What American Greatness Really Means

Astronaut Ron Garan, seen here in space, writes that rallying around the sound bite that we need to “Make America Great Again” assumes America has lost its greatness. It has not. Ron Garan

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" is as true now as it was when FDR first spoke those words in his inaugural address in 1933. Anything that divides us makes us weaker, less secure, less productive and "less great" and fear may be the most destructive and divisive force on the planet.

Rallying around the sound bite that we need to "Make America Great Again" assumes America has lost its greatness. It has not.

I consider myself a patriotic American. I love my country, am proud of its many accomplishments and what we, the people, stand for. I truly believe that America is great. Whether you agree depends a lot on your definition of the word "great."

America has a long and storied history of combating tyranny and evil in the world and standing with those who are unable to stand on their own. Americans routinely rise to the challenge. Frequently we also sacrifice for the common good.

Love of country motivated me, like so many others, to step beyond fear. I put my life on the line—as a combat pilot, test pilot and as an astronaut who launched to space from both American and Russian launch pads. I participated in four spacewalks where I was in constant danger. I returned to Earth traveling back through the atmosphere on fire at 5 miles per second (twice).

In combat, I was routinely shot at with bullets and missiles. I have also ejected from a malfunctioning F-16 seconds before it crashed and was destroyed.

In all those cases I felt fear, but I was able to overcome it because I believed in the importance of what I was doing for our country and world.

Fear is a natural response to real danger but beyond its evolutionary importance, fear can also be counterproductive to peace and security.

Fear deceives us into believing that we need to construct a simplified framework through which we view the world. Fear drives us to lump other races, religions, nations and cultures into the cubby holes of our artificially constructed and misguided view of the world.

These cubby holes serve as walls and boundaries that severely limit our ability to progress and evolve toward a more peaceful and prosperous future. When we cordon off whole groups, there will inevitably be people that we've separated ourselves from who hold key pieces of the puzzle needed to solve our most pressing shared problems.

Although I do passionately believe in the greatness of our country, I do not believe that America is perfect. Greatness requires an unwavering commitment to improvement. We all know there is plenty of room for improvement in our political systems, how we treat one another and how we live up to our responsibilities to the larger global community.

The bedrock on which our country was built and that continues to lead to American greatness is the interrelated unity of our nation's most precious resource, our diverse people.

America is at its strongest when the many different races and ethnicities of the men and women who make up this country are united around a cause. United, we have proven again and again that we can accomplish the seemingly impossible—whether curing disease, combating terrorism, toppling tyranny or landing on the Moon.

Astronaut Ron Garan, seen here in space, writes that rallying around the sound bite that we need to “Make America Great Again” assumes America has lost its greatness. It has not. NASA

But fear undermines that diversity that made America great in the first place. Fear dictates that we establish a group to flee from or lash out against. In the two-dimensional "us-versus-them" world we've constructed, we're quick to find a "them" to assign blame.

But the world isn't flat. (Trust me—I've seen it from space.) We don't live in a two-dimensional world. To start solving real problems, we need to approach them in the context of the real world with all its multidimensional complexity.

For instance, battling terrorism is not as simple as just assigning a label such as "radical Islamic terrorism" to a violent attack. The many complex factors leading to terrorism can not be reduced to a sound bite.

A refusal to assign a specifically worded label to the perceived cause of an event is not political correctness. It is a prudent path to avoid knee-jerk reactions where too often, the motivation behind assigning a label is to simplify a complex and often horrific event so we can assign it to the "proper" cubby hole in our narrowly constructed and fear-induced framework.

We are most successful when we replace fear with calculated reason, patience, compassion and a well thought out plan that includes consideration of the long-term implications of any decision, course of action, or tweet.

In my opinion, a good model to follow is the first Bush Administration's reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In an immediate response to the invasion, decisive initial steps were taken to contain the aggression. I deployed to the area two days after the invasion as part of that response.

Once the situation was stabilized to some extent, an extensive program of international diplomacy ensued to chart out the best course not just for America but for our global society as a whole.

Full scale military action took place only after all diplomatic options were exhausted and after the implications to the rest of the world were carefully considered.

Because of the serious implications to our global society, the combat missions of Desert Storm did not commence until key stakeholders were brought into the process. In this case, we had the patience to build an international coalition to topple tyranny.

It was in Desert Storm that I flew my first combat missions—missions where I was decorated for combat valor. From that perspective, to even consider a strategy of carpet bombing an entire population or banning an entire religious group is the consideration of cowardice.

Indiscriminate bombing and complete "bans" on people will create vastly more terrorists than those actions will kill or keep from entering our country. Courage does not look for quick, feel good fixes. Courage does not employ fear tactics for political gain. Real courage addresses the root causes of an issue and places the long-term needs of the many above the short-term political desires of the few.

America has had a long and strong voice in steering the trajectory of our global society. We bear the responsibility to continue to lead. Isolationist policies that promote short-sighted American interests without putting those interests in the context of the rest of the world are incredibly counterproductive.

To withdraw will erode American influence in the world, reduce American security, and hamper our productivity and prosperity just as how I expect the recent Brexit vote will affect Britain.

Whether you believe America is great depends on how you define "great." I believe a nation is great if it is able to provide for the needs of its people—but within the context of the larger global society.

Greatness requires the humility to recognize and own up to our own mistakes.

Greatness requires that we recognize when others have a better approach and learn from our successes and our failures.

Greatness requires that we overcome fear and have the courage to shake off the false and limiting mindset of separation and step into the real world with all its interconnected complexity and uncertainty.

Greatness, above all else, requires that we have the wisdom, patience and humility to realize that in order to succeed and progress we need to incorporate the efforts of all—not just those we've deemed worthy to be members of our tribe.

Ron Garan is a former NASA astronaut.