A Birthday Letter to America

  • Tommy Koh
  • Straits Times

  • 2 July 2019

The United States of America was born on the 4th of July 1776. I wish America a happy 243rd Birthday on the 4th of July 2019.

I have spent 21 years of my life in that country. As a result, I have developed very positive feelings for America. In this essay, I wish to answer three questions. First, why do I admire America? Second, what are the differences between the America I knew and the America today? Third, what are my worries about the future of America?

Why I Admire America
I admire America for the generosity of its spirit; its idealism and leadership of the world, Post-World War Two; and for having been a safe haven for the world’s refugees, persecuted and others.

The best example of America’s generous spirit is the way it treated the two countries it defeated in the Second World War, namely, Japan and Germany.

America helped a war-ravaged Japan to rebuild its economy and infrastructure. It decided not to remove the Emperor even though he had been involved in Japan’s war time activities. It is remarkable that the former enemy is, today, one of America’s strongest allies.

The same happened in Germany. After the war, Germany, and much of Western Europe, lay in ruins. In 1948, the US Congress enacted the European Recovery Programme, popularly known as the Marshall Plan. The programme was the brain child of the then US Secretary of State, General George Marshall. Under the Plan, the United States gave to Western Europe an amount of aid, which is equivalent to US$100 billion, in today’s dollars. Instead of destroying the German economy, the United States decided that it was in her own national interest to help revive the German economy and industry.

Germany is today a democracy, an economic powerhouse and an ally of the United States, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

At the end of the Second World War, the United States was the most powerful country in the world. Because of its own anti-colonial history, the leaders of America had no interest in building an American empire. Instead, the United States supported the dissolution of the European empires and the process of de-colonisation.

Due to America’s vision and leadership, the victorious powers created a new world order which was inspired by the values of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, inclusivity and international cooperation. This architecture includes the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (the predecessor of WTO), and others.

Seventy years later, we are still enjoying the benefits of the rules-based international order created after the war.

Every visitor to New York would make a point of visiting the Statue of Liberty, on Liberty Island, in the New York Harbour. The Statue was a gift from the people of France, to the people of the United States, in 1886.

The lady holding the torch is the Roman Goddess of liberty, Libertas. A broken shackle and chain lie at her feet. The statute has become an icon of freedom and a symbol of America. Over the centuries, it has welcomed millions of refugees, fleeing famine, persecution and war, in Europe, as their ships arrived in New York.

The world admires the fact that, for many years, America has welcomed to its shores, persons fleeing persecution and death, such as the Jews of Europe; or fleeing famine, such as the Irish, during the period 1845 and 1849; and millions of bright young men and women from all over the world who aspired to achieve the American Dream.

The immigrants have strengthened and not weakened America. They brought talent, vitality, grit and diversity to the American family. Apart from the Native Americans, who are the indigenous people, every one else, is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant. In that sense, America can truly be said to be a nation of immigrants.

America Then and Now
I left America in 1990. Twenty-nine years later, America has become a different country. Although she is 243 years old, it has the heart of a young country; passionate, temperamental and given to violent mood swings.

The political pendulum swings frequently from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other. The country could be isolationist or interventionist. It could be pro-free trade or anti-free trade.

When I look at America today, what I miss most is the civility which used to exist between the leaders of the two parties in Washington. In the past, the American leaders would put country before party and party before self. In the US Congress, the leaders of the two parties were often able to work together for the national interest. I admired leaders, such as, Senator Richard Lugar (Republican) and Senator Sam Nunn (Democrat).

In contrast, the situation today is that the Democrats and Republicans view one another as enemies. Obstruction has replaced cooperation. Animosity has replaced mutual respect. The civility which I admired is a thing of the past. This is a gloomier America. It is certainly not a role model for the world.

Worries About the Future
My biggest worry is that America and China are on a collision course. They are not destined for war but war between them is no longer inconceivable. Speaking at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, the Defence Minister of China, General Wei Fenghe, had two messages for America. First, China did not have the intention or capability to challenge America’s global leadership. Second, if America wants to fight, China will fight to the end.

What is the fundamental problem between the United States and China? I think the fundamental problem is this. The Americans are accustomed to being the global superpower. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, they feel that there is a country which seeks to and has the potential ability to displace them. They perceive China, rightly or wrongly, as having the ambition to displace the US from its pole position. The American psyche is that it will never accept to be number two. If necessary, it will fight any challenger to its supremacy.

A wise American scholar, Professor Susan Shirk, has, in a recent lecture, attributed the current tension between the two countries to overreach by China and overreaction by America.

Professor Shirk gave several examples of China’s overreach, including its behaviour in the South China Sea and its declaration that it will be a high technology superpower by 2025.

Professor Shirk felt that America is overreacting to China’s rise. She warned that America is in danger of developing Sinophobia, reminiscent of the Red Scare during the McCarthy era. She also warned that any attempt to decouple the two economies would be ‘apocalyptic’.

In his keynote speech to the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said that the fundamental problem was the lack of strategic trust between Washington and Beijing. I agree with this diagnosis as well as that by Professor Susan Shirk. The imperative is for the leaders of the two countries to rebuild trust and to cool the rhetoric. There is no rational reason why they can’t cooperate and compete at the same time. And competition need not lead to conflict if they play by the same rules and acknowledge that they have more points of convergence than divergence.

I wish all my American friends a happy Independence Day on the 4th of July. I hope that, in the midst of celebration, they will take a moment to reflect on their country’s past, present and future. In Asia, many of us want America to be a strong, prosperous and self-confident country. We want America to continue to lead the world with wisdom and generosity.

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