Besides fireworks, what does Independence Day mean in an interdependent world? Lots of things.
For though the glove shrinks, the "end of American exceptionalism" is not yet. The United States remains a singular place, and Americans need to recognize the fact and behave accordingly.
A rich diet of diverse qualities distinguishes this country. To begin with, America provides the model of the industrialized state. The United States continues to be a prime producer of steel, autos, chemicals and building materials. Detroit, Pittsburgh, Akron, Birmingham and Cleveland, though they may have seen better days, are not ghost towns. They continue to be a part of the living American reality.
Unlike Japan, Britain, Germany and most other industrialized states, however, the United States also possesses a rich base of natural resources. Oil, gas, coal and shale cushion the energy shortage for Americans, and even make possible -- given the right policies -- a future energy boom. American agriculture leads the world. Unlike the other countries that are also continents -- Russia, China and India -- the United States can feed itself, and no small part of the rest of the globe.
The bounty of an advanced sector is also enjoyed by this country. Data processing, genetic engineering and space sciences -- the high technology of the future -- all find their most important present-day reality in the United States. Except for Japan, no other nation begins to rival the United States in techniques of mass marketing and electronic communications. Even including Japan, no other country matches the extent -- if not the quality -- of the American system of higher education.
Wide-open spaces make possible much of this rich diversity. De-industrialization of older centers has been advancing space in the United States as in other countries. Cleveland finds its counterpart in Liverpool, and Baltimore in Bordeaux. But the United States is also re-industrializing space. The country has its Sun Belt, and Route 128 around Boston, and Silicon Valley outside San Francisco. Thus while parts of the country decline, others surge forward.
Social mobility goes hand in hand with economic buoyancy. When the products of the postwar baby boom reached the job market in America, the country experienced the severe trials of the past two decades. The university population exploded and radicalized itself. Unemployment tended upward. A rise in the number of poorly qualified workers diminished output per hour, or productivity. Higher inflation naturally followed.
Yet the country withstood the strain. Schools and colleges expanded enormously. A record number of new jobs were created -- for women as well men. Though there were pampered exceptions who chose resentful self-pity, most of the young made the adjustment by beginning at lower levels in the work force.
Now the worst is over. The size of the population entering the work force is on the decline, productivity should begin to rise, and unemployment and inflation to start down. But the other industrial countries, because their baby boom came later, are only beginning to experience what the United States has been through. We will see whether they do as well, whether they show the same capacity to adjust.
All this explains why the United States is the leader of the non-Communist, industrialized world. It is not a matter of military power, or an arrogant itch to police lesser breeds. Better than any other nation, indeed, the United States can afford to go it alone. Independence Day, in other words, could have a literal meaning for Americans.
But that is not to say we should try to go it alone. On the contrary, there are sound, self-interested reasons for not yielding to the isolationist impulse that comes so naturally. The common defense is strengthened when the United States shares military burdens with allies and friends. Economic cooperation enlarges everyone's share of the pie.
There is also the matter of a certain cultural shallowness, an ingrained penchant for what is vulgar and cheap. We need exposure to other, older cultures to save us from our own worst instincts. So while we probably could be independent, while there is even a strong temptation to try to stop the world and get off, the better part of wisdom points in the other direction. The counsel that urges reciprocity with friends, and accommodation with adversaries, expresses the good angel of the American soul.