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Nguyễn Quốc Khải.

                                           

Great United States of America

Khai NguyenJuly 2, 2015

Thanks to movies and books, I have thought that the United States is a great country since I was young. Less than two centuries from its founding days, the United States has become a number one of the world’s powers after World War I. In the early 1970s, after a tough selection process, I got a scholarship from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and set foot in the United States, an opportunity for me to gropingly learn how the United States was so powerful. The USAID recommended three universities to me: Ohio State University, Louisiana State University, and University of Florida. I chose the university in the sunny state of Florida due to my fear of cold weather. After admission, l shared with three American students a suite with two bedrooms, a studio combining a living space and a small kitchen on the 9th floor of a 12-story dormitory building.

A month later, I learned that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was about to launch a Skylab into an earth orbit. I wanted to witness a great program of the United States. Unfortunately, my window faced north whereas Cape Canaveral, where the rocket would be launched, was in the south. In any case, I would have not been able to watch the lift-off because the launch pad was 170 miles away.

The great things about America that people often think of are the skyscrapers in New York City, the highway system crisscrossing the country, the Apollo program landing the first humans on the Moon, the space shuttle, the Nobel Prizes obtained by the scientists of the United States, the average income of the American people and the famous Universities. According to a study by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, among 20 of the world’s best universities, 17 are in the United States.

1/ Since I came to the U.S. to study, I’ve been in this country continuously for over 40 years, a whole lot more time than my living in Vietnam. This period is long enough for me to learn more about this young and powerful nation. The greatest power status that the United States has achieved is not due to the big size of its land, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Indeed, Russia is much larger than the United States. China and Canada have land areas close in size with that of the United States. Brazil and Australia are not much smaller than the United States.

The U.S. is a great country not because it has a large population. Indeed, China and India have much larger populations, which are about four times that of the United States, more or less, but the averages of the gross domestic product per person of China and India are far behind that of the United States. Singapore, Norway, and Switzerland, though much smaller than the U. S. in terms of population and land, have averages of income per capita which are higher than that of the United States.

The United States has achieved great things due to simple, ordinary but extremely important factors that many countries such as Vietnam simply does not have because backward culture burden puts the strain on their shoulder and their neck along with some outdated dogma.

                                                     

I came to the United States for the first time in the spring of 1970 on a quartermaster four-month training and observation program. Sometimes we had opportunities to visit a few beautiful places of the United States by bus. Each time at a railroad crossing intersection the driver stopped the bus, opened all the bus exit doors, before driving through the crossing, even though there was no vehicles, no people at all in the open space clearly visible from all directions. Today, sometimes I drive at one or two o’clock in the morning, I see people patiently waiting for the green light, not passing the red light, although streets are completely deserted. The Americans’ high respect of discipline is one of the factors that make this country strong.  The American people respect the discipline in part because U.S. laws are very strict. Moreover, the people make their own laws through their representatives in the Government or the legislature.

I worked many years in Washington-DC. Sometimes I walked to the National Geographic Society (NGS) at noon to see exhibitions, searching maps and browsing over new books. For a very long time I thought NGS was a government agency, because of the impressive stature of this agency with respect to its facilities and great works, but actually this is a private non-profit association, established in 1888, for the study of archaeology, geography, natural sciences, and environment protection. The NGS Magazine has 700 million readers each month. This publication is printed in 40 different languages. The NGS annual budget is about $ 500 million.

NGS is one of more than 1.5 millions of non-governmental organization (NGO) in the United States. 2/  These organizations play an active role in drafting the law, making government policy, affecting all levels of society. The activities of these organizations cover such issues as human rights, labor, the environment, development, health, family planning, charity, animal protection, protection of minority groups, etc. Some organizations do not offer any services. They carry out lobby activities to advocate the rights of the groups of people they represent. NGOs play an important role in helping the United States advance.

I have an old and close friend in the same State of Virginia. He has a son who did extraordinarily well in high school. The University Of Virginia (UVA) offered him a four-year full scholarship.

