What Truly Makes America Exceptional

American exceptionalism is making a comeback . . . of sorts.

The last two major speeches by President Obama—his televised speech on Syria and his address to the United Nations General Assembly—included references to American exceptionalism. Even Vladimir Putin, Russia’s communist-loving president, used the phrase in a New York Times op-ed.

Historically, President Obama isn’t on friendly terms with American exceptionalism.

At the beginning of his first term, in Strasbourg, France, on what many titled “The Apology Tour,” he was asked his thoughts on American exceptionalism. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” the president answered, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

Since then the president has modulated his language—at least he’s made it more America-centric. In his address to the nation about Syria, on September 10, 2013, the president said:

America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exception. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

And the president’s September 24 address to the United Nations he said:

I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. But I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional—in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all.

But the president hasn’t come any closer to understanding American exceptionalism in 2013 than he did in 2009.

And his view has colored the views of foreign heads of state, particularly Putin’s.

In his September 11 New York Times op-ed Putin wrote:

I carefully studied his [Obama’s] address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.”

It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those who long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too.

We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Setting aside the irony that the like of Putin would use God laced language, I must say—and I do so discouragingly—the Russian president comes closer to the mark of American exceptionalism than does the American president.

But where Putin and Obama both get it wrong is in the thought that America exceptionalism is simply a matter of policy, patriotism, national prosperity, or democratic pedigree. If that were the case then any and every nation could claim to be exceptional, whether Britain, Greece, or Russia. And if every nation is exceptional then no nation is the exception, which is Putin’s point.

And Obama’s point, too.

While President Obama’s latest remarks about American exceptionalism are more America-centric, the sentiment that America is no more exceptional than Britain or Greece, or Russia for that matter, is the same as it was in 2009.

What nation with the capabilities, “with modest effort and risk,” wouldn’t act to “stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make [their] own children safer over the long run”? Russia acted. And is now in the catbird seat to broker a deal in Syria.

So how is America different from Russia? In what way is America exceptional by comparison?

American exceptionalism was first discussed at length by Alexis de Tocqueville in his masterwork, Democracy in America. Tocqueville identified four characteristics that made America peerless:

  • Liberty—the truth that Americans are unbound, unrestricted, and released from oppressive government restrain
  • Egalitarianism—the idea that all have equal rights; all are created equal
  • Individualism—the concept that every person is responsible for decisions made and should be independent or self-sufficient
  • Laissez-faire—the notion that the free market should work without undue interference from the government

Many of these essential qualities have increasingly come under attack by an ever bloating government and an ever yapping public clamoring for more entitlements, especially since the turn of the twentieth century. But these ideas were so distinctly different than what the Frenchman Tocqueville knew in Europe in the nineteenth century (or history)that he concluded:

“The situation of the Americans is . . . entirely exceptional, and it is to be believed that no [other] democratic people will ever be placed in it.”

America was not formed around the love of homeland (place) nor ethnicity (people), but on ideals (principles). These ideals found their most eloquent expression in the Declaration of Independence. No other nation on the face of the earth had ever articulated such sweeping principles, and then backed them up with blood.

This is why Abraham Lincoln could proclaim in the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our father brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

America is exceptional not because we would stop children from being gassed or because “we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up . . . for the interests of all.”  But because America was the first to recognize and codify the truth the Russian president, and not our own president, affirmed—“that God created us equal.”

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter. If you liked this article you can find others like it at derrickjeter.com, where you’ll also find information about my books, including O America! A Manifesto on Liberty.

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