Is the United States a Hero or a Villain?

Hakan Altinay
Hakan Altinay Former Brookings Expert

July 3, 2010

Another July 4th is around the corner, and the United States will turn 250 in less time than children born this week need to graduate from high school. Will humanity consider the U.S. a hero or a villain when that happens?

At its founding, United States had the wherewithal to proclaim that all men are created equal, and are endowed with inalienable rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This proclamation turned out to be the most potent sentence ever uttered in the English — or in any other language, for that matter. More importantly, the United States did not merely make an audacious proclamation, but realized this bold vision set in 1776 in a gradual but steady fashion, and the American experience inspired many societies to go down a similar path. As a result, we now live in a world where human dignity and freedom reigns larger than any other time in our history. For this achievement alone, humanity owes a great deal to the American experiment and its inspiration.

The United States also gave the world electricity, light bulbs, cars, planes, phones, computers, internet and the Google Scholar. The sum total of these inventions means that the median human being in early 21st century has at her disposal greater capabilities than emperors, tycoons and geniuses of previous centuries. No other country in history improved the lot of humanity as much as the United States.

However, the United States’ track record has not been without blemish. The American conduct in Iran under Musadiq, in Chile under Allende, and in Vietnam, Dresden and Hiroshima — not to mention slavery and slow elimination of American Indians — are difficult to forget or forgive. Yet on balance, no country in history has contributed to humanity, its potential and its welfare more than the United States. The pervasive hubris found in the Bush administration and at the commanding heights of Wall Street precluded the rest of the world from expressing its gratitude to the United States. That should not be. On this July 4 and others yet to come, we should take the time and tell our American friends that we appreciate what their country has done for the rest of humanity.

Yet, in 2026, humanity may give a much harsher verdict on the American legacy. That is, if the U.S. does not do something dramatic about climate change, really soon. The efforts by the United States to combat climate change so far have been woefully inadequate and thoroughly incommensurate to the challenge at hand. We have already exceeded the safe level of 350 ppm. Greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for an average of 30 years, and nearly 30% of historical emissions originated from the United States. The chances of triggering an uncontrollable chain reaction are very real. If the rest of the world were to emit as much per capita carbon dioxide as the United States, we would be doomed for catastrophic results. We have known about climate change since 1987, and the evidence in the last 10 years have been has been unequivocal.

The U.S. can and should lead through funding and offering clean technologies to the rest of the world, while committing to stringent targets for itself. Continuing to fail to act is not only irresponsible, but suicidal. If the U.S. stays on business-as-usual course or shies away from the necessary steps due to parochial concerns, at the 250th anniversary, the world may have a severe verdict on the country that could have thwarted global catastrophic climate change, but did not. It would be tragic for the country which did so much for humanity to be judged so disparagingly at its 250th birthday.