Det danske Fredsakademi
Kronologi over fredssagen og international politik 2. januar
2009 / Time Line January 2, 2009
1. Januar 2009, 3. Januar 2009
America: Exceptional or Just Another Country?
By Don Monkerud
"America is an exceptional country." Sarah Palin
"I do believe in American exceptionalism." John McCain
When I return from a trip abroad, my friends invariably want to know
how people elsewhere view America. Those in other countries judge us
by our actions, while we see ourselves as inherently unique and
different from the rest of the world.
"American exceptionalism" began 200 years ago. When we were a younger
nation, we considered ourselves more religious and moral, practicing
a more equalitarian form of democracy. Because we are unique, we
can't be judged by ordinary rules that guide the behavior of other
counties and people-Ours is a "higher" calling.
First used by Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited the U.S.
in the early 1830s, American "exceptionalism" now has a long history
that derives from the United States' "special role" in the world.
Basic concepts developed through historic claims such as Manifest
Destiny, the U.S. providence to rule the continent; "Speak softly and
carry a big stick," Theodore Roosevelt's policy of threatening
European powers who might intervene in "America's backyard" in South
America; and the "American Dream," the entitlement of every American
to own a house and become part of the middle class.
Today this notion of exceptionalism manifests itself in a
nationalistic love of country, expressed in bumper stickers that
read, "God Bless America," "Proud to be an American," "Support Our
Troops," and "These Colors Never Fade," which display an American
flag invariably bleached white by the sun. The true nature of these
themes go a step farther to reveal a "love it or leave it" mentality:
"And Just Why in the Hell Do I Have to Press 1 for English," "Support
our Troops: Shoot the Media," and "America: Bailing out our critics
Recently, neocons began trumpeting the notion that the U.S. can "go
it alone." We have both the right and the duty to operate
unilaterally, taking any action in the world that we want with no
regard for other countries or the consequences. It sounds nutty in
today's inter-connected world, but after eight years of rule by
fanatical right-wing ideologues, the government swarms with people
who share these views. The U.S. overturned international treaties,
denounced the U.N. and international cooperation, except when it
bends to our will, and our courts now declare noncompliance with
legal views routinely accepted around the world. Neocons claim the
U.S. has its own set of rules and should get special treatment based
on our "unique role in the world."
Pointing out differences in the historic development of the U.S. is
one thing, but using it as the basis for foreign policy has proven
disastrous. Today "exceptionalism" justifies a hyper-nationalism that
denies a common humanity with the rest of the world, undercuts
cooperation and shows an arrogant disregard for international opinion.
The concept of American exceptionalism clarifies one of the main
lessons I've learned from traveling; learning about myself by
observing culture, politics, values and practices abroad. Upon
maturity, we become responsible for ourselves and it's time to
explore the world and separate our provincial opinions from reality.
The way we do things isn't necessarily the best way, and doesn't work
for everyone, including politics.
Is it any wonder that many American politicans do not travel outside
the U.S. until they run for office? By remaining at home, we never
engaged other cultures on an equal basis. We want to believe that our
country is exceptionally moral and "better than" other countries, but
our highly touted status now appears mediocre. We espouse culturally
myopic views because we don't know any better.
There is much to learn from other cultures, including how they care
for their citizens. My wife received free or low-cost medical care
in other countries where health care is a right, not a profitable
business. We discovered that Europeans live to eat, while Americans
eat to live, gobbling food in a rush to accomplish more. Europeans
work to live and enjoy life, family and friendship, while we live to
accumulate things. Europeans judge people by their attitudes and
outlooks, while we judge people by their wealth. Europeans realize
they depend upon each other and must act in a concerted effort, while
we forge ahead on our own and tell them how to run their affairs.
Our attitudes are a result of a poverty of imagination and a lack of
experience. One of our foremost myths is that we lack a class system.
Why do we ignore a system that favors the wealthy and powerful? Or
believe in myths that pacify us and perpetuate the status quo? Why do
we choose people who espouse exceptionalism to govern us?
There are many answers to these questions. But traveling allows me to
see how others live and govern themselves. They have just as many
problems as we do but often come up with more workable solutions that
are far more humane. One thing is for sure-America does not have a
monopoly on human values or morality.
Demographers tell us the ethnic make up of America is changing.
Perhaps a greater mix of people from other places-along with
travel-will give us a new perspective, allow us to see ourselves less
provincially, and free our national policies from the narrow partisan
strife that has dominated our national life for way too long.
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