Will advocates of American exceptionalism damage the United States image or advance it?
Tuesday, December 7th 2010
If the notion of American exceptionalism was ever valid, no real reason to believe in it has existed for some time. Incredibly, some still take the concept seriously. Our decline in strength and purpose began years ago, largely ignored by most of us. So did any basis for feeling unique among nations. Crises like the current one only make this agonizingly apparent.
But our present condition was probably always in the cards, even if we hadn’t spent decades exhausting our wealth, undereducating generations of our children, mismanaging our hard-won place in the world, and refusing to continue building a mature society anchored in justice and morality. Throughout history, after all, other nations have had the strength and talent to rise to greatness and, for all sorts of reasons, declined from it.
This country came of age protected by broad oceans, nourished by nearly limitless mineral, land, and timber wealth, energized by a vigorous, growing, and innovative population, and guided by extraordinary political vision. Within a few generations, these assets brought us self-confidence, repeated success, world leadership and, well, that exceptional feeling. In less time than that, we have let much of it slip away.
Totally our own fault? By no means. Factors beyond our control also played a big role. And we needn’t hang our heads in despair. We’ve enjoyed a long, brilliant day in the sun, contributing more to humanity and the world than any country ever. Moreover, despite our formidable problems, it seems likely that people across the globe will continue indefinitely to envy us our living standards, political viability, and major international role. But in no way can we arrogantly go our own way. In no sense can we become indifferent to the problems of others or to the dangers posed from beyond our borders. In no manner can we go on ignoring the laws of economics or nature.
Nor has America, in fact, ever been in that privileged position. If, at times, we have acted as if we were, we have surely suffered the consequences. American exceptionalism is a myth. Those who cling to it will do our image and our world a grave disservice, and severely complicate the work of public diplomacy. The United States is just beginning to learn how to live in this world and within its own still enormous capacities. To reverse that process would make matters infinitely worse.