The Myth of American Exceptionalism

The idea that the United States is uniquely virtuous may be comforting to Americans. Too bad it's not true.

Over the last two centuries, prominent Americans have described the United States as an "empire of liberty," a "shining city on a hill," the "last best hope of Earth," the "leader of the free world," and the "indispensable nation." These enduring tropes explain why all presidential candidates feel compelled to offer ritualistic paeans to America's greatness and why President Barack Obama landed in hot water -- most recently, from Mitt Romney -- for saying that while he believed in "American exceptionalism," it was no different from "British exceptionalism," "Greek exceptionalism," or any other country's brand of patriotic chest-thumping.

Most statements of "American exceptionalism" presume that America's values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.

The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America's global role is that it is mostly a myth. Although the United States possesses certain unique qualities -- from high levels of religiosity to a political culture that privileges individual freedom -- the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics. By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.

This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S. dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy, whether the subject is possession of nuclear weapons, conformity with international law, or America's tendency to condemn the conduct of others while ignoring its own failings. Ironically, U.S. foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.

What we need, in short, is a more realistic and critical assessment of America's true character and contributions. In that spirit, I offer here the Top 5 Myths about American Exceptionalism.

Myth 1
There Is Something Exceptional About American Exceptionalism.

Whenever American leaders refer to the "unique" responsibilities of the United States, they are saying that it is different from other powers and that these differences require them to take on special burdens.

Yet there is nothing unusual about such lofty declarations; indeed, those who make them are treading a well-worn path. Most great powers have considered themselves superior to their rivals and have believed that they were advancing some greater good when they imposed their preferences on others. The British thought they were bearing the "white man's burden," while French colonialists invoked la mission civilisatrice to justify their empire. Portugal, whose imperial activities were hardly distinguished, believed it was promoting a certain missão civilizadora. Even many of the officials of the former Soviet Union genuinely believed they were leading the world toward a socialist utopia despite the many cruelties that communist rule inflicted. Of course, the United States has by far the better claim to virtue than Stalin or his successors, but Obama was right to remind us that all countries prize their own particular qualities.

So when Americans proclaim they are exceptional and indispensable, they are simply the latest nation to sing a familiar old song. Among great powers, thinking you're special is the norm, not the exception.

Myth 2
The United States Behaves Better Than Other Nations Do.

Declarations of American exceptionalism rest on the belief that the United States is a uniquely virtuous nation, one that loves peace, nurtures liberty, respects human rights, and embraces the rule of law. Americans like to think their country behaves much better than other states do, and certainly better than other great powers.

If only it were true. The United States may not have been as brutal as the worst states in world history, but a dispassionate look at the historical record belies most claims about America's moral superiority.

For starters, the United States has been one of the most expansionist powers in modern history. It began as 13 small colonies clinging to the Eastern Seaboard, but eventually expanded across North America, seizing Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California from Mexico in 1846. Along the way, it eliminated most of the native population and confined the survivors to impoverished reservations. By the mid-19th century, it had pushed Britain out of the Pacific Northwest and consolidated its hegemony over the Western Hemisphere.

The United States has fought numerous wars since then -- starting several of them -- and its wartime conduct has hardly been a model of restraint. The 1899-1902 conquest of the Philippines killed some 200,000 to 400,000 Filipinos, most of them civilians, and the United States and its allies did not hesitate to dispatch some 305,000 German and 330,000 Japanese civilians through aerial bombing during World War II, mostly through deliberate campaigns against enemy cities. No wonder Gen. Curtis LeMay, who directed the bombing campaign against Japan, told an aide, "If the U.S. lost the war, we would be prosecuted as war criminals." The United States dropped more than 6 million tons of bombs during the Indochina war, including tons of napalm and lethal defoliants like Agent Orange, and it is directly responsible for the deaths of many of the roughly 1 million civilians who died in that war.

