Thursday, July 5, 2012

Declaration of American Exceptionalism Meme

Heaps of folks have been writing about the true meaning of Independence Day and whether the US is exceptional.  I wrote on being an American abroad at CIC, but did not take on American exceptionalism.

Stephen Walt largely poo-poos the idea of American exceptionalism, as the US in its behavior in the world does what everyone else does (will need to find the link again).  I largely agree that the US is fairly ordinary in what it does in the world, but perhaps disagree about the why that Walt poses: not just about international pressures but domestic political dynamics.  Each country's politics affects/mediates how it responds to international pressures.  The US is somewhat exceptional in that sense because of its political system.  There used to be far fewer Presidential systems than there are now, but they are still the minority with most democracies being either parliamentary or mixed (having elements of presidential and parliamentary systems).  One could write a book on how such differences affect how the civilians control their militaries especially in multilateral contexts (yes, the book is now out of our hands and under review at a press). 

To be clear, my biggest problems with American exceptionalism are: (a) the refusal to compare and to learn from the experiences of other places; and (b) people using any comparisons as accusations that someone is not sufficiently supportive of the US.  The word un-American is usually used by those who are betraying American ideals (McCarthy most obviously).  To be considered un-American because one dares to think there are things the US can learn from elsewhere, that there are elements of the US that are, dare I say it, inferior, is problematic in the extreme. 

Anyhow, I would to highlight two sharp posts on related topics:

At Inkspots, there is a very good post on why this is not the day to celebrate the military and the veterans.  Instead, Gulliver argues that this is the day to celebrate what the American ideals are, not sacrifices made on behalf of those ideas, especially since most of the wars the US has fought have not been for American freedom, especially lately. 

Dan Drezner does a nice job of focusing on what the Declaration really means and what makes it stand out so:
It was the American desire to allow future Americans to migrate to these shores, and to truck, barter, and exchange with everyone else, that stands out this year when I read the Declaration of Independence.  Which is something to think about when one major party candidate for president demagogues immigration and the other one demagogues trade
That the US was founded on not just democratic ideas of consent but on tolerant ideals (yes, with huge caveat about slavery that took four score and then some to correct) makes the US stand out a bit.  There are other countries whose populations are nearly entirely based on past immigration (and repression of the indigenous peoples), but the conscious justification of independence based on freer flows of peoples is something that is easy to overlook but makes the US pretty darned exceptional.   Indeed, I always get more than a bit annoyed when people take anti-immigration stands in the US--these efforts betray not just American history but also American ideals. 

I have made much fun of xenophobia for a while now as I realized that hate can serve as a brake on irredentism, but in all seriousness, fear of foreigners is, despite being quite a tradition in the US, anti-American, given the words in the Declaration. 

It is this tolerance that makes possible the continuation, even in these hard times, of the American dream.  Other countries have their own dreams, of course, but I am pretty fond of the American dream.

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