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American Exceptionalism Revisited

President Obama defended American exceptionalism in a speech mostly dealing with America’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East at the UN Tuesday: “Some may disagree,” he noted, “But I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness, to the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up, not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently published a New York Times op-ed in which he critiqued this conceit head on: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Putin’s statement clearly struck a nerve: Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint answered Putin directly (“all humans are created equal—but not all nations are created equal”) while Senator John McCain responded in the wrong Pravda. Obama’s UN remarks represented a rather pointed reply to Putin’s comment. He warned of a “vacuum of leadership” that would result from American disengagement around the globe. He argued that “the world is better” for active U.S. leadership.

Is American “exceptionalism,” then, derived from its globalist foreign policy? Not according to Richard Gamble: In a 2012 article for this magazine, he argued that America has been driven by “old” and “new” American exceptionalisms. Gamble cites an 1899 speech by Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner, written at a time when America’s imperialist bent was beginning to take hold:

When Sumner came to the question of what set America apart from other nations, he debunked the most popular and superficial conception of exceptionalism and looked at history to ground America’s identity in something more substantial. Sumner first noted the irony that by claiming it had a unique civilizing mission to perform, America sounded just like every other major power at the end of the 19th century. “There is not a civilized nation which does not talk about its civilizing mission just as grandly as we do,” he remarked. The English, French, Germans, Russians, Ottoman Turks, and Spanish said the same.

It was not America’s “divine mission,” writes Gamble, that once set it apart. The old idea of exceptionalism was “more about what America doesn’t do than what it does, more about national self-restraint than national self-assertion.”

Indeed, one could not help comparing the defensive Putin backlash to George Washington’s famous 1796 farewell address:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it … The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

America’s political connections and involvement now extend far beyond Europe’s friendships and enmities. Our engagement around the globe is now routine. Yet Washington advocated for restraint. He was devoted to the peace and permanency of the Union, and to preserving domestic peace at all costs. Only one comment in Washington’s speech hints at “exceptionalism”: he said the U.S. enjoys a peculiarly “detached and distant situation” from other nations, and this position “invites and enables us to pursue a different course.”

In other words, the only “exceptionalism” envisioned by Washington is anathema to that expressed by American politicians today. While Washington saw domestic concerns as our most important preoccupation, Obama defined strict national interests as “narrow” and selfish.

Yet in a nation swimming in debt and riddled with unemployment, perplexed by health care complications and political schisms, one cannot help thinking that these “narrow” concerns are actually quite broad.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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