In his classic study of the character of the early republic Democracy in America, Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville coined the concept of American Exceptionalism. This idea became public policy in the era of Manifest Destiny. The actual term was first used by the American Communist Party in 1920s to refer to the potential of the people to exploit the country’s vast natural resources and the country’s lack of a rigid class system. Americans had to be dragged out of isolationism and into the two world wars metaphorically kicking and screaming. After that taste of victory the United States assumed the mantle of world policeman, based largely on the perception that the United States is the most moral of the great powers.
Where does this attitude come from? Is it a natural result of the country’s institutions and founding principles or is there something about citizens of the United States that makes the country somehow different?
As with any analysis of history and political behavior, the most correct answer is probably a combination of many factors. De Tocqueville himself credited the phenomenon to the liberal democratic government, Puritan work ethic, the richness and vastness of the land and a generally free market economy. In the early 19th Century, he predicted that the United States would emerge as a world power. Looking at similar potential factors – notably a vast land full of natural resources – he also predicted a rivalry would develop between the United States and Russia. Sure enough, the Cold War pitted the Americans against the Russian-led Soviet Union a little more than a century later.
But that cannot be the whole explanation. If that is all it takes, Canada and Brazil with their democratic ideals and natural resources would be much more important on the world stage. Writing in Mother Jones, Kevin Drum points to the one thing that allows the United States to maintain that level of exceptionalism. In discussing the West’s action in support of Libyan rebels, Drum points out that the British and French ran out of missiles while the United States still has plenty to spare and has the capacity to produce many, many more on short notice. Unlike our allies in NATO, or even China for that matter, the U.S. military in the only one on the planet designed to project power rather than just dealing with local security matters.
The United States accounts for 42.8 percentof all global military spending, while China lags behind in second place at 7.3 percent. Military spending accounts for about half of all discretionary spending by the U.S. government. Still, there is little political will to make meaningful cuts in the military, despite the fact that the country hit the debt limit on May 16.
As Lisa Simpson might say, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
But that seriously oversimplifies the situation. In the Mother Jones article, Drum pointed out that the United States government could make some small military cuts and experience no appreciable decrease in its military hegemony. However, meaningful cuts would seriously endanger that military supremacy Americans have taken for granted since 1945. There is no real middle ground, Drum argued. Should the United States relinquish its role as global policeman, Drum argues that the defense budget could be cut by two-thirds.
However, that means closing military bases all over Europe, standing down from the border separating the two Koreas, scaling back patrols of the world’s shipping lanes allowing more piracy, and ending defense commitments to places like Taiwan, Japan and Israel.
The other problem with American military hegemony is the simple fact that it is unsustainable. There are plenty of historical examples including the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the French Empire and the Soviet Union. Every single one of those empires fell. While the reasons vary, the main theme is that each one allowed itself to be overextended. The only question is whether the United States will voluntarily step down or allow itself to be economically bled to death due to a series of wars in places like Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
Americans tend to think of themselves as among the most moral of the world powers. While the country has a checkered past in regards to civil rights, women’s rights, Native American rights and torture the idea of a liberal democracy is generally considered to be superior to repressive societies such as China, North Korea and Iran. Whereas immigrants flock to the liberal democracies of North America and Europe to escape repression, China gets refugees from North Korea seeking only a slightly less repressive regime.
This argument certainly has some merit. Despite the sins of the past and lingering racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and islamophobia, the United States still remains a leader in promoting human rights and equality in public policy. Who wouldn’t want a liberal democracy with equal rights and extensive civil liberties? As the Arab Spring is proving, a lot of people want that model, but most prefer to create it themselves.
But military might is hardly the only facet of American Exceptionalism. Americans are rightly concerned about outsourcing of their jobs, but ideas are the real driving force behind soft power hegemony. Before the fall of communism, Moscow youths would pay top dollar for a pair of American jeans. Hollywood films, American pop music and U.S. brands like Pepsi and McDonalds can be found in every corner of the world. The theory is that the more people accept American culture, the more they are accepting Americans as a sort of cultural arbiter.
That said, I personally think the United States should deal with the debt crisis by giving Hollywood to the BBC. But I digress.
This is the American exception, though. The American people no longer have any particular desire to have a far-flung empire. It is easier and more profitable to exert hegemony through cultural influences rather than direct colonization. Certainly the United States has owned (and still owns) colonial possessions, but even height of the American Empire after the Spanish-American War paled in comparison to the holdings of the British and French, and for that matter the Germans, Belgians, Dutch, Portuguese, and Italians.
Perhaps Americans were turned off by the colonial experience in the Philippines. Maybe it was the uncertain profit margin. It could have been the unwillingness to incorporate majority non-White territories into the United States. There is also the fact that colonization is not particularly moral and the United States pushed self determination after World War II. Whatever the reason, Americans never really embarked on colonialism, preferring to expand to the West Coast – at the expense of the Native Americans – in order to build a sort of land empire and incorporate that territory into the country rather than rule the land as territories.
