Defining Greatness


In an exchange with FoxNews’s Tony Snow three weeks before the US invasion of Iraq was launched,Senator John McCain delivered what will probably remembered for a long as one of the most blunt denigrations of France and the French people publicly articulated by a respected American politician.

To Mr. Snow’s question as to whether or not the French and the Germans would eventually come around and support the United States, John McCain answered with the following below-the-belt non-sequitur: ‘The French remind a little bit of an aging actress of the 1940s who is still trying to dine out on her looks but doesn’t have the face for it. For any nation to be great, they have to have a great purpose.'[1a]

Implied in these two feisty, vintage McCain, sentences is the notion that France is an ‘aging power’ (‘old Europe’, as Rumsfeld put it), or even that it is no longer ‘a power’, and that it is ‘without purpose’. Bundled in that, of course, is the unassailable assertion that that the United States is ‘a great power’, a ‘great nation’, and that it has ‘a purpose’.

If ‘greatness’ is to be measured by who has the greatest arsenal for war and destruction, then there is no doubt that the Senator is right, and that United States, which spends more on defense than the next fifteen nations combined[1b], is the most powerful nation on earth, and that France is not.

And if ‘purpose’ is to be equated with a determination to remain the only superpower on earth, as openly articulated in president Bush’s September 17, 2002, ‘National Security Strategy of the United States of America’, and if it means unilaterally determining who represents a threat and who does not, who is a foe and who is not, and not hesitating to act alone if the rest of the world does not fall into step, then certainly the United States has purpose, and France does not.

But for those who don’t equate ‘greatness’ with the power to destroy and ‘purpose’ with the obsession to rule unchallenged, the United States is not the greatest nation on earth, nor is the one with the right purpose.

For those who prefer to examine instead the major indices that measure the well being of the citizens that make up a country – the only meaningful measure of how a country is really doing – there is a different conclusion about where the United States and France stand in the spectrum of ‘greatness’ and ‘purpose’.

For instance, infant mortality in France is 4.4 (per 1,000 live births), while the United States stands at 6.7[1c]; life expectancy in France is 78.8 years, while that in the US is 77.1 years[2]; only 5.6% of French children live in poverty, while a whopping 20.3% of American children live below the poverty line[3]; France spends 5.90% of its GNP on education, while the United States spends 5.30% (no surprise that the French have us beat in mathematics, reading, and science literacy)[4]. This, in spite of the fact that France’s GDP per capita is at $25,400, while that of the United State is more than $10,00 greater than that at $36,300[5].

America, the most virtuous, the land of moral probity?

Let’s see how those sexually loose, philandering French stand up against the God-fearing Americans. The teen pregnancy rate (per 1,000 women aged 15-19) is 20.2 in France and 83.6 in the United States; the adolescent birth rate is 10.0 in France and 54.4 in the United States; and the abortion rate is 10.2 in France and 29.2 in the United States[6]. As for who has the more solid marriages: the divorce rate in France stands at 38.3 (per 1000 marriages), while that in the United States is at 54.8.[7]

The homicide rate in France is 1.7 (per 100,000), while that in the US is 8.2; the incarceration rate in France is 85 (per 100,000), while that in the US is 686 (by far the highest per-capita in the world)[8]. The average waste generated by the French per person per year is 304 kg, while that generated by the Americans is more than double that, at 864 kg[9]. On average, the French consume 4.34 oil equivalent tons of energy per year per person, while the Americans consume almost twice that, at 8.7 tons per person[10]; the French emit 1.81 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year, while the Americans emit four times that much, at 5.53[11]; and while the French are responsible for 1.7% of world pollution, the Americans are responsible for 25.2%.[12]

America, the most giving, the most generous? Tell that to the hungry of the world. While France spends 0.23% of its GNP on Foreign Development Assistance, the United States spends a miserable, miserly 0.11% – dead last among giving nations.[13]

America, the home of the First Amendment and freedom of speech, and the cradle of democracy and its ever-vigilant protector? Well, according the recently released Freedom of Press Index, the United States ranks 14th in the world in freedom of press, three places behind France[14]; as for beating the French in the democracy game, the fact is that in the French 2002 presidential elections, 79.71% of eligible French voters did register, while only 67.39% of American eligible voters registered (or were allowed to register) in the 2000 elections.[15]

In John McCain’s eyes France may look like ‘an aging actress of the 1940s who is still trying to dine out on her looks’, but for the rest of the world the United State very much looks like a dim-witted, overweight bully who cannot comprehend how the rest of the world is not enchanted into submission by his ability to smash into oblivion anything that crosses his one-way path.


[1a] Fox News, February 16, 2003

[1b] Major U.S. Foreign Policy Challenges, Claremont College, The Hon. Lee H. Hamilton, November 12, 2002

[1c] U.S. Census Bureau, International Database, 2002

[2] U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base, 2000

[3] Vlemincks and Smeeding (eds) Child Well-being,
Child Poverty and Child Policy in Modern Nationl

[4] University of Pennsylvania/Graduate School of
Education, International Literacy Explorer

[5] The World Factbook, 2002 —

[6] Susheela Singh and Jacqueline E. Darroch, ‘Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing: Levels and
Trends in Developed Countries’, Volume 32, No. 1, January/February 2000

[7], Gulnar Nugman, ‘World divorce rates’, the Heritage Foundation, 2002

[8] Handgun Control, ‘America still leads industrialized world in handgun homicide, despite gains made since Brady law’

[9] Michael Wolff, Peter Rutten, Albert Bayers III, eds., and the World Rank Research Team, ‘Where We Stand’, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992)

[10] Handbook of Energy and Economic Statistics in Japan —

[11] ‘Carbon Dioxide Fact Sheet, 2001’

[12] ‘Carbon Dioxide Fact Sheet, 2001’

[13] ‘Net ODA flows in 2000, 2001’, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

[14] Reporters Without Borders, ‘Reporters Without Borders publishes the first worldwide press freedom index’, October 2002

[15] International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance


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