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A global superpower, land of freedom and opportunity and the home of the brave and courageous. The United States of America can be described in many ways, but can it be described as the best country on Earth? If the question was asked 50 years ago, one would expect to hear a much different answer than they would today. Half a century ago, Americans were much happier and optimistic about the country's future. This is because Americans then realized the true capabilities of a union which shares one important value: optimism in the future.

Today, many Americans are grim and pessimistic — which can possibly be explained by heightened distrust in government institutions at home while taking heed to the increasing creation of other free and innovative sovereignties abroad. Young Americans notice the fact that America is 18th in science, 36th in math, according to 2018 data from the Programme for International Student Assessment; 8th in GDP per capita; and falls outside the top 50 for life expectancy. The U.S. also has the highest intentional homicide rate compared to other G7 countries. 

Through these metrics, it is apparent the U.S. is one of the better countries in the world — as there are almost 200 countries total. And although quantitative analysis is critically important when comparing different countries, in this case, it necessarily misses a crucial aspect of the assessment. The debate isn’t entirely about the results of a prosperous country, but rather why that country is able to be prosperous at all. Through incentivization and promotion of freedom, liberty and opportunity, the U.S also maintains its culture of criticism: persisting to progress through research and open discussions. 

Although half of Americans agree that America is the best country on Earth, older Americans — born 1928-1964 — are much more likely to agree with the statement compared to younger Americans. The exact reason for this is unknown, but it must be in part due to the rise of progress, freedom and prosperity in other countries such as Germany, Japan and India. It could also be due to the increase in skepticism of traditional norms domestically: gay marriage, trickle-down economics, global warming and even our own election process and amendment rationale.

Gil Hersch, an assistant professor in social and political philosophy at Virginia Tech, says that based on citizens’ happiness, America isn’t the best country. He goes on to say that America does not seem to live up to the ideas it has promoted since its inception.

“Based on the latest Gallup survey of happiness by country, and on that account the U.S. is not the greatest,” Hersch said. “There are all sorts of ways America leads the world, and it is full of lofty ideals, but when operationalized, you can see the notions of freedom don’t always occur in the ways we discuss.”

50 to 100 years ago, it was presumably much more evident that America was leading the world in almost every category compared to today. America has not taken major steps backward, but instead that other countries have taken extremely large steps forward. China and Russia are perceived as the other superpower competitors to the U.S. — the ones who could take the number one spot. Other G7 and NATO countries are also leaders in most of these categories, but many of them are not regarded as the best country in the world despite being leaders in many major statistical categories — education, crime, innovation and research. So what sets America apart from all of them? 

First, America exhibited to the world that it was possible to create a sovereign and innovative nation through the power of good ideas and collaboration: championing democracy, equality and free speech over power, hierarchy and authority. The U.S. is not the sole inspiration of these ideas, but nevertheless a main beacon of freedom, innovation and prosperity to many seeking liberty and optimism. The fact that the U.S. started as a suppressed colony resisting the world’s greatest power, and now is more influential and powerful than any other country, tells just how these ideas have shaped the prosperous nation. We are a representation of resisting tyranny and creating a critical and collaborative system. 

Secondly, the U.S. has led the world, including Russia, China and the other G7 countries, in these efforts through humanitarian aid, military protection, financial assistance and trade — collaborating with countries abroad to solve important global problems. We have seen evidence of this just in the last decade. 

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “in 2014, following years of accusations of election corruption in Georgia, USAID sent targeted political development aid to local organizations there to train and deploy election monitors. In 2020, the United States committed $4 billion in humanitarian assistance to an international partnership aiming to provide COVID-19 vaccines to ninety-two low- and middle-income countries.” 

Just this year alone, the U.S. has sent Ukraine $25 billion in order to defend itself from Russia — over $20 billion more than any other country in the world. There is an argument to be made that America possesses the most wealth, so they would assuredly be the ones to financially support other countries and their developments. But this is not necessarily true. China, Japan and Germany lead the world, along with the U.S. in total GDP, while Switzerland and Australia also lead the world in GDP per capita, but none of these countries come close to the U.S. total global efforts through the centuries. The United States is a leader in creating new and more efficient methods of living and in criticism of tyranny and oppression, both abroad and at home. 

The U.S. is a leader in other aspects as well. They have the world’s largest public spending budget, assisting individuals who are struggling while creating new opportunities for everyone by bolstering the economy as a whole. The U.S. is in the top five for Gross Domestic Spending on research and development and has the most scientific studies and citations of any country in the world. America is number one for technology and innovation. Eight of the best 10 universities in the world are located in the U.S. Finally, and of the utmost importance, is freedom of speech: The U.S. polls number one in free speech, number one in internet freedom, number one in freedom of expression and number two in media freedom, lagging by two percentage points.

Unfortunately, the U.S. also ranks number one in incarceration rate, total gun deaths, illegal drug use, divorce and healthcare spending. Now, although these are critically important problems to solve, they are soluble. Because the U.S. has such a great culture of criticism and incentivizes and promotes diversity of thought, the problems that are important to the country can be solved. Through these free, opportunistic and innovative environments the U.S. provides, Americans should feel confident and optimistic about solving any problem it faces. 

“The U.S. is very good across all sorts of metrics, but one thing I would highlight is the smug satisfaction which will never let any country improve,” Hersch said. “Different countries perform well on different metrics. The U.S. can still learn things from other countries.”

There are, indeed, many prosperous nations, and some of them may even provide an individual with a better lifestyle compared to if they lived in the U.S. However, for all the reasons previously mentioned — good and bad — the United States is the best country in the world. Not because America is the smartest or the safest, or even because it has the most wealth and power, but because of the principled founding ideas of the union, which have been promoted, spread and practiced globally.

 

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