And Americans export our culture, for better or worse. The United States cannot be held accountable if David Hasselhoff is huge in Germany or if it is possible to get a Big Mac in almost every country on the planet or American pop music emanates from discos all over the world. That is simply the free market at work. What this does is create something of an arrogant mindset in reference to the rest of the world. Now some may think that is unfair, but stereotypes cut both ways and lead to not-so-gentle ribbing like this.
But to accept the analysis so far is to accept that Americans feel privileged to live in a shining city on the hill and are willing to go broke paying for an overly large military to support it. Essentially, it is to accept that Americans are arrogant because we have the nicest toys and biggest stick (and we aren’t afraid to use either of them). That’s only half the story.
The other explanatory factor may be the institutions and principles of the United States. By institutions, I mean sets of rules and customs. By principles, I mean things like self-governance, freedom, equality and generally free market capitalism. The military, for example, is an institution and the general reluctance to use it for territorial gain (at least after 1898) is a principle. On the other hand, we can debate for weeks over whether the country’s 20th and 21st century wars (WWII excepted) were really necessary.
Then there is the American unwillingness to sign on to the International Court of Justice. The American argument is that the ICJ could bring politically-motivated charges against Americans. The other argument is that American courts are both willing and able to prosecute human rights abuses. Two American soldiers received prison sentences for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prisonin Iraq. The other side of that coin is that American political leaders largely remain immune to prosecution.
In one example, there is an ongoing debate over whether some interrogation techniques amount to torture. Spain had sought to indictformer Bush administration officials because five Spanish citizens claim they were tortured at Guantanamo Bay. In one of those rare moments of bipartisanship, leaked documents showedthat the Obama administration convinced Spain to back down. Whether you see Spain’s effort as a politically-motivated witch hunt or an honest effort to address the torture question, it is clear that neither party is eager to see American leaders answer to a world court. In contrast, though, Spain successfully prosecuted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. It is right that Chile’s political leader must answer criminal charges, but American political leaders do not?
The implication and reasoning is clear: the ICJ is fine for other countries, but not for the United States. A similar attitude is evident in those who want to see the United States withdraw from the United Nations. In fairness, there are much louder calls for UN reform, but UN opponents point to American ceding sovereignty to the world body. That, of course, is just one step from declaring the United States should do whatever it damned well pleases, even if that means a new round of empire building or on the other extreme not responding to any global security concerns. And this is hardly a fringe view held by a few people. Every Congress Rep. Ron Paul of Texas introduces a bill to withdraw the United States from the UN, though it never gets more than a handful of cosponsors. Rep. Paul argues that the Constitution does not allow Congress to surrender its war-making power to an international body, so there is no point in being a member of the body.
And we could point to plenty other examples. The institution of democracy is assumed to be a superior form of government and the New York-based think tank Freedom House issues an annual report that calls out countries not living up to democratic ideals. Political stability is another America ideal and Foreign Policy Magazine’s Failed States Index does its own annual report on political stability around the world. On the surface, there appears to be a correlation between the two factors.
But is it arrogance to think that political stability and democracy are somehow inherently good or is this simply Western arrogance at work? In comparing the two 2010 studies, only a few Persian Gulf States (Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and Qatar) ranked as “not free” but stable and that illusion of stability was shattered this spring in Bahrain and Yemen. Meanwhile a significant number of free democracies rank as potentially unstable. In other words, is the United States justified in assuming it is exceptional and therefore entitled to its role as world cop and arbiter of cultural taste?
The upshot is that the United States has built some powerful and effective institutions. They have created the largest economy in the history of the world and a culture that makes the Roman Empire look silly in comparison. Americans have a right to be proud of those institutions and the fact that American culture is so envied and desired. So like most social science questions, the best explanation is a little of both competing hypotheses.
But the thing with pride – and it is one of the seven deadly sins if you buy into that sort of thing – is that it can be a dangerous thing. Pride leads to arrogance and arrogance leads to bad choices. I’m not advocating for the United States to stand down. I do advocate for a lot more soul searching, honest debate and discussion with our allies before doing something like invading a sovereign nation based on misinformation and propaganda (to put it charitably). Americans have to temper their pride in their exceptionalism or risk relegating Pax Americana to history’s dustbin.
About the Author: Chris McGann is a once and (probably) future journalist and blogger on Daily Kos and Progressive Electorate. He has worked as a non-partisan small town reporter, public relations writer, Tweeter for a liberal DC think tank, waiter, burger flipper, cell phone salesman, tutor and a bunch of other things to pay the bills. Did we mention he also has a Master's Degree in applied politics? There's that, too. He lives in Harrisburg, Pa.
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