America Really Was That Great

… But that doesn't mean we are now.


Is America still exceptional? The question has become a contentious issue in American politics over the last few years. But the answer has implications that go well beyond the political fortunes of Republicans and Democrats in the United States. It affects the stability and prosperity of the entire world.

President Barack Obama’s Republican critics now routinely accuse him of denying America’s history as an “exceptional” country because, when asked about the concept in 2009, he replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” (He then went on to list some of the features that, in his view, make America exceptional.) In Mitt Romney’s recent retelling, this is akin to saying that “there is nothing unique about the United States.”

But the idea of American exceptionalism does have real intellectual grounding. As used by scholars, it refers to the ways the United States has differed historically from the older countries of Europe: the fact that it was founded on a set of ideas; that it lacked a hierarchical social order with a hereditary aristocracy at the top; that the Europeans who settled North America did so in a huge, sparsely populated territory; and that it attracted immigrants from all over the world. In American politics, the term has come to have a celebratory as well as an analytical meaning. It refers to what makes America special: its wealth, its power, the economic opportunity it has provided for its citizens, and the expansive role it has played in the world, including the example of liberty and prosperity that it has set.

The fuss over exceptionalism represents, in one sense, politics as usual in the United States, with one side accusing the other of being out of touch with the country’s deepest values: a “profoundly mistaken view,” Romney said of Obama’s “derisive” remarks. It also, however, taps into the national current of unease about the country and its future, an unease that is, alas, all too justified. No American politician will publicly question his or her country’s exceptional status, but it is worth asking whether America really is still exceptional, especially because so many Americans are beginning to worry privately — and some publicly — that it is not.

The question reminds us of a story attributed to Abraham Lincoln. He asked, “If you call a horse’s tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have?” He then responded, “The answer is four, because calling a horse’s tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Similarly, declaring that America is exceptional — that is, exceptionally wealthy, powerful, and dynamic — doesn’t make it so. Exceptionalism is not a distinction that is bestowed and then lasts forever, like an honorary degree from a university; nor is it an entitlement like Social Security or Medicare — something all Americans automatically get to enjoy at a certain age. It has to be earned continually, like a baseball player’s batting average. And today, as so many Americans fear, it is not being earned. America’s exceptionalism is now in play. To remain exceptional, America must respond effectively to its four great 21st-century challenges: the ones posed by globalization, the revolution in information technology, the country’s huge and growing deficits, and its pattern of energy consumption. America does not now have in place the policies needed to master them.

The United States has not adapted its educational system to prepare Americans for well-paying jobs in a world economy shaped by globalization and the revolution in information technology. It has not mustered the political will to bring the deficits of its federal government and many of its state and local governments under control. It has not taken effective steps to jump-start the long transition away from heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

Underlying these specific failures is a national failure even to pose the questions that must be answered as the starting point for all public policies: What world are we living in, and what do we need to do to thrive in it?

The stakes are exceptionally high. For Americans, whether the United States is able to answer these questions successfully will determine the country’s future rate of economic growth, and that growth rate will in turn determine how much Americans will be able to maintain the best features of their society: opportunity, mobility, and social harmony. For the rest of the world, the stakes are perhaps even higher. Since 1945, and especially since the end of the Cold War, the United States has provided to the world many of the services that governments generally furnish to the societies they govern. While maintaining the world’s major currency, the dollar, it has served as a market for the exports that have fueled remarkable economic growth in Asia and elsewhere. America’s Navy safeguards the sea lanes along which much of the world’s trade passes, and its military deployments in Europe and East Asia underwrite security in those regions. The U.S. military also guarantees the world’s access to the oil of the Persian Gulf, and American intelligence assets, diplomatic muscle, and occasionally military force resist the most dangerous trend in contemporary international politics: the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The global governance the United States has provided, from which the rest of the world has derived enormous benefit, has rested on a vibrant economy and the national unity and confidence that have arisen from it.

