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The Trouble With American Exceptionalism

| September 21, 2013

It's not holding up as much anymore. (Jessicizer)

It’s not holding up as much anymore. (Jessicizer)

By Cary McMullen

It seems that Russia is calling us out as a nation on one of our most cherished and unwritten beliefs: the one that says America is exceptional.

Cary McMullen

Cary McMullen

There is a long history to this notion, beginning with the Puritan John Winthrop’s comparison of his pilgrim band to the biblical city on a hill, and Americans have believed in some way ever since that we are unique among the families of nations. You could make a good case that the trajectory of our history is indeed exceptional, although the word itself merely means “not typical” and doesn’t necessarily imply superiority.

But of course we do think we’re superior as a moral example, something President Barack Obama invoked in his address to the nation about Syria last week. Noting that we could not right every wrong in the world, he said, “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”

This inevitably strikes others as smugness or hubris, and Russian leaders spoke up to take, well, exception to it. In a New York Times opinion piece, President Vladimir Putin wrote, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. … We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

context floridaThen on Monday, in the wake of the Washington Navy Yard shootings, Alexey Pushkov, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said in a cruelly timed tweet, “The USA should part with the notion of American exceptionalism. It contradicts the principles of equal rights and smells of political racism.”

America is hardly the first nation to consider itself exceptional. A belief in the essential rightness of one’s country is concomitant with national pride. So China’s name for itself is “middle kingdom,” and ancient Chinese maps portray it in the middle of the known world. The French under Napoleon believed themselves masters of the world, as did the British before World War I and the Germans before World War II.

Ah, we say, but those guys were only interested in power. Our motives are nobler. In our foreign policy, we only want to right wrongs, share our largesse and serve as a democratic example in an unjust, poverty-stricken and autocratic world. That was clearly the ideal Obama held up before us in his speech.

In making the case for military action against Syria, he said, “To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”


Whatever you think of whether we should use military power against a Middle Eastern dictator who used chemical weapons against his own people, the underlying claim to justify it is that we have the moral authority to act. If we bomb Assad, it’s because we are doing the right thing, goes the argument.

It is worth asking ourselves the fundamental question, do we have this moral authority? Do we have the humility Obama spoke of, namely that we are acting not in self-interest but in the interest of justice? Are we exceptional not just in our history but in our standing among nations as an exemplar of righteous ideals?

No nation is pure. True humility would involve confessing that our actions are an admixture of idealism and self-centeredness. But in the face of Russian mockery, it’s doubtful national pride would allow us to admit it. And in that, we are definitely not exceptional.

Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. Reach him by email here.

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9 Responses for “The Trouble With American Exceptionalism”

  1. brian says:

    obama has turned out to be a race baiter and awful president..

  2. John Adams says:

    Since when has Russia not mocked America. Guess you never heard of the cold war.

    In view of the extreme feeble weakness exhibited by obamma, it is only natural for adversarial nations to be emboldened and attack the U.S.

    This is what happens when you have a feckless president who leads from his behind.

  3. Sherry Epley says:

    Good article!
    There are moments every day when thousands of people who live in the others countries in South, Central and North America see all the “talking heads” on television in the USA as arrogant. Why? Because we often refer to ourselves as Amercans. . . let me finish. . . and in a way that makes it sound as though the people who live in the USA are the ONLY Americans. I have had perfectly nice people in Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica politely remind me on several occasions that THEY are AMERICANS also. Where does that oblivious arrogance come from? Something to ponder.

    While our country was certainly born in an exceptional way. . . in a way for which we should continue to be very proud. . . I personally am not as proud of our culture as I was in the past.

    There are many motivations for entertaining the notion of military interference. . . causing death and destruction in other countries. In my mind, “motivation” is the key. Think of the lives and property our country has demolished since World War II. The motivational forces have been “FEAR”, “REVENGE”, “MONEY/OIL”, “DEFENSE CONTRACTOR PROFITS/JOBS”, “PROTECTING ALLIES”. . . maybe. Not one of these motivations help me to be proud of my country in any way!

    It seems the situation in Syria is different. Thank goodness there is an opportunity for a solution that would not involve even more killing of innocent people. We should not be the policemen of the planet, but I like to think of us as humanitarians.

    We were exceptional. . . but now are we just plain arrogant?

  4. Genie says:

    We are one of the most humanitarian countries on the planet. There is a difference in being humanitarian and being just plain weak and stupid.

    The world does not respect weak leaders. History will judge Obama; we don’ t have to.

  5. Sherry Epley says:

    President Obama is the most humanitarian president we have had in years. . . that does NOT make him weak! The weakness in our country is that which divides us, that which politizes and obstructs every endeavor our TWICE elected president attempts. . . that which promotes gun violence and caters only to the greed of wealthiest 1%. . .

  6. nomad says:

    “we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. ”

    But “we” are causing this. With borrowed money to fund and train the very rebels that “we” have recruited to attack the sovereign government of Syria. Why did “we” arm the rebels with poison gas? Why did “we” used poison gas in Iraq? And why did we remain silent when Israel used poison gas on Palestinians?

    Humanitarian? Compassion? When America stops dispensing its “humanitarian” and “compassion” the world would be a peaceful, safe, and an economically stable and productive place where everyone can enjoy a simple and pleasant life. But it’s hard for exceptional people to see this reality for fear of loosing their self appointed “exceptionality” status.

    “No matter how big the lie; repeat it often enough and the masses will regard it as the truth.”
    ― John F. Kennedy

  7. Sherry Epley says:

    Very well said Nomad! “We” need to stop arming the planet, including our own citizens!

  8. I/M/O says:

    I seem to recall the story from the old communist Soviet Union when the government built an entire new housing complex for thousands of families.

    The plans called for the housing units to be completely surrounded by a very tall brick wall.

    Opening Day arrived and all the Communist Officials showed up for the photo op of the grand opening.

    But there was this one problem. The workers had followed the plans to the letter (as socialist workers do) and built the wall around the entire housing complex. There were no entrances in the wall. The housing units wee completely sealed off.

    Now ask yourself why the supervisors at this building site never mentioned that there were no entrances in the walled housing complex. Because when you live under a communist dictatorship “You don’t ask questions. You do s you are told.

    Message to Putin. You are a thug. A punk. Most of all a phony. Give this 62 year old unexceptional American 3 minutes with you and I will shut your lights out. No it does not matter if you show up with or without your shirt on.

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