Viewpoint: American Exceptionalism Has Become Exceptionally Stale

No other country — and there are many other success stories out there — ascribes to such a chest-thumping, predictable creed as the United States

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Win McNamee / Getty Images

President Barack Obama debates with former Gov. Mitt Romney as moderator Bob Schieffer listens at the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., Oct. 22, 2012.

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.

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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.

43 comments
BjørnThuranSchultz
BjørnThuranSchultz

I simply adore how the vast majority of the comments simply provethe point of the article. Part of why america is collapsing in terms ofboth internal and international power (a collapse that will likely takedecades mind you) is it's blind exceptionalism and the refusal toaknowledge reality, and thus cutting itself off from improving oradjusting itself to the real world. Imagine a company, everyone says thecompany is the best in the world, and never aknowledges the problemsand thus never improves as a company, or keeps denying that it is not ascompetitive as it used to be; the result is that it will be overtakeneventually.

Having visited America recently, I have tosay it is so far the worst and most horrific country of the westernworld I have ever had the displeasure to be in. The political system,the blind zealotry of many americans, the way it would rather see it'scitizen die than hurt big buisiness, the way 600 kcal is considered adiet menu (are you guys insane?!), the way democratic values and freedomare supressed and spit upon, the absence of free press, the idea thatif you dont support america 100% you must be an enemy of the state, theopen use of torture and total disregard for the human rights, therefusal of the police to enforce the law, the way extreme poverty isallowed to exsist, or how their love for guns is set above  their lovefor life, and the list goes on. It is sad to see a country that is soblinded by devotion to itself that it will likely never pull itself outof the mire it is in, and you can keep america, I hope to never have tolive in a country like that, and I am proud of being able to say mycountry is crap and needs to become better.

BjørnThuranSchultz
BjørnThuranSchultz

I simply adore how the vast majority of the comments simply prove the point of the article. Part of why america is collapsing in terms of both internal and international power (a collapse that will likely take decades mind you) is it's blind exceptionalism and the refusal to aknowledge reality, and thus cutting itself off from improving or adjusting itself to the real world. Imagine a company, everyone says the company is the best in the world, and never aknowledges the problems and thus never improves as a company, or keeps denying that it is not as competitive as it used to be; the result is that it will be overtaken eventually.

Having visited America recently, I have to say it is so far the worst and most horrific country of the western world I have ever had the displeasure to be in. The political system, the blind zealotry of many americans, the way it would rather see it's citizen die than hurt big buisiness, the way 600 kcal is considered a diet menu (are you guys insane?!), the way democratic values and freedom are supressed and spit upon, the absence of free press, the idea that if you dont support america 100% you must be an enemy of the state, the open use of torture and total disregard for the human rights, the refusal of the police to enforce the law, the way extreme poverty is allowed to exsist, or how their love for guns is set above  their love for life, and the list goes on. It is sad to see a country that is so blinded by devotion to itself that it will likely never pull itself out of the mire it is in, and you can keep america, I hope to never have to live in a country like that, and I am proud of being able to say my country is crap and needs to become better.

markr307
markr307

As long as we strategize well, we should remain strong and safe.  Look at Syria, look at China and Japan.  When we strategically withdraw our influence from an area, they tend to attack each other.  That's surely not a good thing, but that's better than getting attacked by them ourselves.  Sure I would love to see global peace in the world, but that is not the nature of the world, not in our day; and we won't be fashion to make the world into our ideal by force.  Perhaps it will evolve into it naturally one day.  Until then, we should stay safe and strong, and set a good example.

Danyz
Danyz

America in so any ways did carry civilization forward through a dark and turbulent 20th century. I recall in the year 1999 watching a U.S. troop convoy pass through the streets of Pusan, South Korea. It really hit home that I was on the free side of a still active dividing line between a U.S. dominated region and one that was not. Just a few short years later, I could not help but feel the contrast between George Bush senior and junior. Whereas dad had removed tactical nukes from South Korea in order to foster a less threatening atmosphere and to further north-south dialogue, Bush junior charged in like a bull in a china shop, trashed the delicate infrastructure of  peace and brought the region to the brink of war. 

And so the beginning of America's demise as a true superpower. A true superpower is a just arbitor between squabbling factions, not a partisan among partisans a la Bush in the Middle East. That Romney is within inches of snatching the fumbled neocon football and running with it should give all Americans serious pause so close to election day.     

zaglossus
zaglossus

Don't ever be jealous of Canada. It will always be in its more populated areas a bleak cold land on the edge of the tundra. If it now has a higher standard of living (debatable) than the USA that's due to the fact that it didn't suffer as much from the sub-prime bubble as the USA. Probably a temporary advantage for Canada.

1916
1916

Point of clarification: America is two continents. Lets not insult the other countries here.

Let's talk about the states. The states is ironically mediocrity-friendly and backwards for an "exceptional" nation.

Anything actually exceptional frightens them like they are medieval peasants. It's ammusing sometimes but it can be irritating too.

Other nations are not as scared of quality in the way they are. Nobody else thinks the states is the best but just enjoy the exchange

rate.

Damini_2010
Damini_2010

@TIME @ishaantharoor Whatever USA may or may not be, TIME magazine is a joke.

Ron Pollard
Ron Pollard

Reading all these comments was entertaining. More so than the article actually. Tharoor made some valid points and if you read with an open mind there are lessons to be taken from him. The best result would be for each and everyone of us that is able to help, do so.

