No matter the realities of a weakened economy and a waning Pax Americana, you knew how Monday’s presidential debate on foreign policy was going to end. In his concluding remarks, President Obama promised “to work every single day to make sure America remains the greatest country on earth.” Mitt Romney, up for the challenge, vowed: “America’s going to come back. This nation is the hope of the earth.”
On one level, this is just rote campaign speak, the sort of pieties every presidential candidate has to utter as he claws his way to the Oval Office. The same is true elsewhere: any politician seeking power in any other country would have to conjure up similar, if not so grandiose, patriotic platitudes.
Still, the exceptional thing about American exceptionalism — the conviction that the U.S. is unique in its role and purpose in the world and is, yes, better than the rest — is the extent to which it has become an article of faith in American political life. Just the fact that you may not subscribe to this chest-thumping creed can make you suspect. For the past year, conservatives have been hammering away at Obama’s foreign policy less on substantive points — as was clear on Monday, there’s little daylight between him and Romney — but for somehow not being animated enough by a belief in American exceptionalism.
This sort of dreamy nationalism worked better in an era when the U.S. could stand against an ideological antithesis, namely, the Soviet Union. (Stalin, it’s said, seized on the term even before many U.S. politicos, grumpily inveighing against the “heresy of American exceptionalism” — in this case, the curious unwillingness of the American proletariat to turn to communism.) With the Cold War over, though, the U.S.’s supposed higher calling has foundered: not just in the wake of two much-maligned, expensive wars and a global crisis engineered by Wall Street, but in the face of new rising powers, each with their own exceptional stories to tell.
For example, communist China’s metamorphosis into a capitalist dynamo, uplifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in a few decades, is unprecedented in modern history. The continued growth of India, the world’s largest democracy, despite its bewildering diversity of ethnicities, languages and religions, is a lesson for other emerging pluralistic societies. Meanwhile, the fitful throes of the Arab Spring, which saw a number of American-backed regimes either toppled or wracked by democracy protests, put into stark relief the gap between the U.S.’s actual interests and its purported values.
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The U.S. is indeed in many ways a special, admirable place. Its experience as a frontier democracy in the New World, a beacon of hope for countless immigrants fleeing oppression and depravation in 19th century Europe, makes for stirring history. And, for decades to come, it will remain the world’s only military superpower.
But does this necessarily make the U.S. better than the rest? Across the border in Canada, there exists a society as motley in its origins, that is no less democratic than its southern neighbor, that takes care of its people better and is blessed with a higher standard of living. We don’t hear of Canadian exceptionalism because no nation in the past century has had the ability (or the desire) to project its power and vision across the world as much as the U.S. Now, though, with the “rise of the rest” and the toll of the economic crisis, the scope for American influence is narrowing. Away from the bromides of the election campaign, one can imagine even a future Republican administration, let alone a Democratic one, playing a humbler, more carefully calibrated role on the international stage.
A recent Pew poll found that only 32% of the current ‘Millenials’ generation in the U.S. thought their country was “the greatest in the world” — compared to 72% of those between the ages of 76-83. Some could see in this a gloomy picture of a young generation disillusioned with their country. But I prefer to see something else: a 21st Century recognition of the world’s complexity, and that the American story is not the only one worth telling.