Much talk of American exceptionalism which, incidentally, my spell-checker is obviously oblivious to (It would prefer me to use exceptionalness.) Cue Obama’s speech at the UN recently. And much talk of American actually being rather unexceptional (cue Vlad Putin’s exceptional – as in unusual – op-ed in the New York Times recently, the last line of which rather emotively reads: We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.) Which side to take? Well that all depends on your point of view, like everything in life. If that’s not very helpful then please read on and I might just venture an opinion.
A quick look at the facts or apparent facts: the US is the biggest economy on the planet; it is the world’s biggest consumer; it has the world’s biggest military; the world’s biggest military budget; it arguably has the greatest cultural infuence (for better or worse); it contributes the most in global aid although I have no idea of the split between humanitarian and strategic. Uncle Sam is the big dog on the block (yes, that’s me too, or at least the wiser incarnation of my ego, Misha). Does this make the US exceptional? By one definition (www.dictionary.com) exceptionalism is ‘a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm.’ One contraction of the word exceptionalism is exceptional. A few synonyms from the online dictionaries: superior, uncommon, singular, strange, unnatural, aberrant, anomalous. A further contraction is the word exception which is defined by the same reference resource as ‘an instance or case not conforming to the general rule’ or ‘an adverse criticism, especially on a particular point; opposition of opinion; objection.’
Is there any wonder the uncontracted word evokes so many different responses! To be honest I don’t like the word because of the ambiguity. Whilst no political leader should be foolish enough to declare themselves or their citizens to actually be innately superior to the rest of us in any shape or form the notion that a nation can evade the rules or institutions set up to ‘balance the scales of power’ by virtue of some attribute or other makes most of us baulk. Then again the US is bigger and more capable in so many senses that it is an exception to the general rule, hence the ambiguity. They have greater power to intervene in conflict situations, more influence than most to bring to bear at the negotiating table, more external strategic interests to protect. What Obama and other proponents of US exceptionalism would like us to believe is that the US, by virtue of its size, influence and power, actually has a moral duty to exercise this power for the good of all. Whilst I don’t believe there can ever be a situation that is for the good of all where there are both proponents and opponents in principal there will always be good choices and bad choices, or more likely the best of any number of less-than-perfect resolutions to a situation. US exceptionalism is a double-edged sword: because we are bigger than you we have the means (and hence the ‘right’) to influence your decisions in a manner that we deem to be in our general interests either directly or indirectly, whilst at the same time creating a self-fulfilling expectation that the US will remain in the ascendency for as long as it exists.
As I said I don’t like the word exceptionalism. I would much prefer that the US couched its rhetoric in terms of ‘acting responsibly’ or ‘taking responsibility’. Pure and simple. There would still be arguments and conflicts but at least we wouldn’t have to deal with the notion of superiority.