My remotest ancestors on this continent settled in Maryland in 1634, as titled freeholders under the sheltering canopy of a royal charter. I do not come from hardy immigrants who set out from their native soils to make a desperate crossing in steerage to a distant, near-mythical land of limitless possibility called “America.” I fear that, during the great age of immigration, when those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” began arriving on these shores in appreciable numbers, my people probably shuttered their windows and exchanged alarmed whispers about the influx of foreigners.
As a result, I was not really raised with any firm sense of being an American; it was not part of my family mythology. We were Marylanders first and foremost, and Americans only by an accident of history.
For many of the older generations of my relatives—especially my seemingly immortal distaff grandmother and great-aunts—the map of the respectable world terminated to the north just past the Mason-Dixon Line (beyond which, only the inscription “Here there be Yankees”) and to the south at the Potomac, with the western and eastern extremities simply gently melting away into the lush green of the Appalachians or the glaucous billows of the Atlantic.
Even within my immediate family, with its greater liberality, it was still chiefly Maryland that claimed our loyalty: her colorful history, her delectable cuisine, her flamboyantly armigerous flag, her bellicose state anthem. America was an afterthought. This is not to say I was raised with any romantic illusions about our colonial or even recent past; I knew that my ancestors displaced the original indigenous peoples of the Chesapeake, that ours had been a slave state, and that our schools had remained segregated right up to 1954. It is only to say that I grew up with the sense that Maryland, not the United States, was my homeland.
In recent decades, moreover, as the emerald fields and forests of my native Howard County have been swallowed up in the gray squalid sprawl of urban development, to accommodate all those (principally northern) Ausländer who have moved into the region to work in D.C., and as the soft, lyrical, distinctly Southern lilt of the central Maryland accent has been drowned under a hideous deluge of slurred syllables, guttural vowels, and glottal stops, I have at times found myself thinking of Americans much as the Helots must have thought of the Spartans.
Perhaps this explains, at least in part, my inability to join full-throatedly in that interminable chorus of self-congratulation that is American patriotism. Not to say I do not appreciate our national virtues or magnificent landscapes. I certainly have no desire to live anywhere else. My devotion to baseball is damnably idolatrous.
But, in general, my love of country is a quiet, somewhat reclusive emotion that does not like to disport itself in the open. I cannot feel whatever my compatriots feel when they make wildly exorbitant claims about America’s unsurpassable epochal importance; I certainly cannot seriously credit the claim—which I have heard all my life—that America is the “greatest nation on earth,” or even the “greatest nation in history.”
What could that possibly mean?
I suppose much depends on what one’s criteria of greatness are. Certainly America is an extraordinary nation, unprecedented in its social constitution and many of its political principles. It is very rich and very powerful. It has done quite a lot of good in the world at various times, more than those who resent its prominence are willing to grant, but also its fair share of evil. In those terms, perhaps its greatness is unrivalled.
If, however, one thinks of “national greatness” diachronically, as referring to a people’s record of contributions to civilization—the arts and the sciences—then, of course, America cannot begin to compare to a truly great nation like, say, France. Admittedly, the French have had a couple of millennia head start on us, and at present do not seem to be spinning out Villons and Racines and Debussys and Rodins the way they used to. But, given how vast, violent, cretinous, and destructive American popular culture’s assault on civilization has been, it may be some time yet before our negative balance has been cleared.
Even taking a more synchronic view, however, I cannot see the US as the world’s greatest nation. Yes, it is a splendidly energetic, vibrant, multifarious, astonishingly ingenious and shockingly idiotic engine of cultural invention and destruction. Its people are uncommonly generous. The ease with which it integrates diverse peoples into a single living culture and polity is awe-inspiring.
But my narrow notion of what entitles a country to the designation “greatest” is a matter not only of the goodness of a nation’s folk, but of the “moral luck” of special circumstances; and the exigencies of history have denied America the luxury of such circumstances.
So, if you are interested, my nominee for “Greatest Nation on Earth,” at least at present, is Bhutan (or, as its natives call it, Druk Yul: “Dragonland”): the tiny and ravishingly beautiful mountain kingdom nestled between India and China at the Eastern end of the Himalayas. Until two years ago, it was technically an absolute monarchy, under the rule of the Wangchuk Dynasty; but the Wangchuk kings of recent decades have been so enlightened and benevolent that practically no one wanted any change in the political system.
Nevertheless, in 2006, evidently thinking it for the best, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk spontaneously decreed that his nation would become a parliamentary democracy, with a cabinet empowered to depose a bad king, and then abdicated in order to allow his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk to preside over the transition. In 2008, the Bhutanese people reluctantly but dutifully cast their votes and brought the Peace and Prosperity party to power.
What has made Bhutan under the modern Wangchuks especially remarkable has been its strict stewardship of its own resources and traditions, which it has accomplished with very nearly a minimum of coercion or injustice (though there have been a few instances of both). The royal government has preserved the natural environment—forest, fields, and rivers—in pristine condition, in part through rigidly limiting tourism.
It has also jealously guarded the country’s civic aesthetics against the ravages of utilitarian drabness. No building in the nation may be constructed that does not follow the classical canons of Bhutanese architecture; almost every structure is an elegant affair, harmoniously proportioned and lavishly adorned in the traditional style: abstract figurations, deities, dragons, apotropaic phalluses—tumid, emissive, and immense. (I suppose I could do without that last curious cultural eccentricity, admittedly, but it all goes back to the lunatic tantric saint Drugpa Kunley; and I hear that it really does keep the demons away.)
On top of all this, though, the country boasts better healthcare, better education, and a more solvent economy than any of its neighbors. While resisting the worst of modernity, Bhutan has found a way to see to the needs of its people with a provident efficiency otherwise unknown in its part of the world.
True, Bhutan has no military power to speak of; its foreign policy is conducted by proxy, through India. But that means the Bhutanese are rarely obliged to violate their most venerated moral virtues (gentleness, humility, honor) in pursuit of some geopolitical end, or to soothe their consciences with repellant euphemisms like “collateral damage.”
And Bhutan has a dragon on its flag. Who would not want to pledge allegiance to a flag with a dragon on it?
Of course, not every nation can be a Bhutan. Perhaps Bhutan cannot be Bhutan indefinitely. With the advent of electoral politics, a political class may take shape, with all the corruption, cynicism, ambition, and habitual dishonesty that usually implies. Perhaps the recent, ill-advised introduction of television into the country will make the Bhutanese as moronic as San Franciscans and Londoners. And it will be hard for Bhutan to remain an island of peace amid the turbulent seas of history, especially with a ruthless and predatory neighbor like China lurking over its northern mountain ranges.
But, for now, Bhutan conforms better than any other modern state to my criteria for national greatness: a sane way of life, a thriving ecology, civilized aesthetic and ethical principles, an absolute prohibition on strip malls, and general harmlessness.
Oh, and dragons, of course—plenty of dragons.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things and a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.