July 4, 2024 | Real Clear Defense

The Surprising National Security Role of America’s “Best Idea”

July 4, 2024 | Real Clear Defense

The Surprising National Security Role of America’s “Best Idea”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former bodyguard, who once reportedly confronted a bear at a mountain retreat while Putin slept through the ordeal, was appointed secretary of the advisory State Council in May. Unfortunately, hostile Russian bear activity is not relegated to Moscow and its environs. The U.S. Intelligence Community warned in its 2024 Annual Threat Assessment that Russia is “a serious foreign influence threat,” seeking to “sow domestic discord, including among voters inside the United States and U.S. partners around the world.” 

To counter the foreign influence campaigns of Russia, China, and Iran and ensure the United States remains united, stable, and secure, the country must find ways to more effectively foster solidarity among its diverse and spirited people. The U.S. National Park Service (NPS), a federal agency more often associated with managing bear cubs and buffalo at Yellowstone than combating malign influence operations, can help. In its own grass-roots way, the NPS cultivates and sustains unity among Americans by providing democratic educational experiences for citizens from varying backgrounds, areas of the country, and socio-economic strata.

The NPS celebrates cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity as “a hallmark of American society” and invites visitors to embark on a “Places Reflecting America’s Diverse Cultures Itinerary.” The experience “pays tribute to all of the people who have made this country a beacon of light and opportunity.” The itinerary specifically encourages visits to Ellis Island, the Lincoln Memorial where Marian Anderson performed, the Sons of Israel Synagogue, the Mother Mosque of America, and Devil’s Tower National Monument, a sacred site of Native Americans, among other places. 

Rather than encouraging separatism in an era characterized by ideological, political, and affective polarization, the NPS’s balanced approach emphasizes reconciliation and highlights how different groups of citizens have contributed to the country and forged a common identity. That, in turn, can help immunize Americans against the efforts of those intent on pitting citizens against each other. 

Amid the rising scourge of antisemitism in the United States, NPS park sites such as Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, remind visitors of the country’s commitment to liberty of conscience, an American first principle that has helped unify citizens of diverse backgrounds for generations. Visitors learn about the letter George Washington penned in 1790 to Moses Seixas, leader of the Jewish Congregation of Newport assuring that the new nation would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Other park sites such as Independence HallGettysburgArlington Cemetery, and the National Mall provide opportunities for Americans to learn more about their history and the sacrifices made to defend and improve the nation. That promotes a sense of shared identity, stewardship, and purpose. 

At a time when many Americans are segregating themselves by red state or blue state, the NPS continues to promote unity among Americans from different parts of the country. The agency is entrusted with the management of approximately 84,000,000 acres of land including 429 national park sites in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam. These sites serve as extraordinary educational destinations where Americans from all corners of the country often rub elbows, mingling as they admire and appreciate together America’s iconic natural and cultural wonders. 

“The parks do not belong to one state or to one section,” said Stephen Mather, NPS Director from 1917-1929, “The Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest; they belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida, as they do to the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona.” 

The National Parks not only foster unity among Americans from diverse backgrounds and varying locations, but also among citizens from different socio-economic groups. The parks build cohesiveness by making the nation’s treasures accessible to all regardless of financial means. 

“This is a uniquely American idea…this is the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape,” proclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, director of a PBS documentary series on America’s national parks. “That for the first time in human history, land was set aside not for kings or noblemen or the very rich but for everybody and for all time. We invented it.” 

Americans can visit most sites for free

“What could be more democratic than owning together the most magnificent places on your continent?” asked Carl Pope, former Executive Director of the Sierra Club founded by conservationist John Muir in 1892. “In Europe, the most magnificent places, the palaces, the parks, are owned by aristocrats, by monarchs, by the wealthy,” added Pope, referring to the historical context in which America’s revolutionary idea emerged. “In America, magnificence is a common treasure. That’s the essence of our democracy.”  

As the financial divide among Americans widens, NPS’s unifying mission can help shore up societal resilience and counter adversary efforts to exploit divisions.

In a 2023 Pew Research Poll asking Americans whether they had a favorable or unfavorable view of a selection of federal agencies, the NPS topped the list with an 81% favorable rating, garnering bipartisan support from Americans in both the Republican and Democratic parties. At a time when Americans don’t agree on much, they do agree that NPS has served the nation well. 

“National parks,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and historian Wallace Stegner, “are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best.” 

Notably, the Chinese Communist Party established its own Yellowstone in October 2021 and aims to build its own version of America’s National Park system by 2030. It’s no surprise that Beijing wants to copy America’s “best idea.” But in China, the parks will be owned by the party and not the people.

America’s adversaries are attempting to weaken the United States by sowing societal discord and dissension. Americans concerned about these threats should recognize that the National Park Service is about much more than recreation and quality time with flora and fauna. Our national parks help unify Americans, ensuring our diversity remains one of our greatest assets. It turns out that the grizzlies at Yellowstone may be one of our best allies in fighting off the Russian bear. 

Antonette Bowman is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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