Each country thinks that it’s exceptional, and, truth be told, each country really is exceptional in its own special ways. But there’s a difference between celebrating your own unique way of life and thinking that you can do whatever you want and force your way of life onto everyone else. And if we as Americans want to move forward both as a people and as members of the international community, we need to understand this fact and start basing our foreign policy around it.
“American exceptionalism,” the idea that the United States is different or better than other countries, has meant a lot of different things over the years. On the one hand, we’ve used the idea that we’re better than everyone else to justify bullying around countries much smaller than ours. And we’ve also used it to justify invading countries like Mexico and Iraq that were largely minding their own business.
This is the bad side of American exceptionalism. But there’s also a good side to American exceptionalism. For over 200 years, everyday people have used the idea that America is different and special for a lot of noble purposes, like ending slavery and enfranchising women. The idea that everyone should enjoy the “exceptional” core values of American society - “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” - has guided activists and revolutionaries since colonial days, and it will continue to do so well into the future.
In America, like in pretty much every country, it’s a political necessity to say that you love your country and that it’s the best place in the world. This can be a healthy thing, but it can also turn into something toxic when used to assert uniqueness and superiority over other groups.
There’s an important parallel here with tribalism and racism. To say, “I’m of Turkish or Norwegian or African ancestry, and proud of it,” is an entirely different thing from saying that your ancestry makes you superior to other people, and then to go out and assert that supposed superiority by discriminating against or exploiting people who don’t have the same background as you. Feeling awareness and even pride in your country is different than oppressing or asserting power over other countries.
This kind of exceptionalism - the kind that makes people believe that because they’re German, American, or Chinese that they’re better than everyone else - leads to bad behavior and even fascism, as we saw in the years leading up to the Second World War.
It also leads to the Bush theory of international relations, the idea that the United States can run around the world blowing things up and spreading “American values” regardless of whatever anyone else thinks. As pretty much everyone except for a few neocons acknowledges, the foreign policy of the Bush years was a total disaster. If America really wants to be a responsible and “exceptional” superpower, it needs to lead by example, not by force of arms.
President Obama made this point yesterday in a speech at West Points’ commencement ceremony, subtly changing the definition of American exceptionalism away from the Bush era definition:
"I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions. That’s why I will continue to push to close GTMO – because American values and legal traditions don’t permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.
"That’s why we are putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence – because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we are conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens. America does not simply stand for stability, or the absence of conflict, no matter what the price; we stand for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people everywhere."
While most Americans probably didn’t catch this nuanced shift in the President’s definition of American exceptionalism, I think it’s worth noting. While politics demands that he continue to use the word “exceptionalism,” he’s altered its meaning to one that’s more rational and useful, one that fits more with the “good” side of American exceptionalism.
And no matter what the President’s critics might say, this is a welcome change. I mean, can you imagine what “American exceptionalism” might mean today if John McCain had been elected president? Iran would be a smoldering pile of rubble, we’d have a hundred thousand troops in Syria, and God-knows where else.
Saying that America is “exceptional” because we actually follow international law and advocate peace is to say that all countries can fit that definition and it sets a good example for the rest of the world. This doesn’t make us weaker; it makes us stronger because it reaffirms the same values that make America so special to begin with.
Now, if President Obama would just take it all the way and follow international law by not killing civilians in foreign lands with drones, we might be taken more seriously. And if Republicans would get with the program and let the president use federal money to close GTMO, we might begin to meet this new healthy definition of American exceptionalism.
Meanwhile, it’s time for the rest of us to get talking about what really makes America special, because only then will we be able to truly rejoin the family of nations around the world that embrace peace and the rule of law.