Is America Exceptional?

Last week it became clear to the world that there was emerging a diplomatic alternative to controversial US military intervention in Syria. While the public and the political class had already opposed the strike, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and everyone else now turned their attention toward Russia and its president, grateful for a simpler solution to the Syrian dilemma.

Vladimir Putin’s brief editorial piece in the New York Times, most of which was spent asking Americans to reject military action, came a few days after the revelation, at this moment of retreat. If Putin was attempting to persuade the public, he was wasting his time—Americans strongly preferred a diplomatic solution. If he was attempting to sway the president and his cabinet, he would have found it as effective to speak with them personally or through diplomatic channels, as he has now done.

Mr. Putin was probably sending a different message. This is clear in light of his final paragraph, which was not a conclusion to the foreign policy article he had written above. His message was the following opinion, related only tangentially to his piece:

I carefully studied [President Obama’s] address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

I will come to the reasons for Putin’s condescension in a moment. But it would be useful, first of all, to examine why anyone cares about the idea of “American exceptionalism” at all, by remembering a few selected superlatives.

America is a relatively new nation. In political terms, however, the United States is the oldest continuous government on earth (leaving aside the microstate San Marino). Since the end of the Revolutionary War, every transition of its power has been peaceful–even the secession of the South following Lincoln’s election did not threaten the federal government or the presidential office. The ideological upheaval of the 19th and 20th centuries did not shake America, and Marxism never infected its government.

The first formal, written constitution was America’s, in 1787. The United States was the first effective liberal democracy, and the first to write in inviolable law the personal freedoms of speech and religion. America’s revolution was more than the first of its kind–it was also uniquely successful by comparison to later movements in France and other parts of Europe. The American Revolution, almost alone, was not characterized by an excess either of liberalism or conservatism, demonstrating in practice the ideals and virtues immortalized in words by America’s fathers.

By any reasonable metric the United States is the most powerful political entity in history. Of the dozen or so superpowers that have existed over the last few millennia, however, America has been the least tempted by conquest, rarely taking advantage of its opportunities to permanently control foreign lands (the Philippines as the main exception). On the other hand, the extent of America’s economic aid to post-war friends and enemies is staggering, considering Western Europe, Japan and the parties to more recent conflicts.

It is almost unnecessary to point out the economic, technological and cultural importance of this New World republic, at least to us who are communicating via a worldwide network created in the US, using American software and electronic devices invented by Americans. The essence of our modern, post-industrial world is American, as any of us non-Americans can admit to ourselves when we look around.

There are other exceptional nations. Great Britain, out of whose empire America was born, has perhaps influenced the world more than any other nation in the last 500 years—and it certainly has a great deal to do with America’s greatness. Otto von Bismarck was correct when he predicted on his deathbed in 1898 that nothing would shape modern history more profoundly than the fact that “the North Americans speak English.” Canada is included in this class of extraordinary Anglophone countries.

Japan’s forty-year rise, following a catastrophic war, was rightly named a miracle, and only a handful of countries have equalled the feat. The Scandinavian countries, the Low Countries and Switzerland, to pick a few salient examples, have managed to maintain extraordinarily peaceful and prosperous societies for at least half a century. Even within this peculiar class of nations, however, America is an exception. There is something to be said for greatness.

Philosophizing on equality and moralizing about modesty, the way Mr. Putin did last week, is nothing rhetorically new. These methods do, however, have the intended effect on Americans, who tend to avoid assertions of their own exceptionalism, so as not to appear the ugly, ego-blinded American.

As someone who has lived in the US for a period and has made efforts to study its history, I can offer an opinion on whether it is an exception. And as a Canadian, I can safely offer an opinion that is favourable to the idea. In a world where cultural cynicism, political arbitrariness and economic narrowness have always been the rule, America was the first, and remains the greatest, exception. Russia, in the company of so many other nations, is not, and has not ever been.

Perhaps Mr. Putin knows this. Maybe he went to the trouble of sending a message to America last week in an effort to dampen his internal anguish. His sadness (and perhaps his envy) is secured by the fact that no one, and certainly no American president, will ever write letters to Russian newspapers to tell them their country is nothing special–there would be no need to state the obvious.

Only extreme success, or abject failure, would really invite impassioned criticisms of a nation’s notability. But America is by no means a failure—that America attracts so much second-world contempt is a witness of its greatness.

America’s flaws, including its great flaws, while not sufficient to make the country unexceptional in our imperfect world, are real. And like everything mortal, America, and its unique vitality, cannot be permanent. But, “whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives”, as John Jay wrote in 1787, “America will have reason to exclaim, in the words of the poet: Farewell! A long farewell to all my greatness!


8 thoughts on “Is America Exceptional?

  1. Short reply!

    Although I don’t care much for Putin he does have a point!

