The illusion of American exceptionalism

Despite Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the idea of American exceptionalism remains embedded in the US psyche.

Members of U.S. military salute during ceremony to retire U.S. military''s ceremonial flag, signifying end of U.S. military presence in Iraq, at Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center
US militarism around the globe has tarnished its 'exceptional' mantle [AFP]

In his struggle for Congressional approval to launch an attack on Syria, President Obama once again invoked American exceptionalism that puts America above the rest, and bequeaths to it the right, and the duty, to fix things.

Using superlatives as befits such occasions, he told Americans that the United States had been “the anchor of global security” for seven decades. And he claimed that not only does it mean “forging international agreements” ­- it also means “enforcing” them. Further, as “Commander-in-Chief … and the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy”, Obama spoke of America’s heavy “burden of leadership” that has made the world a “better place”.

In his 1830s masterpiece Democracy in America, French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville described the position of Americans as “exceptional” ­for their “strictly puritanical origin, exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit”. America’s role in the 20th century, particularly in WWII and the Cold War, ascertained its status as the most powerful nation. Neoconservative thinkers and policymakers, somewhat prematurely, started to use terms like the “New American Century” and “American empire”. However, while claims of US exceptionalism meaning the world’s most lethal military power may be credible, assertions of exceptionalism in other respects are open to challenge.

Liberty as an element of exceptionalism is not unique in America’s case, either meaning the freedom to act or the absence of coercion, as 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill articulated in his work On Liberty. One has to read US history with a critical eye to appreciate the limits of freedom as well as the presence of coercion. Egalitarianism as a political doctrine may be enshrined in America’s constitutional documents, but claims of equality of individuals in terms of political, economic, social and civil rights hardly stand up to scrutiny. From slavery to modern America, numerous examples show that the case for egalitarianism is weak at best.

The sense of being the global master promotes a state of mind which becomes addicted to self-worshipping and misinterpreting others. Assertions of exceptionalism humiliate and radicalise, and often do not recognise the extent of resistance they produce.

Individualism fares rather better, but still we witness a phenomenon called “the tyranny of the majority” which de Tocqueville warned against in the 1830s. Privilege and elitism in politics, military and business are so widespread in the US, as in Europe and elsewhere, that the case for populism as an essential ingredient of exceptionalism is difficult to sustain. Laissez-faire economics and globalisation in the form of completely free markets really never existed. When there are fewer regulations there is coercion by those with power making and imposing their own rules. So what is exceptional about US exceptionalism?

The truth is that other countries claim exceptionalism of their own: Britain for its role as an imperial power; France for liberty, fraternity and equality since its own revolutionary period in the late 18th century; Greece, which traces its roots to ancient history when it was the cradle of Western civilisation and the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy and literature; indeed other cradles of civilisation, Egypt, China, India; and the Soviet Union for mass industrialisation and full employment. The list goes on. America is not the only “shinning city upon a hill” – it is rather more crowded over there. Alas, they all come with a dark side that warrants reflection and self-examination.

The story of America’s rise as the undisputed global hegemon runs through the 20th century, and a series of savage wars. The Allied victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in WWII was one high point, from which two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, emerged. However, in a devastated but exceedingly militarised world there was going to be only one hegemon in the end.

That point arrived around 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet empire, but not before four decades of vicious regional wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Angola, Mozambique, and in Central and South America. The Americans and the Soviets both suffered setbacks in individual conflicts, but the US was the last hegemon standing.

Imperial Britain lost its colonies in years starting immediately after WWII, becoming a relatively minor power, but continued to punch above its weight. London’s close liaison with Washington, and its ability to influence US policy and actions at crucial times, gave successive British governments power to serve their international ambitions by proclaiming a “special relationship” with the US.

From the American CIA and British SIS intelligence plot which overthrew Iran’s democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, to being an integral part of America’s worldwide military-intelligence network in the 21st century, the UK’s crucial, often secretive, role during the Cold War and the post-Soviet world deserves critical examination. Britain’s conduct helps to explain America’s own behaviour.

But ultimate triumph leaves the victor with euphoria and hubris. The sense of being the global master promotes a state of mind which becomes addicted to self-worshipping and misinterpreting others. Assertions of exceptionalism humiliate and radicalise, and often do not recognise the extent of resistance they produce. These are some of the lessons of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, three major conflicts involving great powers in the last six decades.

In the end, though, there comes a point when even the unconquerable, the “exceptional”, must accept that the tide has turned, and a new quest for consent must begin. What happens in coming weeks and months will indicate whether we are at such a juncture.

Follow Deepak Tripathi on Twitter:@Deepak_Tripathi

Deepak Tripathi, fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, is a British historian of the Middle East, the Cold War and America in the post-Soviet world.