More recently, the U.S.-backed Contra war in Nicaragua killed some 30,000 Nicaraguans, a percentage of their population equivalent to 2 million dead Americans. U.S. military action has led directly or indirectly to the deaths of 250,000 Muslims over the past three decades (and that's a low-end estimate, not counting the deaths resulting from the sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s), including the more than 100,000 people who died following the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. U.S. drones and Special Forces are going after suspected terrorists in at least five countries at present and have killed an unknown number of innocent civilians in the process. Some of these actions may have been necessary to make Americans more prosperous and secure. But while Americans would undoubtedly regard such acts as indefensible if some foreign country were doing them to us, hardly any U.S. politicians have questioned these policies. Instead, Americans still wonder, "Why do they hate us?"

The United States talks a good game on human rights and international law, but it has refused to sign most human rights treaties, is not a party to the International Criminal Court, and has been all too willing to cozy up to dictators -- remember our friend Hosni Mubarak? -- with abysmal human rights records. If that were not enough, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the George W. Bush administration's reliance on waterboarding, extraordinary rendition, and preventive detention should shake America's belief that it consistently acts in a morally superior fashion. Obama's decision to retain many of these policies suggests they were not a temporary aberration.

The United States never conquered a vast overseas empire or caused millions to die through tyrannical blunders like China's Great Leap Forward or Stalin's forced collectivization. And given the vast power at its disposal for much of the past century, Washington could certainly have done much worse. But the record is clear: U.S. leaders have done what they thought they had to do when confronted by external dangers, and they paid scant attention to moral principles along the way. The idea that the United States is uniquely virtuous may be comforting to Americans; too bad it's not true.

Myth 3
America's Success Is Due to Its Special Genius.

The United States has enjoyed remarkable success, and Americans tend to portray their rise to world power as a direct result of the political foresight of the Founding Fathers, the virtues of the U.S. Constitution, the priority placed on individual liberty, and the creativity and hard work of the American people. In this narrative, the United States enjoys an exceptional global position today because it is, well, exceptional.

There is more than a grain of truth to this version of American history. It's not an accident that immigrants came to America in droves in search of economic opportunity, and the "melting pot" myth facilitated the assimilation of each wave of new Americans. America's scientific and technological achievements are fully deserving of praise and owe something to the openness and vitality of the American political order.

But America's past success is due as much to good luck as to any uniquely American virtues. The new nation was lucky that the continent was lavishly endowed with natural resources and traversed by navigable rivers. It was lucky to have been founded far from the other great powers and even luckier that the native population was less advanced and highly susceptible to European diseases. Americans were fortunate that the European great powers were at war for much of the republic's early history, which greatly facilitated its expansion across the continent, and its global primacy was ensured after the other great powers fought two devastating world wars. This account of America's rise does not deny that the United States did many things right, but it also acknowledges that America's present position owes as much to good fortune as to any special genius or "manifest destiny."

Myth 4
The United States Is Responsible for Most of the Good in the World.

Americans are fond of giving themselves credit for positive international developments. President Bill Clinton believed the United States was "indispensable to the forging of stable political relations," and the late Harvard University political scientist Samuel P. Huntington thought U.S. primacy was central "to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world." Journalist Michael Hirsh has gone even further, writing in his book At War With Ourselves that America's global role is "the greatest gift the world has received in many, many centuries, possibly all of recorded history." Scholarly works such as Tony Smith's America's Mission and G. John Ikenberry's Liberal Leviathan emphasize America's contribution to the spread of democracy and its promotion of a supposedly liberal world order. Given all the high-fives American leaders have given themselves, it is hardly surprising that most Americans see their country as an overwhelmingly positive force in world affairs.

Once again, there is something to this line of argument, just not enough to make it entirely accurate. The United States has made undeniable contributions to peace and stability in the world over the past century, including the Marshall Plan, the creation and management of the Bretton Woods system, its rhetorical support for the core principles of democracy and human rights, and its mostly stabilizing military presence in Europe and the Far East. But the belief that all good things flow from Washington's wisdom overstates the U.S. contribution by a wide margin.

