A “great” nation: Lesson from King Solomon

“[Country] will cease to be great when it ceases to be good” -Alexis de Tocqueville

Back in graduate school, I was often struck by how much our discussions of international affairs revolved around the idea of “power”—hard power—understood in terms of economic and military might, not the “soft power” of norms, values and ideals. The nations of our conversations became chess pieces in constant competition, propelled by “power” (or the desire thereof) and a yearning to “win.” The people who constituted them—individuals with moral agency capable of making choices based on something other than self-interest and power—became the chess board, an unavoidable but separate and passive backdrop. The dominance of the power narrative and the decoupling of nation from people guaranteed the conflation, even outside the classroom, of “greatness” with military and economic power. A 10th century Hebrew king, for good reason, begged to differ.

“Righteousness makes a nation great,” wrote Solomon. The fabled king came to this rather interesting conclusion during ancient Israel’s Golden Age when the nation was enjoying unprecedented peace and prosperity. He had centralized power in Jerusalem in efforts to promote tribal unity, struck numerous (though sometimes questionable) alliances with neighboring nations for political and commercial purposes, adjudicated civil cases, maintained a formidable army, overseen the nation’s first maritime expeditions, built a grand temple unparalleled in its time, and written thousands of songs and proverbs. With Israel’s economic, military and cultural life flourishing, Solomon became so famous that foreign rulers traveled from afar to have an audience with him. They were dazzled by his legendary wisdom.

But there was a problem. Never satisfied, given to luxury and excess (think gold-plated floors, gilded cedar and 700 wives), and seemingly driven by a desire to outdo everyone, including David his esteemed father, Solomon’s Israel was rotting from the core. In a single generation, the nation that had become the envy of the known world saw the conscription of workers for the construction of extensive vanity projects, cessation of territory, growth of resentment and division rooted in burdensome taxation and income inequality among Israel’s classes, and most notably the loss of Israel’s worship and distinctiveness. By the end of his 40-year reign, Solomon had, through his policies, radically changed the essence of the nation he had inherited and a painful disintegration was underway.

What is the righteousness that makes a nation great?

It was within this context that this larger-than-life figure concluded that righteousness, not commercial achievement or military might, was both the path to and substance of national greatness. The idea seems foreign, naïve, even radical in our post-modern neo-realist world because “righteousness” is an intimate term that seems better suited for personal not national relations, and belonging to religion and “the religious.” We can readily appreciate the idea of a righteous person—the morally upright type that those of us who are keenly aware of our imperfections respect from afar. But a righteous nation? The idea was conceivable in Solomon’s thinking because to him nations could not be decoupled from the people in them—nations were people. That meant they could be judged by the same measures used to judge the individuals who constitute them, and that also meant righteousness was an appropriate term in evaluating national behavior.

Solomon’s understanding of the righteousness that makes a nation great has three important prongs:

First, righteousness demands justice. A great nation will recognize the importance of justice and take it seriously. Justice is more than “law and order;” it involves embracing just principles and action, giving all their due and oppressing no one. The institutions/courts of a great nation administer justice impartially, and in everyday dealings people are treated equitably regardless of their social standing. Great nations recognize the corrosiveness of injustice and how the denial of rights undermines trust, breeds bitterness and thins the fabric of a nation. No matter how great its military arsenal, an unjust nation is inherently weak because it is the proverbial house that is divided against itself.

Second, righteousness values ethics. A great nation will protect its norms. Born of years of shared history, experience, negotiation and a general sense of right and wrong, norms reflect the shared values that promote social cohesion. Much like plaster binds together the pieces of a mosaic, norms give citizens that important sense that “we are in this together.” In stable democracies, norms are so embedded in the national psyche that they are taken for granted. For instance, even though elected politicians continue to be distrusted the world over, citizens still expect (or hope) they will maintain some sense of moral judgment in their decision making; that they will not intentionally mislead the public; and that they will work for the betterment of the people not themselves. As these norms hold, the politicians feel the pressure of the expectation and order their dealings (or the perception thereof) as close to the norm as possible.

When norms decay through neglect or the failure to hold violators accountable, corruption, division and chaos soon follow as happened in Solomon’s Israel. Unlike David, Solomon taught the people to prioritize material wealth over communal relations, which resulted in the unfair distribution of wealth and social division, and to view worship as a commodity tradable for political favors, which led to idolatry. Slowly but surely, swept by the politics of expediency and optimism, the people accepted the “new normal” partly because enough of them were blinded by material prosperity and unable to appreciate the cost of the erosion of norms until it was too late. 

Third, righteousness values truth. A great nation will practice what it preaches in domestic and foreign affairs. It will act with integrity, honor its commitments to other nations, compete fairly, and win opponents over by persuasion and good example not by threats and bullying. When it errs, as all do, it will acknowledge its shortcomings and work hard to regain trust and respect.

It is clear from the preceding that the righteousness that leads to a nation’s greatness remains aspirational for most countries. To attain it, nations (that is, the people who constitute them) must both desire and work for it. But most important, Solomon’s story shows how the greatness of a nation is inextricably tied to its leadership: unrighteous leadership cannot a great nation make, but it can a great nation break.  

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