According to the U.S. News and World Report, UVA was ranked 23rd across the U.S. but its undergraduate engineering program was at the top nationwide, second among the public American universities, and sixth among business programs. But my friend’s son did not accept this scholarship and selected the University of Pennsylvania, one of the eight Ivy League schools, ranked eighth out of the total number of the universities in the U.S.  All five best universities in the United States offered my friend’s son admission upon his completion of the BS program at the University of Pennsylvania. In the United States, good students have many opportunities to choose good schools. By the same token, schools compete for good students.  Companies and government agencies sometimes go to good schools to recruit excellent students. Such a healthy competitive system helps bring many talents on to the leadership in every field. That is one of the reasons why the United States has advanced so much and until now no country has caught up with it. According to the annual rankings by the International Institute of Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland, the United States topped the list of the countries with highest competitiveness in the world, followed by Switzerland, Hong Kong, Sweden, and Singapore. Germany ranked 9. China and Russia in turn reached 21 and 42 of 60 countries IMD researched.

One of the reasons why the United States has high competitiveness is due to its productivity. Labor productivity is measured by the ratio of the gross domestic product to the number of hours worked. According to the 2012 statistics of the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD), the United States ranked fourth behind Norway, Luxembourg, and Ireland. Russia ranked 36, just above Mexico, among the 37 OECD member countries. 3/

One of those painful experiences during our school years in Vietnam was the rote learning system. When preparing for the Baccalaureate exams, students had to recite a lot of different subjects they learned throughout the whole year. Since learning by the books and doing very little practice, students memorized so much like a parrot, but did not understand much, therefore sooner or later after exams, they tended to forget what had been taught in classrooms.

This way of education is called “drill-and-kill teaching” in English, which is still applied in China and Vietnam, plus the Socialist dogma and Ho Chi Minh ideology. Luckily the American schools use the credit system. After successfully finishing exams on the subjects just learned in the last three or six months, students will have credits for these courses.  Students often have mid-term tests.  The exams in general require critical thinking rather than rote learning. The “drill-and-kill teaching” ruins creativity.

What students fear the most is an open book exam or take-home exam because it requires students’ deep judgment.  This type of exams is usually applied to graduate students. As a professorial lecturer at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, I often asked students to select a book in the reading list and required students to answer four questions: (1) What the author wants to say?; (2) What are the points you agree with the author and why; (3) What are the points you disagree with the author and why? and (4) Your conclusion.

Creativity and competitiveness are directly related to each other. According to Prof. Richard Florida at the University of Toronto, nobody clearly understands what brings about the prosperity, a miracle in the United States in more than a past century. However, according to him, a key factor behind the success of the United States is its openness to new ideas. Ideas do not fall from the sky but they come from humans. All the amenities and inventions which increase productivity such as iPod and GPS are created by people. The human creative class of 38 million people in the United States includes scientists, engineers, architects, educators, artists, musicians, and entertainers. Their mission is to create new ideas, new technology, or new content. 4/ To encourage creativity, the U.S. law expressly protects inventions and copyrights, including a photo that has just been captured by a camera or a newly composed piece of music.

Thanks to a comprehensive immigration policy, the United States acquired much of the talent from other countries, particularly from Europe when many people escape from fascist and communist regimes during the Second World War and the cold war. Philosopher and physicist Albert Einstein carried many different nationalities: Wurttemberg, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. In a visit to the United States in 1933, as a follower of Judaism, he decided not to return to Germany to evade the Nazi regime when Adolf Hitler became its chancellor. Albert Einstein became a U.S. citizen in 1940.