For starters, though Americans watching Saving Private Ryan or Patton may conclude that the United States played the central role in vanquishing Nazi Germany, most of the fighting was in Eastern Europe and the main burden of defeating Hitler's war machine was borne by the Soviet Union. Similarly, though the Marshall Plan and NATO played important roles in Europe's post-World War II success, Europeans deserve at least as much credit for rebuilding their economies, constructing a novel economic and political union, and moving beyond four centuries of sometimes bitter rivalry. Americans also tend to think they won the Cold War all by themselves, a view that ignores the contributions of other anti-Soviet adversaries and the courageous dissidents whose resistance to communist rule produced the "velvet revolutions" of 1989.

Moreover, as Godfrey Hodgson recently noted in his sympathetic but clear-eyed book, The Myth of American Exceptionalism, the spread of liberal ideals is a global phenomenon with roots in the Enlightenment, and European philosophers and political leaders did much to advance the democratic ideal. Similarly, the abolition of slavery and the long effort to improve the status of women owe more to Britain and other democracies than to the United States, where progress in both areas trailed many other countries. Nor can the United States claim a global leadership role today on gay rights, criminal justice, or economic equality -- Europe's got those areas covered.

Finally, any honest accounting of the past half-century must acknowledge the downside of American primacy. The United States has been the major producer of greenhouse gases for most of the last hundred years and thus a principal cause of the adverse changes that are altering the global environment. The United States stood on the wrong side of the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa and backed plenty of unsavory dictatorships -- including Saddam Hussein's -- when short-term strategic interests dictated. Americans may be justly proud of their role in creating and defending Israel and in combating global anti-Semitism, but its one-sided policies have also prolonged Palestinian statelessness and sustained Israel's brutal occupation.

Bottom line: Americans take too much credit for global progress and accept too little blame for areas where U.S. policy has in fact been counterproductive. Americans are blind to their weak spots, and in ways that have real-world consequences. Remember when Pentagon planners thought U.S. troops would be greeted in Baghdad with flowers and parades? They mostly got RPGs and IEDs instead.

Myth 5
God Is on Our Side.

A crucial component of American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States has a divinely ordained mission to lead the rest of the world. Ronald Reagan told audiences that there was "some divine plan" that had placed America here, and once quoted Pope Pius XII saying, "Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind." Bush offered a similar view in 2004, saying, "We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom." The same idea was expressed, albeit less nobly, in Otto von Bismarck's alleged quip that "God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States."

Confidence is a valuable commodity for any country. But when a nation starts to think it enjoys the mandate of heaven and becomes convinced that it cannot fail or be led astray by scoundrels or incompetents, then reality is likely to deliver a swift rebuke. Ancient Athens, Napoleonic France, imperial Japan, and countless other countries have succumbed to this sort of hubris, and nearly always with catastrophic results.

Despite America's many successes, the country is hardly immune from setbacks, follies, and boneheaded blunders. If you have any doubts about that, just reflect on how a decade of ill-advised tax cuts, two costly and unsuccessful wars, and a financial meltdown driven mostly by greed and corruption have managed to squander the privileged position the United States enjoyed at the end of the 20th century. Instead of assuming that God is on their side, perhaps Americans should heed Abraham Lincoln's admonition that our greatest concern should be "whether we are on God's side."

Given the many challenges Americans now face, from persistent unemployment to the burden of winding down two deadly wars, it's unsurprising that they find the idea of their own exceptionalism comforting -- and that their aspiring political leaders have been proclaiming it with increasing fervor. Such patriotism has its benefits, but not when it leads to a basic misunderstanding of America's role in the world. This is exactly how bad decisions get made.

America has its own special qualities, as all countries do, but it is still a state embedded in a competitive global system. It is far stronger and richer than most, and its geopolitical position is remarkably favorable. These advantages give the United States a wider range of choice in its conduct of foreign affairs, but they don't ensure that its choices will be good ones. Far from being a unique state whose behavior is radically different from that of other great powers, the United States has behaved like all the rest, pursuing its own self-interest first and foremost, seeking to improve its relative position over time, and devoting relatively little blood or treasure to purely idealistic pursuits. Yet, just like past great powers, it has convinced itself that it is different, and better, than everyone else.

International politics is a contact sport, and even powerful states must compromise their political principles for the sake of security and prosperity. Nationalism is also a powerful force, and it inevitably highlights the country's virtues and sugarcoats its less savory aspects. But if Americans want to be truly exceptional, they might start by viewing the whole idea of "American exceptionalism" with a much more skeptical eye.

