An Exceptional American Problem

There are many lamentable aspects of the recently concluded presidential campaign, ranging from negative advertising to the flow of cash from unnamed donors to Super PACs. Yet another, subtler issue in this election underscored a lingering problem in American politics. The 2012 campaign marked yet another year in which both parties perpetuated the damaging fallacy of American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism has been around as long as the country itself. In the early days of the United States, the young democracy was genuinely the exception to most of its contemporaneous regimes. America’s “democratic experiment” separated this country from its European counterparts, and the success of American capitalism gave Americans reason to be proud of their country. The phrase “American exceptionalism” was soon taken up by politicians to make a variety of claims about the special nature of the United States. But as Richard Cohen argues in the Washington Post, today’s exceptionalism is a sort of super-patriotism, a radically pro-American stance in which any acknowledgement of error on the part of the U.S. government is seen as heresy.

In the final presidential debate of 2012, Mitt Romney confronted the president over what he termed Obama’s “apology tour” of the Middle East shortly after he took office.  Romney said that the official foreign visits consisted of “going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America.”  This was quite an exaggeration on Romney’s part, as Obama’s rhetoric was not radically different from that of the Bush administration.  Furthermore, we have to ask why the statement that Obama had “criticized America” was immediately seen as an attack.

In modern American foreign policy, self-criticism is viewed as an unacceptable sign of weakness rather than a constructive sign of learning. Surely no reasonable observer would suggest that American foreign policy toward the Middle East has been uniformly laudable. It would be dishonest to deny that we have made mistakes. Why, then, is it considered weak for Obama to accept and acknowledge America’s past faults?

Essentially, Romney was advocating that our foreign policy take a leaf out of the playground bully’s book: We should not admit our mistakes, and, when challenged about our errors, we should lash out harder against those who expose them. There is nothing strong about this policy. In fact, it demonstrates insecurity and even immaturity.

As Romney frequently reminded voters during the campaign, he was a successful businessman before turning to elected office. Surely, Romney did not strike deals for Bain Capital by refusing to negotiate or admit any weakness on his own part. Anyone who has tried to reach an agreement on an important issue will know that little progress can be made without each side receiving some concessions from the other.

Historically, the only way that agreements have been reached without compromise is in war, when one side can literally beat the other into submission. Perhaps this is the strategy that Romney and the Republican Party would like to pursue—after all, who needs to speak softly when you can use a big stick? But the GOP must recognize that diplomatic solutions cannot move forward if America is unwilling to be honest about its own faults with itself and the countries it negotiates with.

I do recognize that there are instances in which compromise may not be advantageous. As George W. Bush frequently reminded us, America does not negotiate with terrorists. This is not an unreasonable policy; it establishes a doctrine that can be universally applied and could be advantageous in the long-term. A principle of “America does not negotiate with foreign governments,” however, can hardly be applied universally.

American exceptionalism also perpetuates negative stereotypes about the U.S. in foreign countries. It is premised not just on the idea that America is exceptional, but that America is exceptionally good. Exceptionalists do not believe that America has exceptional potential, but that it already has exceptional accomplishments. This brash self-confidence can lend an appearance of strength, but in reality it is nothing more than self-delusion. Other countries apply a more sober approach to domestic problems and take note when America fails to do so.  In the face of failed wars in the Middle East and a painful economic recession at home, pretending that America is without fault does not help advance solutions to our country’s problems. Our collective inability to objectively assess and deal with our own issues is a political embarrassment.

Ironically, over-patriotic exceptionalists are, as a group, relatively unique to America. Their existence alone makes America exceptional in a certain way. The uniformly positive views they wish to project about our country, however, could not be farther from reality. The exceptionalist opinion that America should never admit failure, never show weakness, and never give an inch breaks down negotiation processes and worsens our national image. American politicians would do well to abandon the delusion of exceptionalism in favor of an honest, pragmatic approach to political negotiation and problem solving.

Nick M. Phillips ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Greenough Hall.