German Space Engineer Wernher von Braun settled in the United States after World War II ended in Europe. Russian-born computing scientist Sergey Mikhaylovich Brin immigrated to America in 1979 when he was 6 years old. Nearly 20 years later, he, along with former classmate Larry Page at Stanford University, founded the Google company. Electrical engineer Sabeer Bhatia of Indian origin studied in the USA since 1988, co-founded Hotmail along with colleague Jack Smith in 1996. Hotmail has 372 million users, ranking second after Google. 5/

The U.S. economic development has progressed through three eras. Foremost is the agricultural era. Next is the industrial era. Over past three or four decades, the United States has entered an era of creativity. In the last 10 years there were signs proving the creativity of the United States risk going down. Indeed, according to the study by Prof. Richard Florida, the ratio of the human creative class to the total number of employees of the United States ranked 11th behind ten countries including Ireland, Belgium, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Estonia, Britain, Canada, Finland, and Iceland. According to the Business Week magazine, among 25 most competitive high-tech companies, only six companies are based in the United States, while 14 companies in Asia.

With respect to jobs, people often think of unemployment and jobs moved abroad. But according to Prof. Florida, a more important problem is the shortage of creative talent. Economist Lawrence Summers, former Harvard University President and Economist Edward Montgomery, a former Deputy Secretary of Labor, said that the problem of lack of creative talent is unavoidable. The United States needs to compete with other countries to attract and respectably use talented people with more open visa and immigration policy. In 24 recent years, from 1990 to 2013, the United States had admitted 24.2 millions legal immigrants. The average per year was about 1 million people. 6/

Recently the American people have complained a lot about the partisan fighting in the divided Congress. As a consequence, the Government was forced to close down for 16 days in 2013. As a leading super-power of the world, under this circumstance, the U.S. can not afford to lose credibility and the trust of the other countries. The “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (PPACA), also known as Obamacare, is a nation-wide medical program which has not been resolved over several years due to the conflict of interests that both Republicans and Democrats represent. However this is an internal affair of the United States.

Worse is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a foreign trade program, involving 12 countries including the U.S., which has been under negotiation for several years. TPP was not completed in the past year as the U.S. hoped for. 2015 can be a make-or-break year for TPP because of the rising tension in the East and South China Sea and the competition from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) led by China and Russia, respectively. However the U.S. is facing internal difficulties. Labor issues divide the Democratic Party itself, between the Executive and the Legislative branches and behind them are the labor unions of the United States.

I believe these are short-term and temporary difficulties. Indeed, professional and social media have denounced the critical deadlock situation in Washington. An open society with free press and freedom of expression will help the United States overcome these shortcomings as for the cases of racism and gender inequality. Competition and cooperation are traditions that make up the power in the country.

Shortly after officially admitting defeat in the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain called Sen. Barack Obama his president and urged all U.S. citizens to congratulate Sen. Obama and support the 44th president of the United States. Sen. McCain also said that for the first time in the U.S. history, an African American was elected as a president. This was a great pride and clear evidence that the United States had advanced a step very far on the issue of racism. Sen. McCain said that Sen. Obama and he had debated about the differences, but Sen. Obama won. It was certain that these differences still existed, but he promised that he would help Sen. Obama in his power to deal with the challenges ahead. 7/

                                                     

A century and a half ago, the United States has left a bright example for humanity about the generosity of the American people. 8/ The civil war lasted four years, three weeks and six days ending on April 9, 1865 (May 9, 1865 according to the Declaration). General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union representative General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia was a simple but solemn ritual. Southern troops were free to return to their home, and no one was punished or jailed. Slain soldiers were buried in the same cemeteries, unless their relatives wanted to bury them elsewhere. Under the orders of General Grant, the Northern Army was not allowed to celebrate its victory. Afterward, General Lee became the president of a university now known as the Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He opposed an insurgency against the North, supporting the Confederate veterans to integrate into the U.S. society and the reconstruction of the country.

More recently, after the Second World War ended, the United States never advocated killing defeated enemies. On the contrary, it helped both the allies and former enemies to rebuild their countries. The United States spent about $13 billion (equivalent to $120 billion in current dollar value) through the European Recovery Program (ERP) also known as the Marshall Plan, named after United States Secretary of State George Marshall.

