Presidential election seasons invariably provide fertile ground for the flourishing of the idea of American exceptionalism. We will continue to hear candidates affirm their belief that no other nation in history has been so strong, so influential, such a force for good, so consistently blessed and a blessing to the world as America has in its storied history. Any candidate who questions the validity of American exceptionalism does so at his or her peril. Belief in American exceptionalism is likely a prerequisite for getting elected these days.
Is America special, uniquely powerful, democratic, generous, wealthy, resourceful—even morally upright? Yes. America is a nation which has demonstrated a pattern of political, economic, social, and moral strength and innovation. It has served as an example to the world in hosts of beautiful and beneficial ways. Indeed, America has helped save the world from brutal tyrannies time and again in the past century.
But to make the claim that America is exceptional means that one must commit to the idea that there has never been a nation as strong, good, influential, generous, democratic, or stable as the United States in human history. To accept this belief, one would also have to claim that the United States is and has been indispensable to the progress and freedom of human beings. Many people have no problem making such claims. But to do so is to ignore history and to invite a check to profound hubris.
Western nations have a long history of claiming that they are the chosen of God, that they are blessed far beyond other nations, and that their destiny lies in achieving some singular role in the course of human history. This tradition goes back at least as far as the Roman Empire. The French considered themselves and their king to be the “Most Christian.” The Russians under the Czars thought they were blessed by God as the “Third Rome.” The Germans, twice in the previous century, believed their destiny was to rule over all (Deutschland, Deutschland über alles/Über alles in der Welt). The British Union Jack rode the breezes over a quarter of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s land surface in the early 20th century—“The nations, not so blest as thee/Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall/While thou shalt flourish great and free/The dread and envy of them all/‘Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves/Britons never will be slaves.’”
We Americans have a habit of attributing modern republican ideals strictly to ourselves. But our political value system is not native to these shores. Notions of self government, freedom of speech and religion, divided government, etc. developed in England before they took shape here. Also, the British ended slavery in the empire decades before the Americans did, and that somehow without nearly committing national suicide. London was the financial center of the world in the 19th century. The English language became the world’s lingua franca through the efforts of both the British and Americans in the 20thcentury. America could never have defeated Imperial Germany in 1918 without the help of the British and French; Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945 without the Russians; or the Soviets in the Cold War without a host of like-minded allies. We have also learned that the War on Terror is not a war which we can win alone.
There have been many nations which have occupied unique—even exceptional—positions of power and influence at certain times and places. Some nations rose to preeminence at just the right time to make all the difference for the good of humanity. America is one of those nations. America is, for now, the strongest, freest, and most generous nation in the world. But there have been other nations which have enjoyed this dizzying height. To overstate our significance is not only to write off the history of great powers. It is to delude ourselves into a false sense of security, to think that our position of strength was somehow predestined, inevitable, and immutable. Such a pompous attitude invites the reality check known very well to the great powers of the past. We do well to learn from their mistakes through the open-eyed study of history. The “exceptional” nations of the past had a way of being eclipsed by the dawning glories of once-obscure nations in unexpected ways.
Just ask the British about their thirteen American colonies.