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Get Over It

Insistence on American exceptionalism is damaging to U.S. interests

By Jorge A. Araya

Mitt Romney’s ineptitude at handling matters of foreign policy became egregiously clear when disparaging remarks he made about Palestinians at a fundraiser in May went viral on the web. Romney’s absurd claims that “the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace” have been widely criticized, not least by Palestinians themselves, who are justly incensed. Seen in a certain light, Romney’s accomplishment is rather impressive; with just a couple of sentences, he’s assured that, were he elected come November, America’s efforts to promote peace in the Middle East over the next four years would fail.

The specifics of Romney’s blunder do not matter greatly, however. What does matter are Romney’s continued attempts to criticize President Barack Obama because he allegedly “doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” Perhaps even more important are the ways Americans view and define themselves at a time when international concerns should take center stage on the national consciousness.

Recently, a poll found that 80 percent of Americans believe that their country possesses “unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.” Now, there is nothing bad about believing that your country is exceptional. Any citizen of any country should take pride in his or her heritage and identity. But there is a difference—a subtle yet crucial one—between saying, “we are great” and proclaiming, “we are the greatest.” The latter sentiment unnecessarily creates an “us versus them” mentality and, worse, creates an unfounded illusion of superiority.

A closer examination of the facts show otherwise. American workers are not the most productive or the most prosperous, and they are certainly not the most educated (on that last count, they are failing miserably). For now, the U.S. economy remains the world’s biggest, but that will change in less than five years as the Chinese economy overtakes it. Furthermore, as Brazil, India, and other developing countries continue to emerge as world powers in their own right, America’s importance on the world stage is sure to diminish, although it will certainly remain significant.

The extent of Romney’s views on foreign policy can be found in a 2011 speech, in which he declared, “As President of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century. And I will never, ever apologize for America.” As to the first part of that statement, there’s close to nothing Romney, Obama, or any other leader can do to guarantee American hegemony in the 21st century. The best the nation’s leaders can do is cooperate closely with other nations to ensure that American interests are protected and furthered across the globe, recognizing the sometimes-competing interests of other states while striving to avoid conflict. As to the second part of Romney’s manifesto, it is just flat-out wrong. Nations are imperfect, and they must sometimes apologize for their actions. This is what the North American Treaty Organization did in June after an airstrike by American forces killed 18 civilians in an Afghan village. To suggest that America should not apologize for anything, ever, is to turn one’s back on the notion that America has any moral authority to intervene in world affairs. For with such authority comes the necessity to take responsibility for whatever consequences may result of it.

Sadly, polls show that foreign policy is only a priority for three percent of American voters. That’s hardly surprising, given the fact that in Romney Republicans picked a presidential candidate with virtually no foreign policy experience, while far more qualified candidates such as Jon M. Huntsman Jr. received almost no support during the primaries. Or take four years ago. In no other developed country would someone as important as a vice-presidential candidate quantify her foreign policy credentials by claiming that her state could “see Russia from land here.” Yet at a time when American dominance is waning, voters should turn to someone who can skillfully represent the country abroad. Now more than ever, the next President of the United States needs foreign policy experience, or at least an open mind when approaching such issues—he should not simply parrot the false truth of American superiority.

Hopefully, the American people and their leaders will learn that greatness is not something they inherit and certainly not something they are entitled to, but something that must be earned and sustained through actions. A truly exceptional America would respect the merits of other nations—it would admire its own achievements without having to compare them to those of others. A truly exceptional America would lead the world not because it is somehow destined to, but because it would be willing to recognize its own shortcomings in order to overcome them and courageous enough to apologize should the occasion call for it. A truly exceptional America, in short, would be humble. And while the polls suggest it’s unlikely that America’s next president will be Mitt Romney, the country seems to be swerving toward arrogance at the worst of times.

Jorge A. Araya ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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