In 2011, a robust American global role continues to be vital. With the Arab world in upheaval; with Europe’s common currency, the euro, in crisis and the future of the European Union itself in doubt; and with China, the world’s fastest-growing economy and fastest-rising power, having all but exhausted the possibilities of its model for economic growth based on an undervalued currency and ever-rising exports, a dynamic American economy and a stabilizing, reassuring American global presence are as important now as they have ever been, if not more so. Sustaining them, though, depends on America’s rising to meet its major challenges, and doing so immediately.

Somehow it has fallen slightly out of fashion to talk about “American power.” Those on the left often do not fully understand its constructive uses, concentrating instead on the occasional abuses that always attend the exercise of power. Those on the right often do not fully understand its sources — that American power is not simply a matter of will but of means, and those means need to be constantly renewed and refreshed. In the second decade of the 21st century, that depends on successfully meeting the country’s four major domestic challenges.

Can America respond to them in appropriate fashion? We are optimistic that it can. While the country is paralyzed at the top — the political system is stuck and is not generating the necessary public policies — it remains extraordinarily vibrant at the grassroots.

If one were to design a country ideally suited to flourish in the 21st century, it would look more like the United States than any other. In a world in which individual creativity is becoming ever more important, America supports individual achievement and celebrates the quirky. In a world in which technological change takes place at warp speed, requiring maximal economic flexibility, the American economy is as flexible as any on the planet. In a world in which transparent, reliable institutions, and especially the rule of law, are more important than ever for risk-taking and innovation, the United States has an outstanding legal environment. In a world in which even the cleverest inventors and entrepreneurs have to try and fail before succeeding, American business culture understands that failure is often the necessary condition for success. None of these traits has gone away during the current crisis.

Over the course of its history, the United States has rarely failed to meet its major challenges. It is in fact the current failure to do so that is unusual — one might even say “exceptional.” When tested, from the days of the revolution in the 18th century to the drawn-out Cold War struggle in the 20th, America and Americans have found ways to excel.

To continue to do so, the country would do well to learn from the experience of one of its iconic companies, IBM, which is celebrating its centennial this year. IBM essentially invented the personal computer, but didn’t fully understand the implications of its own creation. The company, like too many Americans, came to think of its exceptional status as self-perpetuating and permanent. This led to complacency and strategic mistakes that almost proved fatal.

How did IBM lose sight of the world it invented? Listen carefully to the answer of Samuel Palmisano, IBM’s current chairman and CEO, when we asked him that question: “You spend more time arguing amongst yourselves over a shrinking pie than looking to the future,” he said, and so “you miss the big turn” that you have entered, even a turn that your own company invented. When you mistakenly start thinking of other departments and colleagues in your own company as the opposition — rather than the other companies against which you must compete — you have lost touch with the world in which you are operating. This can be as lethal for countries as it is for companies. America’s political parties today have strayed off course, Palmisano told us, “because they have focused on themselves” more than on the priorities of the country as a whole. IBM got back on track, under new leadership, by focusing on and coming to understand the new environment in which it was operating and then mobilizing and inspiring the whole company to master the next big change in technology, networked computing.

America needs to do something similar. It is obvious what its core competency is in the 21st century. The United States has greater potential than any other country to thrive in the future by becoming the world’s most attractive launching pad — the place where everyone wants to come to work, invent, collaborate, or start something up to get the most out of our new hyperconnected world. And they will want to come to America because it has the best infrastructure, the most dynamic schools, the most open economy, the most inviting immigration policies, the most efficient and stable markets, the most government-funded research, and the best rules to promote risk-taking and prevent recklessness. That is how America remains as “exceptional” in this century as it was in the last two — not by launching another moon shot but by becoming the world’s favorite launching pad for millions of moon shots.

American power and prosperity, and global stability and prosperity, are all riding on the country’s success in meeting its challenges. A world influenced by a United States powerful enough to provide political, economic, and moral leadership will not be a perfect world, but it will be a better world than any alternative we can envision. That means that the status of American exceptionalism is more than an academic controversy or a partisan political squabble in the United States. Everyone, everywhere, has an interest in America taking the steps necessary to remain an exceptional country.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter professor of American foreign policy at The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the Twenty-First Century (New York: PublicAffairs, 2006), from which this article is adapted.