    Some books you may like to read that may give you a wider viewpoint on our country, especially the claims of longest this and greatest that! Sometimes people repeat it so much that I wonder if they are just trying to convince themselves.

    I don’t hear the British Prime Minister ( who has a much greater claim than Obama to firsts in the world democracy, longest continuous government or achievements unsurpassed) say how great Britain is or was. They don’t need to! Why are we so juvenile!

    I would also turn your attention to the Somerset case of 1773 that had a huge influence for the reason for the Declaration of Independence, and the fear slavery would also be abolished in the colonies!.

    • Thanks for the reading suggestions! I’m a little confused by your comment–I gave more credit to Britain than to any other country: “Great Britain, out of whose empire America was born, has perhaps influenced the world more than any other nation in the last 500 years—and it certainly has a great deal to do with America’s greatness.”

      You also chose a poor time to claim something about the British Prime Minister’s humility. A couple of weeks ago, he said this:

      “Let me be clear – Britain may be a small island but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience …We are very proud of everything we do as a small island – a small island that has the sixth-largest economy, the fourth best-funded military, some of the most effective diplomats, the proudest history, one of the best records for art and literature and contribution to philosophy and world civilisation.”

      And maybe you noticed, but I’m not American. If I were American I would avoid saying the things I’ve said for the sake of modesty.

  2. I certainly get your point about Cameron’s utterances, Tom. Well said!

    However, I think you’ll find the English are generally prone to understatement rather than boasting – there are poor form exceptions! 😉

    What I was trying to convey is the popular history of the founding of the United States, which is mainly unifying selective propaganda, pales compared to the really interesting and wide history of that time.

    I took exception to a lot in your blog because it appeared to draw conclusions from selective popular history that has as its basis propaganda. A propaganda that has produced a Congress that does not really represent the people but the small minority to this day – the same small ruling Whig elite for which the Constitution was produced to insure unity. It is also the main reason why the US was one of the last countries to abolish slavery, while Britain one of the first!

    Without a good knowledge of the English Enlightenment of the 17th Century (including the English Bill of Rights of 1689) or the evolved English rights and liberties that were codified in the US Constitution, it’s difficult to understand the basis of the French and European Enlightenment or for that matter the Declaration of Human Rights.

    You also bring up the old difficulty of imperialism and American denial of it. The country was founded with thirteen states not fifty (after the murder and displacement of twelve million Native Americans, the annexation of Hawaii, etc.). The AR was fought to maintain slavery and to invade the lands in the Northwest Territory (Ohio) on which many of the Founding Fathers had property claims. For much of the war, before 1778, the Patriots had the support of the English Whig minority in Parliament who were actively seeking a solution to the representation question. One thought was an American parliament within the BE. Taxation was not an issue after 1773 as there was none!

    One of the books I suggested to read is 1688 by Steve Pincus, a professor at Yale. You will not find one reference to the Unite States in it, but I think it gives a clearer idea of the run up to the American and French Revolutions.

    Thank you for your reply.

    • I agree that what I wrote is quite a narrow view of American history. This was on purpose, however, as I alluded to when I said I would present “a few selected superlatives.”

      I don’t agree with much of what you said about slavery. You must, first of all, look at the North as opposed to the South. Vermont, in 1777, was the first place in the New World to ban slavery, long before the British Empire banned it. The rest of the North followed, and slavery in the North was illegal by 1804 (even though emancipation was gradual in some of the states). Britain and the US banned the slave trade within nine months of each other.

      Obviously, slavery in the South was not done away with until 1865. This probably happened earlier, however, than it would have if the founders had not insisted on a union of all thirteen colonies. Brazil, the slave society most comparable to the US, did not ban slavery until 1888. In order to get the South to ratify the Constitution, the framers had to allow slavery. The South would not have accepted abolition. So the anti-slavery framers intentionally fought for the “three-fifths” provision, which by reducing the census population of Southern states would actually make it easier to eventually pass laws restricting slavery. The fact that the US Constitution allowed for slavery, even though twenty years later it would be gone in the North, likely meant that abolition in the South was speeded by two decades or so.

      Your idea that slavery in the US persisted because of an especially selectively representative government doesn’t make sense. If power in the US had been concentrated in areas where slaves were not held, in the same way that British power was concentrated in Britain, where slaves were not held, then slavery would have been banned more quickly, not less. It was for the fact that common Southerners did have political power that slavery persisted so long.

      As far as the more nuanced history of the Revolution, you’re right that I presented a more popular, simplified version. I certainly agree that the Revolution was not really about taxes (at least not primarily), and that its roots are in British politics and ideas. I think there were many motives for Revolution, both petty and noble, as is revealed by the list of British misdeeds in the Declaration of Independence itself. And when I said the American Revolution “was not characterized by an excess either of liberalism or conservatism” I said it for a reason. The Americans had the dual purposes of trying to maintain this excellent British system of rule (conservatism) while seeking effective autonomy (liberalism). When they started talking about the “united States” I’m sure they didn’t imagine they were inventing a new nation, although that did become clear later.

