Understanding America

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President Obama was trivially correct when he said that “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism[1].” Yet he missed the intention of the phrase by passing over the fact that American is fundamentally different from every other nation in history. This was best expressed by Englishman GK Chesterton: “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence[2] … ”

The success of the American experiment in self-government is a result of its founding principles, set forth in the Declaration and secured by the Constitution of the United States of America. The universal and permanent truths of human equality and liberty are preserved in America by the rule of law, and are reflected in its institutions and cherished by its people[3]. In Europe, nationality is related to nativity, and thus an immigrant cannot become an Englishman or a Swede. Being an American, however, is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who come to America can indeed become an American[4].

More people flock to America than all the countries in the rest of the Free World combined, and more people flock to the Free World than all the remaining countries of the world. Why do you suppose that is? Only a neoliberal would think it is to succor from a more generous teat. They come here (and places like us) because America is the most upwardly mobile society history has ever seen. They come here to improve their lot by their effort. Don’t believe me? Talk to an immigrant.

The Founders were keenly aware of the universal significance of America’s principles, and of America’s unique responsibility for upholding and advancing these principles. As Thomas Paine reminded us, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind[5].” The Founders believed that the idea of human liberty and, therefore, the inherent right of self-government, were applicable not only to Americans, but to all people everywhere.

The American experiment was important partly because it was an example to oppressed people around the world. After touring the US, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1835 that the “principal instrument” of American foreign policy is “freedom[6].” He meant that, in the Unite States, diplomacy is not just something the government does. When American citizens proclaim their faith in their principles and live them at home, they are helping to make their nation’s foreign policy, because their words and actions are a lesson for the world.

Throughout our history, American citizens have been inspired by our political, religious, and economic freedoms to act as ambassadors of liberty. As missionaries, merchants, and medics our citizen-diplomats have established schools, orphanages, and hospitals. They have translated literature, educated children, and inspired political reform in countries around the world that were oppressed and impoverished. The “greatest enemy of tyranny,” as Webster said, is this republican spirit of self-government. The civic engagement of individual American citizens and their commitment to America’s founding principles are a vital part of America’s unique role in the world[7].

Yet as one nation in a world of nations, the United States has also had to practice diplomacy towards other governments. The Founders understood that America’s principles must be reflected in its relations with other nations. For them, diplomacy was not merely a means of negotiating America’s interests. It was also a tool for advancing liberty. Liberty has always been the defining principle of America – it is not merely a political preference. The United States thus sent some of its brightest minds and most ardent patriots – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams – abroad as diplomats to represent the American people and the exceptional ideas of the young republic.

America does have a special role in the world – one that is morally and philosophically grounded in the principles of human liberty, and in its sense of justice. This means that the true consistency of American foreign policy is to be found not in its policies, which prudently change and adapt, but in its guiding principles, which are unchanging and permanent.

This idea is part of the roots of neoconservatism – the moral impetus, the desire to let all people shake the chains of government oppression. The practical side is rooted in the fact that democracies do not war against democracies – the abstract concept of “sovereignty” is reinforced by consent of the governed. Neoconservatives are, by their own words, liberals who have been mugged by reality. Their desire to envision a better world has been sidetracked by the failure of neoliberal policies. In search of an alternative position, they have re-discovered America’s origins, and seen the empirical evidence of the ability of democracies to solve differences short of armed conflict. In so doing, they have conflated “promoting” democracy to others with “inflicting” democracy on others. Democracy isn’t the cause of enlightenment, it’s the result.

The notion of “American exceptionalism” became widely applied in the context of efforts to account for the weakness of working-class radicalism in the US. The major question subsumed in the concept became why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party. That riddle has bedeviled socialist theorists since the late 19th century[8].

As social democratic parties the world over shift toward the free market, the differences between the United States and other western democracies are growing increasingly narrow. Does it still make sense to speak of the US as the exceptional nation[9]? Again, this misses the point. These metrics are the results of the exceptionalism, not the cause. We have achieved these results because of market-republicanism, and we practice market-republicanism because individual liberty – associative, political and economic freedoms – is in the American DNA. To the degree that social democracies practice market-republicanism, they will mimic our prosperity, if asymptotically. To the degree that they practice their socialistic side, they will separate from our prosperity, increasingly. Even more fundamentally, unless they adopt American insistence on popular sovereignty – holding public officials accountable to the people – the chasing prosperity by imitating market economics will weaken and fail.


[1] President Barack Obama, press conference, Palaiz de la Musique et Des Congres, Strasbourg [France], April 4 2009, 1632 [Local].

[2] GK Chesterton, What I Saw in America, London, 1922.

[3] Marion Smith, What Is America’s Role in the World?, Heritage Foundation, November 16 2010.

[4] Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double Edged Sword.

[5] Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776.

[6] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol I, Part II, Chapter 10.

[7] Smith, op cit.

[8] Lipset, op cit.

[9] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Understanding America

  1. It is evident that no one could ever question your loyal and patriotic commitment to the concept of American Exceptionalism. As you understand it. I for one would not question it.

    • If you’ll notice, those “American Exceptionalism” statements aren’t from me, they’re from people who have come here from other lands to experience America for themselves. I don’t think one can study history and not realize the exceptionalism of America’s founding and founding principles. There is not another nation whose founding was predicated on the liberty of its people; whose enabling legislation sets out to limit the scope and power of its government; who has reconstructed its conquered enemies; who has done more to alleviate the world’s poor. Our withdrawal into a narcissistic fit of self-loathing is a temporary blemish on a proud record. A fit that I hope the world can survive until we again accept the mantle of responsibility that is ethically required of great power.

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