The Problems With American Exceptionalism

By Timothy Borjian
Cornell International Affairs Review
2011, Vol. 5 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

In 2001, German President Johannes Rau made a statement that divided Germany. In an interview with a television station, Rau said that although he is “pleased and grateful” to be German, he cannot be “proud” of it––as “it is not an achievement to be German, [but] just a matter of luck.”1 This statement drew criticism from the opposition in Germany who claimed that without patriotism, it is not possible to adequately represent the interests of the country. Many politicians called for Rau’s resignation or, at the very least, a recant of his words––he did neither. The uproar died down shortly after, and Rau served as President for another three years.

After President Rau’s death in 2006, most Europeans looked back fondly on his time in office. An obituary in The Times claimed “he was a powerful presence who remained popular…and tempered any outbreak of nationalist arrogance.”2

A year after Rau’s death, in America, Barack Obama faced criticism for not wearing an American flag pin on his lapel during the Democratic primary. In similarity to Rau’s controversial statement, Obama’s critics said that his lack of patriotism made him unfit for office.

Presdient Barack Obama spekaing without a flag pin.

President Barack Obama spekaing without a flag pin.

However, unlike Rau, after Obama attained the Democratic nomination for President, he went against his initial position and began to wear a flag pin. It is unclear whether Obama’s new stance, was actually driven by a true change of heart on the issue, or simply by a strategy to gain more votes. However, Obama’s patriotism was evident during last January’s State of the Union Address, where he called America, “not just a place on a map, but the light to the world.”

This comparison between President Rau and President Obama, in regards to the issue of national pride, serves as evidence that Americans are more willing than other countries’ citizens to tout their nation’s supposed greatness and proclaim that it is “exceptional.” The notion of American exceptionalism, which is interchangeable with American superiority, is often embraced and glorified by Presidential candidates who vie to be the so-called “leader of the free world.”

In order to gain support, these politicians must emphasize their patriotism and try to tap into the commonly held voter belief that America is the nation that all others aspire to be. Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum point out that it is not a question as to whether they believe in “American exceptionalism,” but rather how much they believe in it, as “no politician will publicly question his or her country’s exceptional status” for fear of political suicide.3

As Stephen M. Walt puts it, American exceptionalism today is the “self-congratulatory” belief that America is the world’s superpower and is “worthy of universal admiration.”4

However, even though Americans may accept the idea of American exceptionalism, the present-day United States is by no means an exceptional country. Without a consensus over the criteria required to judge whether a country is considered exceptional or not, there is no evidence to suggest that the belief of American exceptionalism holds true. In this paper, I will analyze why America is not an exceptional nation. Subsequently, I will talk about why Americans’ exceptionalist view hinders progress at home and hurts their relations abroad.

First, it should be noted that when the word exceptionalism is used to describe America, it is not used to refer to America as unique or different from other nations, but rather as being more eminent and esteemed than other nations. Although Alexis de Tocqueville––the first academic to describe the United States as exceptional–– originally used the term to emphasize how America was different from other Western nations, the modern view of American exceptionalism is something completely different.

As Stephen M. Walt puts it, American exceptionalism today is the “self-congratulatory” belief that America is the world’s superpower and is “worthy of universal admiration.”4 New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s (R-NJ) recent words at the Ronald Reagan library are a prime example of this modern view of American exceptionalism. In his speech, Christie not only called Americans “better” than other countries’ citizens, but also proclaimed that the US is “a beacon of hope for the world.”5

This modern interpretation of American exceptionalism has bipartisan backing with President Obama’s 2009 speech during the celebration of NATO’s 60th anniversary serving as evidence. He said the following:

“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I am enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that. And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”6

These words, along with Robert Schlesinger’s–– of US News and World Report––discovery that President Obama is “the only President in the last 82 years who has publicly uttered the phrase ‘American exceptionalism,’”7 prove that the notion of “American exceptionalism” is prevalent in the present age.

