By Stephen M. Walt
OVER the last two centuries, prominent Americans have described the United States as an 'empire of liberty', the 'last best hope of earth', the 'leader of the free world' and the 'indispensable nation'.
These enduring tropes explain why all presidential candidates feel compelled to offer ritualistic paeans to America's greatness and why President Barack Obama landed in hot water for saying that while he believed in 'American exceptionalism', it was no different from 'British exceptionalism', 'Greek exceptionalism' or any other country's brand of patriotic chest-thumping.
Most statements of 'American exceptionalism' presume that America's values, political system and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.
The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America's global role is that it is mostly a myth.
Although the US possesses certain unique qualities - from high levels of religiosity to a political culture that privileges individual freedom - the conduct of US foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics. By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.
This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about US dominance, often alarmed by US policies and frequently irritated by what they see as US hypocrisy, whether the subject is possession of nuclear weapons, conformity with international law or America's tendency to condemn the conduct of others while ignoring its own failings. US foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.
What we need, in short, is a more realistic and critical assessment of America's true character and contributions. In that spirit, I offer here the Top 5 Myths About American Exceptionalism.
Myth 1: Uniquely exceptional
WHENEVER American leaders refer to the 'unique' responsibilities of the US, they are saying that it is different from other powers and that these differences require them to take on special burdens.
Yet there is nothing unusual about such lofty declarations. Most great powers have considered themselves superior to their rivals and have believed that they were advancing some greater good when they imposed their preferences on others.
The British thought they were bearing the 'white man's burden', while French colonialists invoked la mission civilisatrice to justify their empire. Portugal, whose imperial activities were hardly distinguished, believed it was promoting a certain missao civilizadora. Even many of the officials of the former Soviet Union genuinely believed they were leading the world towards a socialist utopia.
When Americans proclaim they are exceptional, they are simply the latest nation to sing a familiar old song.
Myth 2: The US behaves better
DECLARATIONS of American exceptionalism rest on the belief that the US is a uniquely virtuous nation, one that loves peace, nurtures liberty, respects human rights and embraces the rule of law. Americans like to think their country behaves much better than other states do, and certainly better than other great powers.
If only it were true. The US may not have been as brutal as the worst states in world history, but a dispassionate look at the historical record belies most claims about America's moral superiority.
For starters, the US has been one of the most expansionist powers in modern history. It began as 13 small colonies clinging to the eastern seaboard, but eventually expanded across North America, seizing Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California from Mexico in 1846. Along the way, it eliminated most of the native population and confined the survivors to impoverished reservations. By the mid-19th century, it had pushed Britain out of the Pacific north-west and consolidated its hegemony over the Western Hemisphere.
The US has fought numerous wars since then - starting several of them - and its wartime conduct has hardly been a model of restraint. The 1899-1902 conquest of the Philippines killed some 200,000 to 400,000 Filipinos, most of them civilians, and the US and its allies did not hesitate to dispatch some 305,000 German and 330,000 Japanese civilians through aerial bombing during World War II, mostly through deliberate campaigns against enemy cities. No wonder General Curtis LeMay, who directed the bombing campaign against Japan, told an aide: 'If the US lost the war, we would be prosecuted as war criminals.' The US dropped more than six million tonnes of bombs during the Indochina war, including napalm and lethal defoliants like Agent Orange, and it is directly responsible for the deaths of many of the roughly one million civilians who died in that war.
The US never conquered a vast overseas empire or caused millions to die through tyrannical blunders like China's Great Leap Forward or Stalin's forced collectivisation. Given the vast power at its disposal for much of the past century, Washington could certainly have done much worse. But the record is clear: US leaders have done what they thought they had to do when confronted by external dangers, and they paid scant attention to moral principles along the way.
Myth 3: America's special genius
THE US has enjoyed remarkable success, and Americans tend to portray their rise as a direct result of the political foresight of the Founding Fathers, the virtues of the US Constitution, the priority placed on individual liberty, and the creativity and hard work of the American people. In this narrative, the US enjoys an exceptional global position today because it is, well, exceptional.
There is more than a grain of truth to this version of American history. It's not an accident that immigrants came to America in droves in search of economic opportunity, and the 'melting pot' myth facilitated the assimilation of each new wave. America's scientific and technological achievements are fully deserving of praise and owe something to the openness and vitality of America.
