And what are a country’s national values?
Much of the commentary following the recent US presidential election is about if and how “American values” will be defended and promoted by the next administration. Potential appointments, speeches, and interviews of President-elect Trump and his surrogates are parsed to speculate about priorities and possible actions that may or may not become emblematic of the new administration. Yet aside from generalized nods towards “making America great again,” there does not seem to be a coherent definition of which values are most salient at this time and under what circumstances.
Some would argue that values are enduring, not situational. Yet the relevance of specific values to what one believes is right and actionable is not always clear, particularly when there is confusion about the transactional nature (this for that) that characterizes most global political exchanges. As we look at the results of these elections, we can’t help but question which “American values” will be most important to President Trump as he takes office and begins to steer his agenda through Congress and has to deal with groups of engaged citizens.
A recent article on the emerging Trump policies noted the importance of interests in framing how values are expressed to the world at large. There is often confusion between interests and values, the former situational and subject to negotiation, while the latter are supposedly existential and often more enduring than interests. But that distinction doesn’t explain how values become honored within a culture, how they are acquired, and how they evolve or not over time.
In the US, we have several foundational documents that characterize American values: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equality, and justice for all, to list the more obvious. Over several hundred years, these have evolved into notions of democracy, human rights, equality before the law, defense of the homeland, and peaceful relations with other nations, among others that most Americans, at least conceptually, would agree on.
This is not the case in most of the developing world where constitutions are sometimes treated as ephemeral statements that reflect political conditions at the time of independence including, prevailing political centers in the regime, strong cultural mores, and dominant themes such as anti-colonialism, third-world solidarity, and the language of rights espoused by the UN. As countries in the MENA and Africa move through post-independence to more robust political systems, they face the challenge of defining their national values anew, promoting their adoption within an adaptable framework, and sustaining relevance to governments and citizens alike. This is especially difficult as subgroups within the country start to differentiate their unmet aspirations from the prevailing narrative associated with the national identity.
Ultimately, the central question is how countries can adopt core values that are resilient over time and accepted by the vast majority of citizens. These shared values are at the heart of a country’s social contract that embodies the mutual obligations of the leadership and the people. And it is the erosion of these basic ties that are at the heart of the current contradictions in forming a “more perfect union.” The Arab Spring as well as the wave of populism in Latin America and Africa are both reactionary in terms of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and proactive as people seek to find a responsive, inclusive, transparent national political culture.
Part of the problem is that in many countries, the depiction of national values at the time of independence has come under criticism as either having been imposed by elites who drove independence, borrowed from regional and international organizations (think the AU and UN for example), or come about through consensus building among various groups, which often includes resolving conflicts and expanding definitions of nationality, while excluding others.
The current unrest in these countries in transition reflects the nexus of two currents: the need of citizens to articulate their own narratives abetted by technology, and the mistrust that divides rulers and citizens as the original social contracts have lost their relevance and binding power. In the case of the US or anywhere else, the issue of how values are formed and sustained continues to be relevant as technology and external influences are redefining what matters in building national cohesion in a country.
In my next blog, I will look further into what tools can be useful in this emerging definition of “nation-building” and national values.
Featured image from the Immigrant Welcome Center