General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of the U.S. Forces in the Pacific and the Japanese occupation forces from 1945-1951, helped Japan draft a new Constitution, removing the role as Supreme Commander of the Japanese Emperor, reforming Japan into a democratic country, implementing a comprehensive land reform program. Today, the Japanese people regard MacArthur as one of the great people instrumental in the reconstruction of Japan. 9/

Last but not least important is the American people’s love of freedom. Freedom helps people develop skills and initiative. Freedom helps generate accurate information and transmit it fast on multi-dimensional networks. It also helps people express their opinion freely and therefore the truth can be discovered.

Freedom, in contrast to the suppression, helps build open society and contain wrongdoings and crimes. Freedom of course brings about democracy. The majority of democratic countries are wealthy. Nobel Prize-winning Indian Economist Amartya Sen observed that significant famine never happens in a democratic and independent country with freedom of the press. 10/  Famine happens only in dictatorial or occupied countries.

Similarly, corruption is widespread in countries which lack democracy. The effects of corruption have many dimensions: increasing business costs, hampering free and competitive market, undermining innovation, fostering crimes, undermining democracy and the rule of law. Empirical evidences from the World Bank’s research show that corruption lowers investment (domestic as well as foreign), reducing trade, limiting development, falsifying national costs, weakening the financial system, and strengthening the underground economy. Most important of all is that corruption increases levels of poverty and income disparity. 11/  Corruption and cronyism in China and Russia will continue to exclude many talents from top positions and restrict competitiveness of these two countries. 12/

In the ranking of the level of corruption in 180 countries of the world in 2014 by Transparency International, Denmark was at the top of the list, followed by New Zealand, Finland, Sweden and Norway. The United States ranked 17th. China: 100. Vietnam: 119. Russia: 136.  13/ The United States can try to improve more on this area.

A free and democratic environment and a superior culture have helped the U.S. grow as seen today, with the GDP per capita of $ 53,042 in 2013 on the purchasing power parity basis. It was behind seven countries, most of them are oil-exporters: Qatar, Kuwait, Singapore, Brunei, Norway, Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia. The United States left Russia ($ 25,248) and China ($ 11,906) way behind 14/

Prof. Jonathan Adelman of the University of Denver wrote: “As the old political saying goes, you can’t beat someone with no one. And, right now, there is no one on the horizon that will overtake or even seriously challenge the United States, however ailing, for at least the next decade or two.” 15/

After writing this article at this point, based on these facts just analyzed, I tend to agree with Prof. Adelman’s view. The United States will continue to be a great power, economically as well as militarily, unchallenged for a foreseeable future. Russia and China will not become the United States’ redoubtable rivals for quite a while. Changing a political system needs a few years to a few decades, but reforming a culture takes several generations to several centuries in order to become a great country.

Notes: 1/ Jonathan Adelman, “Why the U.S. Remains the World’s Unchallenged Superpower,” Forbes, November 24, 2013.

2/ Wikipedia, “Non-government Organization,” May 28, 2015

.3/ OECD statistics on the Labor – Productivity Levels in the total economy, May 27, 2015.

4/ Richard Florida, “America’s Looming Creativity Crisis,” Harvard Business Review, October 2004.

5/ As above.

6/ Wikipedia, “Immigration to the U.S.”, May 28, 2015.

7/ John McCain, “McCain’s Concession Speech,” The New York Time, November 4, 2015

.8/ Vũ Ngọc Tấn, “Tinh Thần Mã Thượng Trong Nội Chiến Mỹ,” Việt Luận, 12-2011.

9/ Wikipedia, “Marshall Plan”, May 28, 2015.

10/ Amartya Sen and Amartya K. Sen, “Poverty and Famines – an Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation”, Oxford University Press, London, 1983.

11/ The World Bank, “The Economic and Social Consequences of Corruption in Transition Countries.

”12/ Susan Adams, “The World’s Most Competitive Countries,” Forbes, May 30, 2013.

13/ Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2014,” 2014.

14/ World Bank data.

15/ As endnote 1/

* The Vietnamese version was first posted on the website of the Voice of America on June 2, 2015. The author is a former consultant and senior research analyst at the World Bank. He is also a former editorial consultant to the Radio Free Asia and a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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