Why American Exceptionalism Rules


The defense of American exceptionalism, allegedly endangered by Barack Obama, is becoming a conservative rallying cry, according to the Washington Post. It all seems to go back to a reply that the president made to a British journalist when asked whether he still subscribed to the idea that America is exceptional in being uniquely qualified to lead the world. The meat of his reply was, well, unexceptionable:

In addition to the world's largest economy and its mightiest military, Obama said, "we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional."

He added: "I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

Of course those paragraphs also have a liberal cast; Republicans might have underscored freedom of religion and Constitutional protection of property. But when Obama said "create partnerships" he tacitly acknowledged that the United States, not the UN or EU, will continue to have the leading role. So why the outrage?

Left and Right both see American institutions as exceptional. If some conservative authorities like John Yoo are to be believed, the president can use war powers to do things, like ordering unlimited My Lais, that George III probably never dreamed of even during his deepest porphyria episodes. On the other side, for many American liberals the wall of separation between church and state, unknown in most other democracies, is an article of faith. There's more than one kind of American exceptionalism.

The political problem of the first part of President Obama's reply wasn't deficient patriotism. It was his choice of two densely populated countries, one an island-and-a-half, the other a peninsula, both former empires ("Some talk of Alexander," begins the marching song "The British Grenadiers"), for comparison. America's real counterparts on the world stage are other continent spanning lands: China, which once had five time zones to our four, and Russia, which still has nine.. It's their scale, heritage of conquest, continued presence of indigenous cultures, and ethnic and religious diversity, not their political institutions, that make them exceptional.

The greatest paradox may be that because the U.S. Constitution has influenced those of so many other countries, the U.S. is fortunately less exceptional than it once was.  But it's worth recalling the words of the law professor Albert P Blaustein, a globe-trotting constitutional consultant to nations old and new. This quote in his New York Times obituary puts our distinctiveness in perspective:

Mr. Blaustein would attempt to interject Western liberal notions into the constitutions he drafted; in the 1970's he tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the leaders of the new majority-rule government of Zimbabwe to grant equal rights to women. But he acknowledged that for a constitution to work, it must reflect a country's culture and history. "We cannot put constitutions together like prefabricated henhouses," he said in the 1983 interview.

While he praised the United States Constitution as a document that had worked well, even in crisis -- he noted that "When Mr. Nixon left power, the only person with a gun was a policeman directing traffic" . . . .

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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