Exceptional Down to the Bone
From the June 21, 2010, issue of NR.


The differences between America and other English-speaking countries are real, but often exaggerated. This is partly because of what anthropologists call “ethnographic dazzle” — the obsession with obvious surface-level differences. It is also an artifact of journalistic incentives: Reportage on, say, Anglo-American differences is news, whereas an account of the similarities is the ultimate dog-bites-man story.

From a global perspective, the politics of the English-speaking world are more similar than different, exactly because of the underlying cultural commonalities. This is both good news and bad. It is highly unlikely that America will ever become as dysfunctional as East Germany; however, it is quite possible that we could become as dysfunctional as 1979 Britain.

The U.S. has created a particularly robust form of Anglosphere culture that has been remarkably successful at assimilating millions of immigrants. The idea that anyone can become an American has proven to be true most of the time. (It has also proved to be a warning to continue encouraging immigrants and their children to adopt American culture.) Openness to immigration, with the requirement of robust assimilation, has worked for us, and it can continue to work. So, with some caveats, we can say that it is generally true that “anyone can become an American.” But the outward-looking variety of universalism in U.S. foreign policy, the idea that anyplace can become America, has been a mixed bag.

After the Second World War, this attitude helped create the open, accessible, and effective structures that rebuilt Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. It was similarly effective in helping much of Eastern Europe shake off the remnants of Communism after 1989, and to a lesser extent in establishing liberal democracy in Latin America. It has been much less successful in trying to promote liberal democracy elsewhere, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

America really is exceptional, which means that not everyone can be like us and we should not expect them to be. The flip side is also true. Some things that other countries do well would not work well for us — Western European–style socialism, for example. This is not an argument for isolationism; American action may be justified to remove threats, to liberate societies from tyrants, or to move societies in a better direction. In debating such actions, though, we should refrain from believing that other societies will change quickly or easily, or that the result could or should look exactly like the United States.

Americans appreciate their exceptionalism at gut level. This is where the American Right is in touch with the nation, and the Left is not; John F. Kennedy was probably the last Democratic president with an instinctive feeling for it. But we must understand our exceptionalism accurately, as it were choosing clothing — our arts and literature, our politics, our diplomacy — in a way that suits the underlying structure of bone and flesh. Success, both politically and in the cause of freedom, requires that we keep our enduring values in mind.

James C. Bennett is the author of The Anglosphere Challenge (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). This article originally appeared in the June 21, 2010, issue of National Review.


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