America leads through its values.  A hackneyed phrase if there ever was one and one that I never took seriously until this week.

The true meaning of this phrase – and particularly of the key ambiguous words “leads” and “values” – began finally to dawn on me as I followed the ludicrous attempt by Sean Spicer to defend the patently false assertion that the inauguration crowd was far larger than it was.  The entire issue was silly (how consequential is this crowd size?) but what it represents was much bigger: Despite a more than healthy amount of skepticism, I do not expect our government to lie.  Maybe obfuscate, skirt around issues – but not to assert falsehoods.  I just took that for granted.

But of course, and this is where I confess to coming unconscionably late to this realization, in many, probably most, countries this is not the case.  Their governments do lie, with regularity.  They also steal and subvert the public will.  In the eyes of those who live in these countries, America is hope.  It is not just a place in which they might want to move but, more importantly, a model for how their own government could operate.

A government that does not lie is just one of many things that I take for granted but shouldn’t.  We practice our religions; say what we want without fear of government persecution; promote individual freedom and equality under the law; consider immigrants a vital part of national fabric; wrestle openly with our continuing problems – the whole usual gamut.  I’m not sure if any other country in the world enacts a set of values like this; even those countries that we consider close to us in values (e.g., the U.K.) often have strong nativist tendencies and more tightly constrain civic rights.

The world knows this, and they admire it.  America has always been imperfect.  We have struggled to enact our values along a whole range of issues, from supporting repressive regimes (often because of the material benefits) to dealing with the legacy of racism.  Nobody admires our gun culture, our primary and secondary education systems (although our universities are envied through the world), or our strange, extraordinarily expensive healthcare system (although perhaps we got points for trying to fix this).  But we have fairly consistently, as a people who has assigned to our government the role of speaking for us, aspired (or at least given lip service) to these values.  In normal times (which these surely are) we typically assert our better natures.

Power comes in many forms.  A country’s strong military or economic might is certainly a way for it to exert “power” on the world stage.  Who can argue with a strong army?  Yet  while such tools of power are in some ways effective in the short term, one would at least like to think that they are both tenuous and costly.  Russia, for example, does not lead by example but by bullying, and they are trapped in a cycle (as the old USSR was) of having to continue to invest resources in bullying to maintain their power.  As soon as they stop, they stop leading.  Is there any question that if China withdraws its army that Tibet would not gleefully exert its independence?

Despite having both the strongest army and economy in the world, we have always sought to lead not by throwing this clout around (which, of course, we do) but by example.  Most of our allies follow our lead not because we occupy or threaten them, but because they like and trust us.  We have always understood that threatening and bullying is in the long term costly and not effective.  To use another hackneyed phrase, we are great because we are good; because no amount of strength and riches can exert the kind of power and authority of good values.  I have always known this, but I have come to really know this only this last week.

A government that lies, that builds walls (I think here more of the symbolic than practical force of this action), that bans visitors and refugees, that floats the specter of religious discrimination – this does not accurately reflect our values.  And no matter how strong we make our military or how many cars and glittery things we can all buy, they will never make America first in the world.  When we look at ourselves the way that many other people in the world see us, we will find far more admiration than condemnation and now, increasing apprehension.  If America loses its values, what is left for them?  And for us?

These are things that I should have learned in elementary school.  As too often happens, it is only when faced with the alternative that I realize what I have long taken for granted.