Magazine article Foreign Policy

America Really Was That Great (but That Doesn't Mean We Are Now)

Magazine article Foreign Policy

America Really Was That Great (but That Doesn't Mean We Are Now)

Article excerpt

IS AMERICA STILL EXCEPTIONAL? The question has become a contentious issue in American politics over the last few years. But the answer has implications that go well beyond the political fortunes of Republicans and Democrats in the United States. It affects the stability and prosperity of the entire world.

President Barack Obama's Republican critics now routinely accuse him of denying America's history as an "exceptional" country because, when asked about the concept in 2009, he replied, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." (He then went on to list some of the features that, in his view, make America exceptional.)

But the idea of American exceptionalism does have real intellectual grounding. As used by scholars, it refers to the ways the United States has differed historically from the older countries of Europe: the fact that it was founded on a set of ideas; that it lacked a hierarchical social order with a hereditary aristocracy at the top; that the Europeans who settled North America did so in a huge, sparsely populated territory; and that it attracted immigrants from all over the world. In American politics, the term has come to have a celebratory as well as an analytical meaning. It refers to what makes America special: its wealth, its power, the economic opportunity it has provided for its citizens, and the expansive role it has played in the world, including the example of liberty and prosperity that it has set.


The fuss over exceptionalism represents, in one sense, politics as usual in the United States, with one side accusing the other of being out of touch with the country's deepest values. It also, however, taps into the national current of unease about the country and its future, an unease that is, alas, all too justified. No American politician will publicly question his or her country's exceptional status, but it is worth asking whether America really is still exceptional, especially because so many Americans are beginning to worry privately--and some publicly--that it is not.

The question reminds us of a story attributed to Abraham Lincoln. He asked, "If you call a horse's tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have?" He then responded, "The answer is four, because calling a horse's tail a leg doesn't make it one." Similarly, declaring that America is exceptional--that is, exceptionally wealthy, powerful, and dynamic--doesn't make it so. Exceptionalism is not a distinction that is bestowed and then lasts forever, like an honorary degree from a university; nor is it an entitlement like Social Security or Medicare--something all Americans automatically get to enjoy at a certain age. It has to be earned continually, like a baseball player's batting average. And today, as so many Americans fear, it is not being earned. America's exceptionalism is now in play. To remain exceptional, America must respond effectively to its four great 21st-century challenges: the ones posed by globalization, the revolution in information technology, the country's huge and growing deficits, and its pattern of energy consumption. America does not now have in place the policies needed to master them.

The United States has not adapted its educational system to prepare Americans for well-paying jobs in a world economy shaped by globalization and the revolution in information technology. It has not mustered the political will to bring the deficits of its federal government and many of its state and local governments under control. It has not taken effective steps to jump-start the long transition away from heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

Underlying these specific failures is a national failure even to pose the questions that must be answered as the starting point for all public policies: What world are we living in, and what do we need to do to thrive in it? …

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