American Exceptionalism: We’re Not Going Anywhere


This year, less than half of Americans expressed a belief that their country was exceptional. In a survey published last month, the Pew Research Center reported that the majority of Americans had rejected the idea of American exceptionalism for the first time since the question had been asked. Damningly, young Americans aged 18-29 were the most pessimistic: fewer Americans of my generation think our culture is a model for the world than their counterparts in Germany, Britain, or Spain.

Although there is much cause for this pessimism, it is yet undeserved. Although American greatness is fragile and in jeopardy, the United States remains, as it has long been, the “indispensable nation.” We are, as John Winthrop said, a “city upon a hill” and an example to all the world.

Tom Rollins argues opposite me that American exceptionalism is so much hot air and Enlightenment rhetoric. I disagree. Even today, after a decade marked by tragedy and failure, an observer can detect two themes that run throughout American history and capture the country’s exceptional character: its sense of mission and its relationship to its immigrants.

First, Americans are possessed by a profound sense of mission, a conscious obligation to make the world a better place. This belief is a strictly nonpartisan creed: interventionists like Barack Obama and isolationists like Ron Paul both believe that the United States has acted and should act as a force for good in the world. Although some Americans prefer to work by deed and others by example, both groups seek to contribute to civilization. (See Jonathan Monten’s 2005 paper on this point, in which he charts these two foreign policy tendencies throughout American history).

Of course, neither the U.S. nor any other nation has ever pursued a truly altruistic foreign policy. Although America has done great things for world peace, no nation’s leaders are blind to the calculus of national interest, and we have also waged whole wars completely ignorant about the peoples we fought, with tragic consequences for both sides. I would never argue that we were perfect.

Nevertheless, only Americans have translated pretty language about their country’s global obligations into a system that shared wealth and promoted security all across the globe. The citizens of Spain and Portugal, Britain and France, have all at one time or another defended their imperial programs with phrases like “the white man’s burden,” “la mission civilisatrice,” or “uma missão civilizadora.” But America is the only country in world history to use unrivalled power, not to conquer territory, but to build institutions of global governance.

In 1944, representatives of the Allied powers met in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to organize a worldwide system of peaceful commerce. In 1945, the U.S. was again host to an historic agreement: the founding of the United Nations. Throughout the succeeding decades, the United States exerted its extraordinary influence to craft institutions such as the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas, which together laid the foundations for the most prosperous and stable half-century of world history. (Fun fact: although we never bothered to sign UNCLOS, the Navy enforces it around the world — see Wachman, here). Critics of American “empire” don’t even graze the truth with the tips of their fingertips: America’s has been an “empire for liberty.”

Second but more important, what sets America apart, what makes America truly exceptional, is the ongoing story of its immigrants. According to a 2009 survey by the United Nations, more than 42 million people born in another country call America their home—more immigrants than live in any other country. Even more inspiring, an average of 650,000 of these men and women became U.S. citizens in each of the last ten years. These are the numbers by which our country should be measured, and by that measure we are exceptional indeed. 

It’s a cliché that America is a nation of immigrants, but a cliché worn smooth by loving use. Perhaps I’m not quite an impartial observer, here. After all, this is where my illiterate peasant ancestors stepped ashore, where my grandfather became the first member of his family to go to college (on the G.I. Bill, no less), and where my father graduated from the same Harvard Law School whose faculty would have looked askance at his father’s father’s very Irish father.

In any case, the U.S is undoubtedly exceptional, but I won’t yet presume to argue why it is. At 22, I’ve read about the arc of our history, but I haven’t been around for very much of it. My generation, the pessimistic 18-29 demographic, knows American greatness only as something fragile, something contingent on our ability to remain true to a history and a trajectory that small men with small fears threaten to undermine.

For those reasons, I can’t yet say with perfect confidence why America is exceptional — but without a doubt, at least for now, we remain so.

Photo Credit: Jared Smith