NEW YORK – I thought American exceptionalism was debunked and dying. I was wrong.
Most recently, American exceptionalism jumped to the political fore at the start of this century. It did so with a swagger, ironically, because of the 9/11 attacks. In his speech that night, President George W. Bush put forward the United States as “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.”
That assertion was a bit odd in the circumstances, but no matter. He condemned those who carried out the attacks as “evil” and told the world that America, being goodness incarnate, would bring those responsible to justice, making “no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
As Bush pushed his intent to attack Iraq, which had nothing to do with those “evil” acts, some advised that the U.S. assume the role that Britain played from the 19th to the early 20th century. The U.S. is powerful and enlightened enough, the argument went, to relegate those benighted, ne’er-do-well Middle Eastern countries back into colonial status and rule them as lord and master.
Even a plan was cooked up to send schoolteachers to Iraq after its “liberation.” The story appeared in The Education Week — a periodical that constantly reports on the problems American education faces.
Behind all that lay the age-old belief that America is a country like no other. That high self-regard faltered as the Iraq War, like the war against Afghanistan that had started earlier, did. Then came the bursting of the financial bubble. The argument that American exceptionalism is a “myth” came to the fore.
Three years ago Godfrey Hodgson published the book “The Myth of American Exceptionalism” (Yale Univ. Press). The most cogent case against “the myth” I’ve read of late is Stephen M. Walt’s article with the same title (Foreign Policy, November 2011). In it the Harvard professor dissects it from five angles to show it is fantasy based on ignorance and self-aggrandizement.
First, Walt points to the notion that “there is something exceptional about American exceptionalism.” There simply isn’t. Powers of any international standing at one time or another entertained similar ideas to justify their “missions.”
Walt doesn’t cite Japan among his examples, but Japan once projected itself as “the leading race” among the Asian nations. That self-appointed role included what may be called belligerent eschatology. Japan’s exceptional mission required the country, some prominent men argued, to fight the U.S. even if that meant Japan’s annihilation.
Walt’s second point of rebuttal is the belief that the U.S. “behaves better than other nations.” He cites expansionism and the accompanying slaughters. He doesn’t mention it, but it was none other than Fortune magazine that plainly stated, in 1935, that the U.S. was second only to Great Britain in the total size of territories it had seized by then.
As for killings, it was in a website of President George W. Bush’s secretive administration that I was surprised to see the simple statement: The population of American Indians had been reduced to just 5 percent of its original size by the early 20th century. “Ethnic cleansing” nonpareil.
In “The Elusive American Century” (Harper’s, February 2012), Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich reminds us that it was Henry Luce, the creator of the publishing empire that included Fortune, that came up with the term “the American century.” He did so in early 1941. What a “century” it has been so far, in large-scale, willful slaughters!
Walt’s third point of refutation: “America’s success is due to its special genius.” Not really, he points out: America’s success in becoming the envy of the world has to do not with its “uniquely American virtues” so much as with sheer luck that the new nation came with a vast land “lavishly endowed with natural resources and traversed by navigable rivers.”
Walt’s two other points for rebuttal — that the U.S. is “responsible for most of the good of the world” and that “God is on our side” — may be skipped, except for Otto von Bismarck’s quip (which he quotes) that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States.”
God, as a matter of fact, is what Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in calling for a new American Century, invoked last fall when he spelled out his foreign policy were he to become president, as Bacevich ruefully noted in “America: With God on our side” (L.A. Times, Oct. 16, 2011).
“God did not create this country to be a nation of followers,” Romney told the Citadel cadets. “America must lead the world.” Without the “clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place,” he declaimed.
You expect something like that from a presidential candidate. But then, from a different quarter, came a full-throated case for American exceptionalism. In “Terror on Trial” (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 7-8, 2012), British writer William Shawcross said the opposite of what you might first expect from the title of his article.
What first caught my eye was the discordant assemblage of photos that topped Shawcross’ article: shots of Guantanamo detainees in the infamous scarlet prison garb huddling in a wire-fenced gravelly garden, with masks and gloves; the Nuremberg trial; Khalid Sheik Mohammed (apparently after torture?); three Pakistani women holding up a sign saying “Burning Pakistan / Bush Gifted / Obama Granted”; the drone MQ-9 Reaper; and Bush and Obama together.
And what did Shawcross say? His concluding paragraph sums it up: “Since the beginning of the 20th century, America’s commitment and sacrifices have been essential to the world’s ability to resist the forces of nihilistic aggression. That was certainly true in the war against fascism, and it is still true today.”
So, the photos were to buttress that argument. The Guantanamo prison, torture and the use of drones to murder people with impunity are all right to fight today’s terrorism. Shawcross cites Nuremberg not just because his father, Hartley, was Britain’s chief prosecutor at the trial, but because Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson was the chief U.S. prosecutor.
What Shawcross neglects to mention is this: Jackson enunciated lofty ideals and principles only to have his country, the United States, trample upon them. It never seems to have occurred to Shawcross that willful misconduct of the U.S. in subsequent decades have provoked “the forces of nihilistic aggression.”
American exceptionalism of this brand comes with blowback, as the CIA uses the term.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.
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