BillPearlman
BillPearlman

Without the United States of America the 20th century would have been radically different and in a new dark age. Perhaps the author should consider that when he is writing from NY instead of Mumbai

Baris Ertan
Baris Ertan

Roman empire was the best country in the world too

Lisa Dee
Lisa Dee

No. Half are embarrassed about it, the other half are too stupid to be embarrassed.

Alex Valbuena
Alex Valbuena

If were the best, why do we issue OH1/H1B(genius visas) visas to fill our tech industries???

Nancy Baalman
Nancy Baalman

Looks like to remain the best, we need to improve our education system.

Brennan Albrecht
Brennan Albrecht

People, all these other rising nations would be nothing without America. And china, no matter what people say, will not stay on top. There demographics are too skewed. One child per family? In the rising generation, males are outnumbering females in almost a 3:2 ratio. And that separation is growing. America is the leader in families and economic prosperity. People are so doom and gloom about the recession. Just remember, the years after the Depression were some of the best we've had. That's the nature of economics. We are the only and I mean only country that has real potential to rise back to the top. Remember that.

eifg
eifg

As an American I do not care for the idea of American Exceptionalism.  I think it is arrogant to assume that somehow we are the example for the rest of the world to follow.  I think it is important to recognize our strengths while acknowledge our short comings and understand that there are things we can learn from other countries.  The U.S. is among the best countries in the world but I see no reason to say we are better.  Other countries have longer life expectancy, better educated citizens and rank higher in surveys of quality of life and happiness and yet they do not feel the need to call themselves "Exceptional".

kirsty_spears
kirsty_spears

@TIME @ishaantharoor @timeideas I think the most interesting point is the acknowledgement of a gap between America's values and interests.

Lisa Graham
Lisa Graham

As great as America may be, it could never survive without other countries.

Hornberger Art
Hornberger Art

Think whatever you want. All are entitled to think and believe as they will. I ask though where does that freedom stem from. It will take a lot more than a decrease in economic power to make me think that the United States in not the greatest Nation on the planet. The principles that this country is based on assures its continued prosperity. This is just another period of time that will in the end teach lessons and make us all the better for it. The Great Deprssion was overcome. Have faith and forge ahead.

Tom Orlando
Tom Orlando

Americans are the master race. We are the master race not because we are ethnically identical, but because we are diverse. We retain our differences, but our nation makes us strong, our Constitution unites us into one people. The sacred duty of Americans is to carry the torch of our prosperity and excellence to the people of the world and bath them in the flames, so that, like the Phoenix, a new beginning can rise from the ashes. A new beginning, as Americans. Our people will be once again strong, and we will conquer all. Amen.

Richard Strong
Richard Strong

Ana: Would a "full blooded" - whatever that means - American have such a problem with being told their country is not the greatest in the world? If so then you guys must have one hell of an ego problem.

Anne Marie
Anne Marie

@ Mari, poeple? What does that mean?

Nathan Lathouse
Nathan Lathouse

Because eyes are finally opening for the benefit of the future. Once you find out how our prosperity is an illusion, you become enlightened.

Ana Regina Menocal
Ana Regina Menocal

Dear Ishaan Tharoor, I dare you say that to a full blooded American, face to face. I can never tell from the complexity of their names if they are males or females or both

Carlington Brothers Garbageman
Carlington Brothers Garbageman

Screw him. We are greater than the Romen empire and if we are so bad maybe we should start a nuclear War hit them first. and then we can rule in peace

Kyle Kash-Gregory
Kyle Kash-Gregory

About time, I hate being told that the American way of doing something is the 'right way'. It is possible things can be of equal value despite the cultural difference.

Noteabaggers0
Noteabaggers0

@TIME @ishaantharoor @TIMEIdeas a Erica is the greatest country on earth only in the delusional minds of Americans! So sad and pathetic!

JasonDavidBoss
JasonDavidBoss

@TIME @ishaantharoor @timeideas ironic, the fact that you can make such a statement with no repercussions, kind of negates the whole thing

Sidharth_S
Sidharth_S

@TIME @ishaantharoor @TIMEIdeas 4) people are familiar with the US culture that they feel welcome in the country with such multi ethnicity

summermcgeephd
summermcgeephd

@TIME @ishaantharoor @TIMEIdeas I think WIll McAvoy already covered this. #aaronsorkin #TheNewsroom

Sidharth_S
Sidharth_S

@TIME @ishaantharoor @TIMEIdeas 2) but no other country exerts its presence on international stage like the US does

samgeall
samgeall

@ishaantharoor If you love Canada so much, why don't you go live there? Why do you hate freedom? (&c. &c...)

OzarkGranny
OzarkGranny

A well written article.  If the US wasn't 16 trillion dollars in debt, we would be able to bail-out Europe and fix the mess that Wall Street created. Instead we will spiral downward because we will be unwilling to make the necessary cuts to military and entitlement programs and unwilling to raise taxes to a sufficient degree.   It would be nice if we could grow our way out of this economy, but that appears to be wishful thinking.  

Punatic
Punatic

@BillPearlman, I think the author understands and acknowledges the role the US has played in the world however past greatness does not ensure future greatness in an ever-changing world community.

Punatic
Punatic

@Tom Orlando This sounds like a speech Hitler gave back in the 1930-40s.

eifg
eifg

@Ana Regina Menocal  Dare him to say what to a full blooded American?

adgill23
adgill23

where, exactly, does the writer say he hates freedom?