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America Really Was That Great

… But that doesn't mean we are now.

Is America still exceptional? The question has become a contentious issue in American politics over the last few years. But the answer has implications that go well beyond the political fortunes of Republicans and Democrats in the United States. It affects the stability and prosperity of the entire world.

President Barack Obama's Republican critics now routinely accuse him of denying America's history as an "exceptional" country because, when asked about the concept in 2009, he replied, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." (He then went on to list some of the features that, in his view, make America exceptional.) In Mitt Romney's recent retelling, this is akin to saying that "there is nothing unique about the United States."

But the idea of American exceptionalism does have real intellectual grounding. As used by scholars, it refers to the ways the United States has differed historically from the older countries of Europe: the fact that it was founded on a set of ideas; that it lacked a hierarchical social order with a hereditary aristocracy at the top; that the Europeans who settled North America did so in a huge, sparsely populated territory; and that it attracted immigrants from all over the world. In American politics, the term has come to have a celebratory as well as an analytical meaning. It refers to what makes America special: its wealth, its power, the economic opportunity it has provided for its citizens, and the expansive role it has played in the world, including the example of liberty and prosperity that it has set.

The fuss over exceptionalism represents, in one sense, politics as usual in the United States, with one side accusing the other of being out of touch with the country's deepest values: a "profoundly mistaken view," Romney said of Obama's "derisive" remarks. It also, however, taps into the national current of unease about the country and its future, an unease that is, alas, all too justified. No American politician will publicly question his or her country's exceptional status, but it is worth asking whether America really is still exceptional, especially because so many Americans are beginning to worry privately -- and some publicly -- that it is not.

The question reminds us of a story attributed to Abraham Lincoln. He asked, "If you call a horse's tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have?" He then responded, "The answer is four, because calling a horse's tail a leg doesn't make it one." Similarly, declaring that America is exceptional -- that is, exceptionally wealthy, powerful, and dynamic -- doesn't make it so. Exceptionalism is not a distinction that is bestowed and then lasts forever, like an honorary degree from a university; nor is it an entitlement like Social Security or Medicare -- something all Americans automatically get to enjoy at a certain age. It has to be earned continually, like a baseball player's batting average. And today, as so many Americans fear, it is not being earned. America's exceptionalism is now in play. To remain exceptional, America must respond effectively to its four great 21st-century challenges: the ones posed by globalization, the revolution in information technology, the country's huge and growing deficits, and its pattern of energy consumption. America does not now have in place the policies needed to master them.

The United States has not adapted its educational system to prepare Americans for well-paying jobs in a world economy shaped by globalization and the revolution in information technology. It has not mustered the political will to bring the deficits of its federal government and many of its state and local governments under control. It has not taken effective steps to jump-start the long transition away from heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

Underlying these specific failures is a national failure even to pose the questions that must be answered as the starting point for all public policies: What world are we living in, and what do we need to do to thrive in it?

The stakes are exceptionally high. For Americans, whether the United States is able to answer these questions successfully will determine the country's future rate of economic growth, and that growth rate will in turn determine how much Americans will be able to maintain the best features of their society: opportunity, mobility, and social harmony. For the rest of the world, the stakes are perhaps even higher. Since 1945, and especially since the end of the Cold War, the United States has provided to the world many of the services that governments generally furnish to the societies they govern. While maintaining the world's major currency, the dollar, it has served as a market for the exports that have fueled remarkable economic growth in Asia and elsewhere. America's Navy safeguards the sea lanes along which much of the world's trade passes, and its military deployments in Europe and East Asia underwrite security in those regions. The U.S. military also guarantees the world's access to the oil of the Persian Gulf, and American intelligence assets, diplomatic muscle, and occasionally military force resist the most dangerous trend in contemporary international politics: the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The global governance the United States has provided, from which the rest of the world has derived enormous benefit, has rested on a vibrant economy and the national unity and confidence that have arisen from it.

