Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 00:06 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 00:06 | SYDNEY

What is American exceptionalism?

5 September 2012 15:17

'Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States' by Howard Chandler Christy. Courtesy of Wikipedia

In an election that will largely be fought on domestic issues, the central theme of the Republican Party's foreign policy platform will be the issue that reveals the sharpest differences between the two leading parties: American exceptionalism. This will elicit a collective groan from Australian commentators and analysts, but this conservative narrative has been building since President Obama's infamous 2009 answer to the exceptionalism question.

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.

Let's deal with that collective groan. My suspicion is that many analysts hold a specious understanding of American exceptionalism, dismissing it as the product of vanity or insularity or both. But rightly understood, the concept has profound implications for not only the US, but also Australia and the world. So how is one to understand American exceptionalism?

The definition offered in the GOP 2012 Platform is 'the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history.' This is a good start and would be uncontroversial for most. But to unpack the concept of exceptionalism we need to consider briefly its origins, nature, and legitimacy.

Walter Russell Mead took the title of his excellent book, Special Providence, from an observation attributed to Bismarck: 'God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.' But although writers such as Mead, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Gordon S Wood have demonstrated the influence of a peculiarly American Protestantism (both in religious and non-religious spheres) we need not attribute the rise of the US to divine providence.

The key factor in thinking about what makes the US exceptional is the concept of America being a nation built on an idea. To be American is not to belong to a race or religion, or to have shared the same history. To be an American is to subscribe to a set of ideas – principally liberty, equality, and justice.

But these ideas were not new at the time of the nation's founding. As Jefferson said, the Declaration of Independence contained no new ideas. Rather he and the other founders were the beneficiaries of centuries of European thought. The ideas that gave birth to the new nation were not, in and of themselves, enough to produce an exceptional one. What did set America apart was the creative amalgamation of these ideas, coupled with the serendipitous convergence of two broad geo-historical factors well beyond the control of any man.

George Washington saw America's providential advantage as comprising two parts: time and space. The founders' experiment enjoyed greater chance of survival not only due to the enlightened timing of its undertaking, but also the extraordinary – though not empty – continent they inhabited.This is a recurring theme throughout historian Joseph J Ellis' American Creation.

The foundation of the nation, said Washington, 'was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period.' Secondly, they had been 'placed in the most enviable condition...Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now...possessed of absolute freedom and Independency.'

The exceptionalism literature reveals two dominant themes that influence foreign policy. More on that in a follow-up post.