However, just because the idea of America’s superiority is talked about today does not mean that it is true. It could be argued that De Tocqueville and others have been successful in pointing out America’s uniqueness––through discussion of its absence of feudalism, its puritanical roots, or the fact that it was a nation built on an idea.8 However, when the discussion moves from uniqueness to superiority, a problem arises. If one is going to argue that a country is better, or more important than another country, then there needs to be criteria to decide this superiority.

For example, if it was decided that the best country in the world is the one with the best education system, South Korea would take the crown as its students scored the highest on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) multi-subject tests last year. The US, on the other hand, finished fourteenth.9 Thus, establishing criteria for judging is a vital aspect for determining superiority, as any country can essentially be considered the best as long as the criteria suits its strengths.

It is for this reason that most arguments in favor of the modern view of “American exceptionalism” never go very far: there is no universal consensus on how countries are to be judged. It is all relative to the one who chooses the assessment criteria.

In fact, if an objective third party were to judge all of the world’s nations on statistics alone, then the US would not be categorized as a superior country, but rather as one in steep decline. King’s College London recently released a study claiming the US not only has the highest incarceration rate in the world, but that this rate has quadrupled since 1980.10 The fact that the US prison population rises each year, while other countries––such as the Netherlands11–– are having to close down prisons due to lack of crime, does not put America in a favorable light when discussing its standing in the world. Moreover, according to a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the infant mortality rate in the US is growing in relation to that of other countries. America had the 23rd lowest infant mortality rate in 1990, but dropped to 34th place in 2008.12

However, one cannot define a country through one statistic alone, as one has to consider many different ways of measuring achievement before making an unbiased list of the most successful countries in the world. In 2010, Newsweek undertook such a task as the magazine used the criteria of health, economic dynamism–– defined as a country’s economic openness and the breadth of its corporate sector––education, political environment, and quality of life.13 The list also took into account the income and size of the countries evaluated. In the overall rankings, the US finished eleventh. It did not finish number one in any of the categories––its only top-ten rankings were in economic dynamism and quality of life.

Of course, this is just one study, but these comparisons and statistics suggest the decline of America’s superiority over time. Though only the current president has uttered the phrase “American exceptionalism,” it seems that presentday Americans should now, more than ever, reevaluate their status in the world. Americans need to understand that much improvement has to be done, if they truly want to be considered as exceptional. Thus, present-day claims of exceptionalism are unfounded.

Although many Americans may be willing to admit that their nation is exceptional, they do not take into account the consequences that such a self-important view can have. In regards to domestic affairs, when American politicians proclaim that their country is exceptional, they are thus suggesting that US policies are the best and that other nations’ are inferior. With this mindset of US dominance, there is harsh reaction from Americans whenever there is even a mention of possibly adopting European-type healthcare or education reform. It does not matter if these countries’ systems are consistently ranked better than America’s, or that their adoption could possibly improve the average American’s daily life, as anything other than the US’s way is considered to be subordinate.14

Outside of domestic governance, viewing the US as exceptional can also have grave consequences when it comes to foreign policy. This is the case because the belief of American exceptionalism is also linked with the principle of unilateralism––the doctrine that a country should be able to do an action for its own good, even if its action has international opposition. American exceptionalism and unilateralism suggest that since the US is the most important nation in the world, it should be exempt from global treaties, while having certain powers that other nations do not. Proponents of unilateralism, who Maria Ryan claims are mostly neoconservatives, may argue that since the US has great economic and military power, it should be allowed to act independently of other international factors.15 However, this philosophy has many negative outcomes.

Though the US is not an “exceptional” country in terms of superiority, it is still a nation with a famous historical reputation. Also, as Daniel Deudney and Jeffrey Meiser point out, due to the fact that it is the country with the largest economy and military defense, it is very influential on the global stage.16 This power is the reason why when the American government commits a global act unilaterally, and outright rejects multilateral organizations, it calls the legitimacy of such multilateral organizations into question.

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