      What I claimed about American imperialism is true. By comparison to Britain, the US has obviously engaged much less in conquest. While I suppose you could alter the definition of imperialism to include American geographical expansion (your best case would be with the Mexican-American War), it’s clear that the expansion was driven by the movement of settlers, as opposed to formal conquest. There are only a few circumstances where the US is clearly imperial–the Philippines, as I mentioned, being the most important example.

      The book 1688 does sound fascinating. I’ll put it on my list.

  3. I think you are being very charitable about American imperialism which included genocide and displacement of the native American population. If you lived in Oregon, as I do, and discovered the way the Indians were treated here just over a hundred years ago, I’m sure you would be appalled too.

    I think it is difficult to compare the imperialism of the BE to that of the contiguous US because Britain did not have a large population to exert the land grabbing by conquest imperialism many assert. At the height of Empire in 1934, the British population was still barely 30 million people, while the United States was around 140 million. The obvious difference is that British imperialism brought about a global economy, among other things, and the Brits are back home on their home soil. We’re still here occupying other peoples’ land!

    As far as the Declaration of Independence, it did assert some grievances, but most people know that the declaration was following a traditional English right of grievance that had its origins deep within English history back to Magna Carta, and before that to Saxon times! It was also a tool for recognition of legitimacy (and support) of other European nations. Just because they assert grievances does not automatically assume they were being truthful!

    There was no doubt a change in the colonial relationship was required and was being actively addressed on both sides of the Atlantic. For the Founding Fathers, the DOI was badly timed as had they accepted a compromise offered them in September 1776 they could have walked off with Canada without further killing of their brethren; even if it meant their claims within the Northwest Territory had to be postponed until Britain was able to pay for their defense! So instead of a natural British family partnership, as seen vaguely in today’s Commonwealth, we became rivals with the Brits.

    As far as slavery is concerned, there were States that followed England’s illegality (the interpretation that slavery does not conform to Common Law) of slavery in England in 1773, but they had no need for slavery in the same way the southern colonies did. It was a compromise for the sake of unity that set the United States (named by Thomas Paine actually!) on the way to Civil War.

    The British did stop the slave trade around 1807. Jefferson knew that the UK act was about to come in to force and quickly got an act through Congress first. Remember Jefferson had slaves!

    Eventually Britain banned all slavery in the BE in the 1830’s by paying the slavers a compensation of lost property amounting to £20 million (over half the British GNP), enforced it through the Royal Navy, paid other nations to stop their slavery, and compensated the United States for the loss of slaves it incurred during the Revolutionary War. I think you are underestimating the influence of slavery on the DOI.

    Another interesting book that takes a stab at a different view (and of course we all have them to confirm our bias) is Kevin Phillip’s ‘The Cousins’ Wars’

    • Coincidentally, I actually did live in Oregon for two years. I admit to not knowing very much about how Native Americans were treated there, however.

      I am not sure exactly what you meant by the Brits all returning to Britain–the fact that they didn’t return explains the demographics of Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand and parts of South and East Africa. While I admit that the US has engaged in imperialism, and certainly in self-interested war, I really don’t think you can make a strong case, or any real case, that it has done so to a greater extent than the British Empire.

      Your perspective is really interesting. I wasn’t aware of the possibility of compromise in 1776. I’ll look into the books and ideas you’ve referred to.

  4. Hi Tom,

    Well you are right of course regarding English/British colonialists who are in the lands of their immigration or conquest, but the imperial force or socio/economic reasons that “nurtured” them are no longer apparent. If the US returned to its founding thirteen states then in some ways the same could be said!

    As I said earlier, there is really no comparison between British and US imperialism because in most cases British imperialism was not to conquer lands (the exceptions you have noted) but to control them, institute constitutional liberalism (a prerequisite of democracy)and thereby control the balance of power in Europe. I think it could be said that there would have been no British Empire without a French Empire.

    The British concern about maintaining the balance of power is inextricably linked to homeland security. In that sense, quite naturally, the US has adopted much from England but unfortunately the paranoia too, completely unrealistic to its size and population – four times greater than any other Western nation!

    Britain is culturally far more like the United States than it is mainland Europe!

    How long were you in Oregon?


  5. Every country can find reasons to be named “exceptional”. For example. USA is not as ancient as China is (and as other countries). USA hasn’t as great culture as every (!) European country has. USA hasn’t as great military victories as Russia has. USA is not as large and great as Rome Empire was. Americans are not exceptional in considering themselves exceptional. Every nation does it.

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