In 2011, a robust American global role continues to be vital. With the Arab world in upheaval; with Europe's common currency, the euro, in crisis and the future of the European Union itself in doubt; and with China, the world's fastest-growing economy and fastest-rising power, having all but exhausted the possibilities of its model for economic growth based on an undervalued currency and ever-rising exports, a dynamic American economy and a stabilizing, reassuring American global presence are as important now as they have ever been, if not more so. Sustaining them, though, depends on America's rising to meet its major challenges, and doing so immediately.

Somehow it has fallen slightly out of fashion to talk about "American power." Those on the left often do not fully understand its constructive uses, concentrating instead on the occasional abuses that always attend the exercise of power. Those on the right often do not fully understand its sources -- that American power is not simply a matter of will but of means, and those means need to be constantly renewed and refreshed. In the second decade of the 21st century, that depends on successfully meeting the country's four major domestic challenges.

Can America respond to them in appropriate fashion? We are optimistic that it can. While the country is paralyzed at the top -- the political system is stuck and is not generating the necessary public policies -- it remains extraordinarily vibrant at the grassroots.

If one were to design a country ideally suited to flourish in the 21st century, it would look more like the United States than any other. In a world in which individual creativity is becoming ever more important, America supports individual achievement and celebrates the quirky. In a world in which technological change takes place at warp speed, requiring maximal economic flexibility, the American economy is as flexible as any on the planet. In a world in which transparent, reliable institutions, and especially the rule of law, are more important than ever for risk-taking and innovation, the United States has an outstanding legal environment. In a world in which even the cleverest inventors and entrepreneurs have to try and fail before succeeding, American business culture understands that failure is often the necessary condition for success. None of these traits has gone away during the current crisis.

Over the course of its history, the United States has rarely failed to meet its major challenges. It is in fact the current failure to do so that is unusual -- one might even say "exceptional." When tested, from the days of the revolution in the 18th century to the drawn-out Cold War struggle in the 20th, America and Americans have found ways to excel.

To continue to do so, the country would do well to learn from the experience of one of its iconic companies, IBM, which is celebrating its centennial this year. IBM essentially invented the personal computer, but didn't fully understand the implications of its own creation. The company, like too many Americans, came to think of its exceptional status as self-perpetuating and permanent. This led to complacency and strategic mistakes that almost proved fatal.

How did IBM lose sight of the world it invented? Listen carefully to the answer of Samuel Palmisano, IBM's current chairman and CEO, when we asked him that question: "You spend more time arguing amongst yourselves over a shrinking pie than looking to the future," he said, and so "you miss the big turn" that you have entered, even a turn that your own company invented. When you mistakenly start thinking of other departments and colleagues in your own company as the opposition -- rather than the other companies against which you must compete -- you have lost touch with the world in which you are operating. This can be as lethal for countries as it is for companies. America's political parties today have strayed off course, Palmisano told us, "because they have focused on themselves" more than on the priorities of the country as a whole. IBM got back on track, under new leadership, by focusing on and coming to understand the new environment in which it was operating and then mobilizing and inspiring the whole company to master the next big change in technology, networked computing.

America needs to do something similar. It is obvious what its core competency is in the 21st century. The United States has greater potential than any other country to thrive in the future by becoming the world's most attractive launching pad -- the place where everyone wants to come to work, invent, collaborate, or start something up to get the most out of our new hyperconnected world. And they will want to come to America because it has the best infrastructure, the most dynamic schools, the most open economy, the most inviting immigration policies, the most efficient and stable markets, the most government-funded research, and the best rules to promote risk-taking and prevent recklessness. That is how America remains as "exceptional" in this century as it was in the last two -- not by launching another moon shot but by becoming the world's favorite launching pad for millions of moon shots.

American power and prosperity, and global stability and prosperity, are all riding on the country's success in meeting its challenges. A world influenced by a United States powerful enough to provide political, economic, and moral leadership will not be a perfect world, but it will be a better world than any alternative we can envision. That means that the status of American exceptionalism is more than an academic controversy or a partisan political squabble in the United States. Everyone, everywhere, has an interest in America taking the steps necessary to remain an exceptional country.