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What Makes America Great

CAMBRIDGE – Presidential inaugurations and commencement ceremonies are usually very emotional events. They are rites of passage that mark both an end and a new beginning in the life of a country or an individual.

As a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, I attend our commencement ceremony every year. Despite this regularity, I still become emotional as I see my students complete a phase of their lives and contemplate their future.

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One of the highlights of our ceremony is a video in which several professors and public personalities read, line by line, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. It is a text written 56 years ago, in a different world, where the Cold War, the threat of nuclear Armageddon, and the challenges faced by so many newly independent poor states dominated policymakers’ concerns. And yet, running at under 14 minutes, it never fails to move and inspire everyone in the audience, including that half of the graduates and their families who hail from other countries, near and far.

To understand why, it is useful to recall a few of the most famous passages. For starters, there was Kennedy’s vow to defend freedom for its friends and from its enemies: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

There was also his commitment to fight poverty: “To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required – not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

And this commitment was part and parcel of hemispheric solidarity: “To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge – to convert our good words into good deeds – in a new alliance for progress – to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.”

Finally, there was Kennedy’s ethic of service on behalf of the commonwealth: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

These words’ enduring emotional appeal is rooted in their embrace of a potentially difficult course of action, motivated by a pledge to uphold values shared by citizens of America and the world alike. It was this approach – one founded on a value-based system of rules, not on individual deals – that enabled the US to create and sustain a coalition of countries that could maintain peace and international cooperation.

Fast forward to today. President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign narrative was based on the assumption that the US has fallen from its former greatness. Jobs have moved to Mexico and China because weak leaders negotiated bad deals. Immigrants, mostly illegal, have taken the few jobs that remain, killing and raping in their free time. It follows that the US needs a president who will put America first and knows how to extract the best deals for it at every opportunity, using the country’s full might to advance its interests.

I doubt that an inaugural address based on these ideas will awe and inspire many audiences at commencement ceremonies, especially where many of those in attendance are citizens of other countries. Such a speech will encourage no one to “bear any burden” for the sake of any universal principle or challenge, be it human rights or global warming. It will not exhort us to focus on something bigger than ourselves.

Over the course of history, very few powerful states have developed a sense of themselves as being based not on ethnic heritage, but on a set of values that all citizens can live by. For the US, it was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For the Soviet Union, it was international proletarian solidarity – “workers of the world, unite.” The European Union is based on universal values and principles that are so attractive that 28 countries have opted to join it; and, Brexit notwithstanding, some half-dozen more are trying to get in.

By contrast, a great and powerful Russia or China today – or the Third Reich in its time – may be able to garner the support of its citizens; but such states cannot constitute the basis of an international order that others find appealing, because they are based on a vision of themselves that does not encompass others.

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The basis of America’s greatness and ability to lead the world stems from universal values that underpin a set of rules that uphold the others’ rights, not an America that tries to base its greatness on a set of deals aimed at getting the better of others. Such an America will find its ability to lead the world compromised by a shortage of goodwill and an abundance of distrust. Other countries will huddle together to protect themselves from the US bully.

If Trump really wants to make America great again, he should ponder how his inaugural address will sound to a global audience 56 years from now. Will it inspire the Class of 2073 the way Kennedy’s address still inspires graduates today?