All nations have unique characteristics that make them feel exceptional. But exceptionalism has been a disaster for America even though it was based on three solid pillars:
- Two centuries ago a unique nation was formed, not on the basis of any ethnic, cultural or religious community but on universal human values: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.....
- It was a nation of immigrants, providing refuge to people from all over the world. Its Statue of Liberty served as a Beacon of Freedom with its inscribed words: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...
- The major wars of the Twentieth Century thrust America into a global role. Demonstrating an unprecedented conciliatory treatment of vanquished enemies, its leadership ended centuries of European warfare, while the founding of the United Nations and the World Bank set global standards for peace and prosperity. Continuing American leadership of the Free World led to the collapse of the totalitarian Soviet Union.
Entering the Twenty-first Century, America led a world largely at peace. Francis Fukuyama even labeled the situation the End of History, the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government, with America as the indispensable nation.
Then it all fell apart. An assertive China challenges the United States while a resurgent Russia covers its domestic economic failings with a confrontational policy to the West. Africa stagnates, while turmoil there and the Middle East results in millions of refugees flooding into a fragmenting Europe, further unsettled by Greek bankruptcy and British Brexit. The Middle East is at the center of intractable wars, including a self-proclaimed Islamic State tenaciously fighting to maintain territorial control while simultaneously fomenting terrorist actions world wide. Globally American ideals are challenged by autocratic, nationalistic and self-serving governments. A stable democratic world is nowhere to be seen.
What went wrong?
The End of History was premature, focusing on an illusory veneer of democratic ideals over a world of repression and exploitation. Clearly democracy does not simply lead to peace and prosperity. A new worldwide internet ensured that America's inability to overcome its historical legacies of repressing Native Americans and supporting slavery was visible worldwide. Integrating Europe, vanquishing totalitarian communism and creating a positive global framework did indeed attest to the power of American ideals, but this was increasingly overshadowed by an arrogant American attitude that the nation knew best what was important for everyone else. The Cold War was used to justify cooperation with a wide range of autocratic governments as well as repression of popular movements in Iran, Chile and the Congo. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, America and the West totally failed to promote real democratic evolution in Russia.
Not only did democracy fail to live up to its potential, so did market capitalism. It is obviously true that it outdid totalitarian communism, but even a century ago it was clear that capitalism was not self-correcting, that an Invisible Hand of the Market was also an illusion. As early as 1890, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act recognized that commercial interests needed to be regulated. In that same era, American business interests led to the establishment of Central American banana republics where pliant governments put commercial interests ahead of local democratic development. These same interests undermined the Hawaiian monarchy and joined in exploitation by the Industrialized World of Third World natural and human resources. Through the Twentieth Century, business came to dominate American politics. Moneyed interests warped Congressional and Executive actions. Corporations came to exploit workers while protecting shareholders and senior executives. As wealth became increasingly concentrated at the top of society, the job market shriveled and labor participation rates dropped, exacerbated by technology and global trade networks. Society became increasingly frustrated as more and more individuals snapped.
Then came the invasion of Afghanistan, eliminating a Taliban government but failing to stabilize the nation. This was followed by the disastrous invasion of Iraq; a deep faith in military solutions and a profound ignorance of local conditions supported a simplistic expectation that a vibrant democracy would rapidly emerge. Instead the United States became entangled in vicious battles within the Muslim World and struggles between the West and Islamic states. This had been foreseen ten years earlier by Samuel Huntington, describing how many cultures do not accept American values, but have their own deep seated attitudes on liberty and authority, rights and responsibilities, and religious beliefs in the relationetween God and man, especially in the Islamic World.
Widespread awareness of American use of torture and thousands of civilian casualties were followed by the sudden and unexpected rise of the Islamic State. American values came to be seen as a sham, a cover for self-serving actions. Nowhere was the dimming of the Beacon of Freedom more visible than in the Arab Spring; violent demonstrations rocked the Arab world with demands of democracy but without any reference at all to an America no longer seen as representing its own ideals. As this movement faded, America once again supports a repressive military regime in Egypt and fails to bolster Tunisia, the one struggling democracy to emerge from that movement.
Domestically, too, American values are being called into question as ethnic rivalries are stoked with divisive protests on immigration programs, officially intensified suspicions of Muslims, and reinvigorated white racism. Economic problems are increasingly blamed on minorities while continuous denunciations of the mainstream media and a rise of fake news leaves the general population unsure of what to believe. The nation can no longer absorb immigrants as before. The Open West disappeared a century ago; now economic changes are all but eliminating any need for more unskilled workers. Even millions of Americans cannot find good jobs.
American exceptionalism had indeed fostered a sense of hubris, promoting American values abroad when they supported American efforts, while neglecting them at home. No wonder exceptionalism was widely derided as a delusion that led the nation astray.
But this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
America is indeed an exceptional nation for its deep values and the post-war leadership it demonstrated. American values are not wrong, but America let the world and itself down by failing to live up to them. These basic values are indeed self-evident, even if America is no longer seen as representing them. The importance of democratic ideals to the Arab Spring has already been noted. And even autocratic regimes as extreme as North Korea try to label themselves as democratic and tout their use of elections. Putin talks of a managed democracy; the Chinese leadership talks of an "intraparty democracy" while much of the dissent there focuses on real democracy. There has also been widespread association of Western values with modernization, a growing recognition in many cultures that some traditional elements may not have been in their best interests.
Yes, America liked to look upon itself as being the indispensable nation, but in truth it really is. The growing fragmentation, dissension, and belligerency on a global scale underline the need for new leadership. Fukuyama's vision of liberal democracy may not quite be what is needed, but the post-war framework of international standards provided a solid basis for peaceful development. For better or worse, America does remain the indispensable nation, if only because there is no one else. Europe cannot even lead itself. Russia strives to be seen as a global power, but focuses on regional hegemony and lacks the resources to operate again on a global scale. China is the only other nation operating on a global scale; its paradigm of managed democracy appeals to autocrats but not to anyone seeking freedom. Even within China, growing pressures for more democracy threaten to undermine the economic growth that gives the government legitimacy. The Islamic groups which talk of global appeal are the most extreme elements rejected by their own countrymen as vividly and tragically being demonstrated in Mosul.
The world badly needs American exceptionalism, but not American arrogance or ignorance. It needs the kind of thoughtful, collaborative and forward-looking American leadership demonstrated in the aftermath of World War II. It needs to demonstrate that primary American values are indeed universal, the only basis for dynamic and creative societies. It cannot do this without basic realignments domestically, reforming the economy so that wealth distribution works for everyone, reviving its fundamental ideals of freedom and equality so that America does indeed model the values it professes. It has to provide global leadership not from some sense of manifest destiny, but from a need for self-preservation America simply cannot prosper in a world of turmoil. Nor can any one else. Failed and failing states have generated some 65 million displaced persons by the end of 2015, a major symptom of the global imbalance that cries for enlightened leadership. The only solution is not to accommodate them in the Industrialized World, but to improve the situation in source nations so that people can build their own countries, their own economies and cultures. Like other major challenges, such as climate change and the potential for global epidemics and major natural disasters, it cannot be addressed militarily. The world needs to work together to make Fukuyama's vision of a peaceful and prosperous world a reality. It is hard to see any route to such a situation without American exceptionalism, an America standing up once again to lead the world in new directions.