his pomposity and how heended. Some years ago during a visit to a village in Ethiopia we were the onlyWhites at a Saturday market, and a number of people greeted us with buon giorno. That may beall that remains of Il Duce'sEmpire.
Some who claim the label of futurists say that we--or our children orgrandchildren--ought to learn Chinese. A generation ago, the same people weretalking about Japanese. Pessimists are talking about Arabic.
It is too early to speak with confidence about the end ofthe American era. The European Community is one of the most promisinginnovations of the past century. It is partly a product of American aid andprodding, and the closest it has to a linguafranca is English.
Bombast may be an inherent feature of empire, even an empirethat does its work more with influence and pressure than with dictate.
Americans might be more attractive in their comments aboutthemselves and others if they recognized the realities of their low taxes, lowcost of fuel, shortcomings in public health, and problems in their claims aboutforeign aid. Yet being modest and truly cosmopolitan in outlook may never havebeen the hallmarks of empire.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem