Over the last two centuries, prominent Americans have described the United
States as an "empire of liberty," a "shining city on a hill," the "last best
hope of Earth," the "leader of the free world," and the "indispensable
nation." These enduring tropes explain why all presidential candidates feel
compelled to offer ritualistic paeans to America's greatness and why
President Barack Obama landed in hot water -- most recently, from Mitt
Romney -- for saying that while he believed in "American exceptionalism," it
was no different from "British exceptionalism," "Greek exceptionalism," or
any other country's brand of patriotic chest-thumping.
Most statements of "American exceptionalism" presume that America's values,
political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration.
They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play
a distinct and positive role on the world stage.
The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America's
global role is that it is mostly a myth. Although the United States
possesses certain unique qualities -- from high levels of religiosity to a
political culture that privileges individual freedom -- the conduct of U.S.
foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by
the inherently competitive nature of international politics. By focusing on
their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the
ways that they are a lot like everyone else.
This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for
Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S.
dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what
they see as U.S. hypocrisy, whether the subject is possession of nuclear
weapons, conformity with international law, or America's tendency to condemn
the conduct of others while ignoring its own failings. Ironically, U.S.
foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less
convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.
What we need, in short, is a more realistic and critical assessment of
America's true character and contributions. In that spirit, I offer here the
Top 5 Myths about American Exceptionalism. . . .
[American Exceptionalism should restore individual liberty as the center of
the Constitution's universe and transparency the lifeblood of self-government. It should
understand that the final end of the state is to make citizens free to develop their
faculties and to be morally accountable for their destinies, not to bestride the world
like a colossus or to make the people government wards. It should make the rule of law
king, accept risk as the oxygen of freedom, and repudiate arrogance in favor of
self-doubting.--Bruce Fein, "American
Exceptionalism Challenged," huffingtonpost.com, September 18, 2013]