I regularly hear politicians and citizens of the United States of America proclaim their country to be the greatest in the world. There is no doubt that the USA is an empire and every empire has always thought that it was the most awesome thing under the sun. The Soviet Union is gone, leaving the USA as the world's sole superpower. The European Union is not far behind and whether it becomes a superpower is only up to its people and their willingness to integrate as the continent has all the means to equal and perhaps even overtake the USA in global political influence before the end of the century if not sooner.
I have long wondered what makes a country great and whether the word is too vague to have any meaning without a clear context. No single country possesses all the most valued attributes therefore no single country is the greatest in all aspects. Can such a proclamation be considered anything but propaganda to rally citizens behind an ill-defined idea for political and militaristic reasons? Is it but a sedative to numb people's curiosity and critical thinking about the actions of their government?
Perhaps greatness is primarily about military strength of a country. The USA is undoubtedly the world's foremost military power. Although no single country comes close to threatening the national security nor integrity of the USA the country prioritises national security to such a degree that one might be forgiven to think that invasion was imminent any day now. Although the USA is the most advanced country militarily it is not invincible as winning a war is about more than technology and manpower. Should the unthinkable occur, say war between the USA and the EU and its allies, it is not inconceivable that the USA could lose but the result would most likely be mutually assured destruction or indefinite stalemate. The surest way to avoid war and to defend one's country is through diplomacy, trade and mutual respect.
What is the value of military strength to citizens of the USA and why should they take pride in it? Contemporary news media and political climate suggest that the country is in a near-constant state of fear or even paranoia. Terrorism is frequently measured to be a top concern for American voters yet the likelihood of an American dying in a terrorist attack is statistically next to none. To be afraid of ragtag armies half the world away while the rest of the developed world sleeps tight every night is nothing to be proud of.
The world's largest economy for the past century has been the USA. The EU is currently a close second. It is projected that China will overtake the USA in a decade or less. Would that then make China the world's greatest country?
Wealth and income inequality is higher in the USA than in nearly all developed countries and is projected to only increase. That means that the average citizen's share of the economy is much smaller than if they lived in another country of similar size. Should an average citizen take pride in an economy they will not have equal access to nor share of?
Democratism has historically not been considered to have any correlation with greatness. The largest empires were ruled by tyrants and the idea of sharing power with the general population was essentially heresy. Many large nations today are undemocratic or have very weak democratic institutions and a high level of corruption.
Praising the greatness of American democracy, freedom and liberty is so common in the American political sphere that it suggests that these concepts are somehow unique to the country or perhaps originated there. The reality couldn't be further from the truth as the USA compares unfavourably to the rest of the developed world according to the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, currently ranking in the 21st place (i.e. flawed democracy).
It seems at least that democratism continues to be unimportant to a country's greatness.
In the days of old, the greatest empire was the geographically largest political entity. The USA is the world's 4th largest country after China (adversary), Canada (ally) and Russia (adversary). Should Europe every unite as a single federation it would also be larger than the USA.
How important is geographical vastness to greatness? Must not the world's greatest country also be its largest?
American culture became the predominant culture in the world in the 20th century. It is often colloquially referred to as Western culture as the USA has been the leader of the Western world and its largest cultural contributor in recent decades. Western countries all share a common set of values although they can differ significantly internally. Films and music made the English language the most widely spoken language in the world as a second-language.
Even though Western culture is the predominant culture, American culture in particular is typically not considered high culture. The primary selling point of modern American culture appears to be nudity and twerking which does not compare favourably to French wine and Spanish flamenco. Even if China becomes the world's largest economy it is hard to imagine an oppressed country becoming a cultural exporter.