It wasn’t a surprise that the United States’ “unipolar moment” was going to end – only that it ended so quickly. When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, America was at the height of its power, arguably the most dominating nation in the history of the world. And yet, in a mere eight years, a succession of strategic misconceptions, botched opportunities, and poor policy decisions has squandered America’s global preeminence. When President Bush steps down in January, he will leave behind a substantially weakened nation that no longer leads the world politically, economically, or culturally. It is not that America no longer matters, or that some other country, such as China, is taking our place, but that the world has entered an era that is no longer shaped or directed by the United States. While American decline has many immediate causes (the war in Iraq, financial crash, rise of Asia), I argue that belief in American “Exceptionalism”–that the US is inherently and unalterably different and more divinely favored than other nations–is a fundamental reason why America has lost its position of global leadership.
American Exceptionalism is a belief nearly as old as the country itself. Coined by the great French observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, the term initially referred to America’s sense of its unique values and institutions, such as democracy, rule of law, civil liberty, human rights, and constitutional government. Later, it came to be associated with “manifest destiny,” the idea that God sanctioned America’s westward territorial expansion, as well as its later colonial exploits. With the country’s steady economic and military rise in the 20th century, American Exceptionalism evolved into belief in national infallibility and invulnerability. America no longer believed itself subject to the same moral, political or economic norms or laws as other nations and trusted that unconditional divine favor would ensure its continued dominance. Overconfident and inflexible, America made increasingly misguided policy decisions that have severely damaged its global standing. A few examples make this more clear.
The most glaring mistakes flowing from American Exceptionalism have occurred in foreign policy. Convinced that it is motivated by an entirely different and nobler set of values and interests than other nations, America has the tendency to see the world as an existential battleground between good and evil. This causes the U.S. to act defensively against any criticism or opposition to its policies, even when heeding such criticism would be in its best interest. The war in Iraq is a perfect example of this kind of thinking. When virtually every ally encouraged the U.S. to be more patient and prudent in its decision to invade Iraq, America interpreted these suggestions to be attempts by weak, cowardly and immoral countries to prevent the prosecution of righteousness and justice. There is something fundamentally wrong when a country’s oldest and closest friends are viewed as bitter enemies when they have policy disagreements. This “us versus them” bunker mentality also encourages America’s visceral aversion to international institutions like the United Nations or the International Criminal Court. It is ironic that the very institutions the U.S. has trashed for the last eight years are also its best hope of being able to continue to shape the world in the face of Chinese ascendancy. The United States’ Manichean foreign policy tradition is a result of American Exceptionalism, and one reason why America’s political and diplomatic power has waned. It is hard to lead the world when you think you are fundamentally different and superior to other nations.
The failure to effectively address the energy crisis can also be attributed to American Exceptionalism. Despite enormous evidence that gas prices will continue to rise, and that dependence on foreign oil strengthens illiberal regimes, America willfully refuses to reform its energy policy, preferring to “Drill, Baby, Drill,” and hoping global trends will just go away. This naive response comes about partly because of the belief that Providence will excuse and protect America from the pressures and constraints that other nations face, including global warming. Moreover, for many Americans there is something semi-religious about the modern American penchant for mass-consumption, as if the Constitution’s most important protection was to allow us to buy as much as possible. Americans tend to scorn suggestions to limit energy use, or to develop alternative energy technologies; changing the current way of life is seen as a betrayal of America’s unique and Divine purpose. Because of this entrenched view, America has consistently failed to provide global leadership on the issues of energy or climate change. Additionally, because the US refuses to recognize the seriousness of the issue and has not instituted significant government incentives, it is failing to successfully compete in the alternative energy industry. William Wallace, an adviser to the UN, notes that, “China is rapidly moving into a world leadership position in the [green energy] industry.” Usually at the forefront of cutting edge industries, America’s slow reaction and response to changing world conditions is partly attributable to belief in its invariable distinctiveness.
The same feeling of invulnerability to the energy and climate crises is present in other areas as well. The US primary and secondary education systems were once the envy of the world. Now, the phrase, “American education” has become an oxymoron. And although our elite universities remain a destination for the world’s brightest, unless entering freshmen are better prepared, those too will lose their status. A 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences warns that, “Americans are in danger of falling off the flat earth,” because there are too few students pursuing science and math degrees. Without capable engineers and scientists, America will be unable to compete in the innovation-driven industries of the future. Without strong economic growth, American influence in every area will recede.
Predictions about the United States’ imminent decline have been around since its independence. Each time, America has proven the skeptics wrong by meeting the challenges before her with strength and ingenuity. I think this can happen again, but there needs to be a shift in American self-perception. Specifically, the US needs to stop believing that high growth, national greatness and global leadership are American birthrights and not succumb to what Arnold Toynbee calls the “mirage of immortality.” History stops for no nation, as Spain, England, and Russia can attest. Greatness must be earned by and renewed with each generation.
The U.S. should stop believing in an entitled “exceptional” position in the world and adopt a more realistic and honest self-image–one less comprised of Providential favoritism and more aware of the values and pressures we share with all nations. This view would recognize the many positive aspects of the United States without ignoring the daunting challenges it currently faces, nor believing that such challenges will solve themselves. It would lead to an America more likely to see other countries as partners, rather than rivals, and exercise a leadership based more on consensus, compromise and persuasion. It would help America recognize that the energy and climate change crises require pragmatic and innovative solutions, and not nostalgic, wishful thinking. It might also take more seriously the need to develop the skills and knowledge necessary in an increasingly competitive world economy, skills that other nations are rapidly acquiring. Like any game, America must learn and play by the rules if it wants to win. Ultimately, the only way America can remain an extraordinary nation is to start thinking and acting like an ordinary one.
Zachary is from St. George, Utah studying International Relations and Philosophy. He can be reached at email@example.com.