Liberals have never been comfortable with the notion of American exceptionalism. It isn’t hard to understand why. When you’re extremely sensitive to accusations of arrogance and fully invested in cross-cultural equality, it’s just too hard to argue for what sounds like American superiority. Hence President Obama’s well-known observation, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Obama immediately hedged by saying that our core values are exceptional, but his message was clear: Sophisticated thinkers know that any kind of exceptionalism is just a collective delusion.
Another way to evade the responsibilities of exceptionalism is to discover its death. In that vein, Peter Beinart has announced “the end of American exceptionalism.” This sort of argument by obituary is an old tradition. In 1903, the great scholar William James declared that the brutality of the American war in the Philippines demonstrated that American exceptionalism was nothing more than “pure Fourth of July fancy.”
The fatal flaw of Beinart’s argument is that it rests on a tendentious definition of exceptionalism, which he simplistically reduces to “our belief in organized religion; our belief that America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world; and our belief that we are a classless society.”
What Beinart fails to comprehend is something John Quincy Adams explained quite well in his famous Independence Day oration of 1821. It is not tangible behaviors on the part of the American people, such as going to church regularly, that make America exceptional. Rather, it is the justification of our country’s existence on the basis of universal rights, rather than religious creed, ethnic heritage, or some other narrow basis. Until we decide otherwise, exceptional we shall remain — although nothing precludes other nations from following suit. In fact, many democratic governments have made significant strides in that direction.
To make his case, Beinart cites statistics to the effect that almost as many Americans as Europeans report having no religious affiliation. (Interestingly, most unaffiliated Americans still believe in God and prayer.) Yet even if this data point were a lasting trend, it would mean only the passing of one manifestation of exceptionalism. A similar logic applies to Beinart’s observation that Americans increasingly see themselves divided into “haves” and “have-nots.” Americans’ unusual lack of class consciousness derives from our exceptionalism, but even if it came to an end, that would not signal a rejection of the underlying right to economic freedom.
Beinart’s assertion that Americans no longer believe in their historic mission of spreading freedom deserves closer attention. In his 1821 oration, Adams said that the Declaration of Independence “was the first solemn declaration by a nation of the only legitimate foundation of civil government. It was the corner stone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe.” (Emphasis added.) Here we begin to touch on the heart of the matter. According to Beinart, the war in Iraq turned millennials “against Bush’s exceptionalist vision of an America with unique burdens and privileges,” as well as the alleged “chest-thumping” patriotism of the post-9/11 years. The evidence backing up this point is flimsy. Beinart tells us that young Americans hesitate to say they are “extremely” proud of their country or that the U.S. is the “greatest” country in the world. Yet except in the eyes of critics, American exceptionalism does not mandate national egotism or an ignorance of our country’s failures. In the days of slavery and Jim Crow, America was still exceptional. In fact, we drew on our exceptionalism to extinguish those injustices without disavowing its universal implications.
The real question is whether Americans, young or otherwise, expect their government to take action when populations from Tehran to Cairo to Kiev rise up to demand their inalienable rights. John Quincy Adams hedged on this point. In the most famous passage of his address, he said that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Since Adams’s time, there has been a running debate regarding whether such a passive approach can be reconciled with a belief in universal rights. Certainly, since the United States became a superpower, Americans have embraced a more active approach, while retreating to Adams’s passive stance when frustrated with foreign wars. Yet such retreats tend to be brief. We launched a humanitarian intervention in Libya while withdrawing from Iraq. As Americans, we feel an intrinsic connection to all those who demand their rights, especially via peaceful means. Thus, there was no question that the U.S. would actively side with democratic protesters in Ukraine. Our efforts may fail, but they show that obituaries for American exceptionalism are highly premature.
— David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at AEI’s Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.