But America's past success is due as much to good luck as to any uniquely American virtues. The new nation was lucky that the continent was lavishly endowed with natural resources and traversed by navigable rivers. It was lucky to have been founded far from the other great powers and even luckier that the native population was less advanced and highly susceptible to European diseases. Americans were fortunate that the European great powers were at war for much of the republic's early history, which greatly facilitated its expansion across the continent, and its global primacy was ensured after the other great powers fought two devastating world wars.
This account of America's rise does not deny that the US did many things right, but it also acknowledges that America's present position owes as much to good fortune as to any special genius or 'manifest destiny'.
Myth 4: The US is responsible for most of the good in the world
AMERICANS are fond of giving themselves credit for positive international developments. President Bill Clinton believed the US was 'indispensable to the forging of stable political relations', and the late Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington thought US primacy was central 'to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies and international order in the world'.
Once again, there is something to this line of argument, just not enough to make it entirely accurate. The US has made undeniable contributions to peace and stability in the world over the past century, including the Marshall Plan, the creation and management of the Bretton Woods system, its rhetorical support for the core principles of democracy and human rights, and its mostly stabilising military presence in Europe and the Far East. But the belief that all good things flow from Washington's wisdom overstates US contribution.
For starters, though Americans watching 'Saving Private Ryan' or 'Patton' may conclude that the US played the central role in vanquishing Nazi Germany, most of the fighting was in Eastern Europe, and the main burden of defeating Hitler's war machine was borne by the Soviet Union. Similarly, though the Marshall Plan and Nato played important roles in Europe's post-World War II success, Europeans deserve at least as much credit for rebuilding their economies, constructing a novel economic and political union, and moving beyond four centuries of sometimes bitter rivalry. Americans also tend to think they won the Cold War all by themselves, a view that ignores the contributions of other anti-Soviet adversaries and the courageous dissidents whose resistance to communist rule produced the 'velvet revolutions' of 1989.
Moreover, as Godfrey Hodgson recently noted in his sympathetic but clear-eyed book, The Myth Of American Exceptionalism, the spread of liberal ideals is a global phenomenon with roots in the Enlightenment, and European philosophers and political leaders did much to advance the democratic ideal. Similarly, the abolition of slavery and the long effort to improve the status of women owe more to Britain and other democracies than to the US, where progress in both areas trailed many other countries. Nor can the US claim a global leadership role today on gay rights, criminal justice or economic equality - Europe's got those areas covered.
Bottom line: Americans take too much credit for global progress and accept too little blame for areas where US policy has in fact been counterproductive.
Myth 5: God is on our side
A CRUCIAL component of American exceptionalism is the belief that the US has a divinely ordained mission to lead the rest of the world. President Ronald Reagan told audiences that there was 'some divine plan' that had placed America here, and once quoted Pope Pius XII saying: 'Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.' President George W. Bush offered a similar view in 2004, saying: 'We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.'
The same idea was expressed, albeit less nobly, in Otto von Bismarck's alleged quip that 'God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States.'
Confidence is a valuable commodity. But when a nation starts to think it enjoys the mandate of heaven and becomes convinced that it cannot fail or be led astray by scoundrels or incompetents, then reality is likely to deliver a swift rebuke. Ancient Athens, Napoleonic France, imperial Japan and countless other countries have succumbed to this sort of hubris, with catastrophic results.
Despite America's many successes, the country is hardly immune from setbacks, follies and boneheaded blunders. If you have any doubts about that, just reflect on how a decade of ill-advised tax cuts, two costly and unsuccessful wars, and a financial meltdown driven mostly by greed and corruption have managed to squander the privileged position the US enjoyed at the end of the 20th century.
Instead of assuming that God is on their side, perhaps Americans should heed Abraham Lincoln's admonition that our greatest concern should be 'whether we are on God's side'. Given the many challenges Americans now face, from persistent unemployment to the burden of winding down two wars, it's unsurprising that they find the idea of their own exceptionalism comforting - and that their aspiring political leaders have been proclaiming it with increasing fervour. Such patriotism has its benefits, but not when it leads to a basic misunderstanding of America's role in the world.
The writer is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine (from which this article was adapted), and Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.