State of the Union January/February 2006

Misfit America

Many of the values and cultural attributes that once made the United States unique have eroded; those that remain look increasingly ugly to some foreigners. Is our evolving national character a liability in our foreign relations?

Whitman's poetry also evokes an innocence that once seemed to brand America as refreshingly different from jaded and war-prone Europe; but with America's climb to global prominence, that, too, has faded. Paradoxically, historians may one day look back on America's achievement of superpower status—on the arrival of the "American Century"—as the beginning of the end of America's claim to distinctiveness. The development of the atomic bomb, the landing of the first man on the moon: these were impressive technological achievements, but not marks of national character.

Power tends to make uniform demands on its aspirants. In America's case the imperatives of power—building the secretive infrastructure of the national-security state, transforming provincial, sleepy Washington into a fortresslike imperial capital, diminishing the role of Congress in war-making decisions—have eaten at the fiber of popular democracy.

For a time the Cold War masked this. The Soviet Union served as a nearly perfect foil for the United States. Stalin's monstrous crimes and the lesser evils of his Bolshevik brethren, not to mention the torpor and sheer inanity of so much of Soviet life, highlighted many of the better and more historically distinctive American qualities, including a commitment to human rights and personal liberty and an aversion to strong state controls. Those ideals may seem less vivid since the fall of the Soviet Union, while the realities of American power unchecked by any rival have been thrown into relief.

Unbridled power tends to breed arrogance and greed no matter who holds it. Perhaps the lesson is that a nation may seek to be either powerful or original, but it is difficult to be both.

So is America still an exceptional country? The answer is yes. Our remaining exceptionalism resides in our culture's striking combination of deep religious faith and nearly libertarian social permissiveness. These qualities don't rub elbows easily, and their twinned presence separates the United States from nearly all other countries, rich or poor.

It is well known that Americans are more deeply religious than the citizens of just about any other affluent post-industrial society. In a typical assessment the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 59 percent of respondents in America answered the question "How important is religion in your life?" with "Very important," compared with 33 percent in the United Kingdom, 30 percent in Canada, 27 percent in Italy, 21 percent in Germany, 12 percent in Japan, and 11 percent in France. Across the past several decades religiosity has fallen steeply in all these places except America. And although Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that religion is very important to them, religious belief is still far more intense in the blue states than in the rich, modern patches of ground outside the United States.

Of course, that doesn't mean the United States is unique in its religious character—just that it is unique among rich nations. In this regard America is more like, say, Chile and Turkey. We are also like those countries, and unlike Europe, in our attachment to certain conservative social values that tend to be associated with traditional religious conviction. Thus America, Chile, and Turkey—but generally not the countries of Western Europe—score high in surveys of such values as patriotism and the importance of family. These aspects of our culture are not vestigial; they are active and self-renewing.

Of course, America is culturally quite different from Chile and Turkey in other core respects. Unlike the inhabitants of those relatively poor countries, or of Egypt and Pakistan, most Americans are not preoccupied with economic survival. An emphasis on survival, economic or physical, tends to draw societies inward and make them fearful of outsiders and of change. Cultural conformity is often valued, and duty to family and community preferred over individual pursuits. Survivalist societies also tend to welcome state ownership of industry, and tend not to value educating women or protecting the environment. America has had survivalist periods, but since World War II survivalist values have held little sway.

Rather, Americans—like the Swedes, the French, the Australians, and other rich peoples—focus on the infinite variety of leisure and educational activities that our wealth permits us to pursue. The ascendant value in this domain is one that has always been dear to the American character: personal autonomy, the ability to do one's own thing.

Having a foot in both fixed traditionalism and permissive modernism makes us still something of an outlier nation—astride both camps and at home in neither.

Some may argue that the coincidence of interests, not values, is what counts in foreign relations. But values are interests of a kind; shared values might dispose other nations to help achieve America's purposes in the world, and deeply conflicting values might limit trust and cause other nations to ascribe the worst motives to the United States. Whatever "realists" may think, good will is important both in maintaining alliances and in avoiding crises.

In the current climate, marked by widespread ill will over the Iraq War, our unusual combination of values probably works against us: traditional societies tend to see us as more permissive than we actually are, and permissive societies as more traditional than we actually are. And in an age of shared global experiences American values may come to be defined as those that others don't want. The future may therefore look friendless and isolated for superpower America, even after George W. Bush leaves office.

Fortunately, however, things are not quite as bleak as they look. In a less contentious time America's unique blend of qualities might cause some societies to reach out to us. Every nation has at least one important value in common with multifaceted America—and the natural bond between the United States and some other powers, both established and rising, is stronger than one might think. A brief tour of the world, with values in mind, reveals a lot about our likely future relationships.

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Paul Starobin is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His profile of Nursultan Nazarbayev appeared in the December issue.

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