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It Took COVID To Expose the Fraud of ‘American Exceptionalism’

Our leaders were so preoccupied with remaking the world they failed to see that our country was falling apart around them.
tattered flag

Has the time come to bury the conceit of American exceptionalism? In an article for the American edition of The Spectator, Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich concludes just that:

The coronavirus pandemic is a curse. It should also serve as an opportunity, Americans at long last realizing that they are not God’s agents. Out of suffering and loss, humility and self-awareness might emerge. We can only hope.

The heart of the American exceptionalism in question is American hubris. It is based on the assumption that we are better than the rest of the world, and that this superiority both entitles and obligates us to take on an outsized role in the world.

In our current foreign policy debates, the phrase “American exceptionalism” has served as a shorthand for justifying and celebrating U.S. dominance, and when necessary it has served as a blanket excuse for U.S. wrongdoing. Seongjong Song defined it in an 2015 article for The Korean Journal of International Studies this way: “American exceptionalism is the belief that the US is “qualitatively different” from all other nations.” In practice, that has meant that the U.S. does not consider itself to be bound by the same rules that apply to other states, and it reserves the right to interfere whenever and wherever it wishes.

American exceptionalism has been used in our political debates as an ideological purity test to determine whether certain political leaders are sufficiently supportive of an activist and interventionist foreign policy. The main purpose of invoking American exceptionalism in foreign policy debate has been to denigrate less hawkish policy views as unpatriotic and beyond the pale. The phrase was often used as a partisan cudgel in the previous decade as the Obama administration’s critics tried to cast doubt on the former president’s acceptance of this idea, but in the years since then it has become a rallying point for devotees of U.S. primacy regardless of party. There was an explosion in the use of the phrase in just the first few years of the 2010s compared with the previous decades. Song cited a study that showed this massive increase:

Exceptionalist discourse is on the rise in American politics. Terrence McCoy (2012) found that the term “American exceptionalism” appeared in US publications 457 times between 1980 and 2000, climbing to 2,558 times in the 2000s and 4,172 times in 2010-12.

The more that U.S. policies have proved “American exceptionalism” to be a pernicious myth at odds with reality, the more we have heard the phrase used to defend those policies. Republican hawks began the decade by accusing Obama of not believing in this “exceptionalism,” and some Democratic hawks closed it out by “reclaiming” the idea on behalf of their own discredited foreign policy vision. There may be differences in emphasis between the two camps, but there is a consensus that the U.S. has special rights and privileges that other nations cannot have. That has translated into waging unnecessary wars, assuming excessive overseas burdens, and trampling on the rights of other states, and all the while congratulating ourselves on how virtuous we are for doing all of it.

The contemporary version of American exceptionalism is tied up inextricably with the belief that the U.S. is the “indispensable nation.” According to this view, without U.S. “leadership” other countries will be unable or unwilling to respond to major international problems and threats. We have seen just how divorced from reality that belief is in just the last few months. There has been no meaningful U.S. leadership in response to the pandemic, but for the most part our allies have managed on their own fairly well. In the absence of U.S. “leadership,” many other countries have demonstrated that they haven’t really needed the U.S. Our “indispensability” is a story that we like to tell ourselves, but it isn’t true. Not only are we no longer indispensable, but as Micah Zenko pointed out many years ago, we never were.

It was 22 years ago when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright publicly declared the United States to be the “indispensable nation”: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Albright sounded much less sure of her old position: “There’s nothing in the definition of indispensable that says “alone.” It means that the United States needs to be engaged with its partners. And people’s backgrounds make a difference.” Albright’s original statement was an aggressive assertion that America was both extraordinarily powerful and unusually farsighted, and that legitimized the frequent U.S. recourse to using force.

After two decades of calamitous failures that have highlighted our weaknesses and foolishness, even she can’t muster up the old enthusiasm that she once had. No one could look back at the last 20 years of U.S. foreign policy and still honestly say that “we see further” into the future than others. Not only are we no better than other countries at anticipating and preparing for future dangers, but judging from the country’s lack of preparedness for a pandemic we are actually far behind many of the countries that we have presumed to “lead.” It is impossible to square our official self-congratulatory rhetoric with the reality of a government that is incapable of protecting its citizens from disaster.

The poor U.S. response to the pandemic has not only exposed many of the country’s serious faults, but it has also caused a crisis of faith in the prevailing mythology that American political leaders and pundits have been promoting for decades. This found expression most recently in a rather odd article in The New York Times last week. The framing of the story makes it into a lament for a collapsing ideology:

The pandemic sweeping the globe has done more than take lives and livelihoods from New Delhi to New York. It is shaking fundamental assumptions about American exceptionalism — the special role the United States played for decades after World War II as the reach of its values and power made it a global leader and example to the world.

The curious thing about this description is that it takes for granted that “fundamental assumptions about American exceptionalism” haven’t been thoroughly shaken long before now. The “special role” mentioned here was never going to last forever, and in some respects it was more imaginary than real. It was a period in our history that we should seek to understand and learn from, but we also need to recognize that it was transitory and already ended some time ago.

If American exceptionalism is now “on trial,” as another recent article put it, it is because it offered up a pleasing but false picture of how we relate to the rest of the world. Over the last two decades, we have seen that picture diverge more and more from real life. The false picture gives political leaders an excuse to take reckless and disastrous actions as long as they can spin them as being expressions of “who we are” as a country. At the same time, they remain blind to the country’s real vulnerabilities. It is a measure of how powerful the illusion of American exceptionalism is that it still has such a hold on so many people’s minds even now, but it has not been a harmless illusion.

While our leaders have been patting themselves on the back for the enlightened “leadership” that they imagine they are providing to the world, they have neglected the country’s urgent needs and allowed many parts of our system to fall into disrepair and ruin. They have also visited enormous destruction on many other countries in the name of “helping” them. The same hubris that has warped foreign policy decisions over the decades has encouraged a dangerous complacency about the problems in our own country. We can’t let that continue. Our leaders were so preoccupied with trying to remake other parts of the world that they failed to see that our country was falling apart all around them.

American exceptionalism has been the story that our leaders told us to excuse their neglect of America. It is a flattering story, but ultimately it is a vain one that distracts us from protecting our own country and people. We would do well if we put away this boastful fantasy and learned how to live like a normal nation.