During his mushy commencement speech at West Point, President Obama told the graduates, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” (Every fiber of his being? Who’s writing this crap?) Obama refrained from adding, as he has in the past, that Brits and Greeks believe, respectively, in British and Greek exceptionalism.
Unfortunately, Obama’s account of what makes America exceptional suggests that he still doesn’t truly believe in the phenomenon. The president said:
What makes us exceptional is not flouting international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.
But, by definition, the willingness to affirm international norms and rules cannot make us exceptional. These norms wouldn’t be norms if affirming them was exceptional.
Every Tom, Dick, and Harry Western European democracy affirms the norms Obama is talking about. In fact, it was their nagging, in part, that led us to make them a fetish.
The concept of American exceptionalism probably dates back to Alexis de Tocqueville. He observed many distinctive features of America — our republican form of government, our industriousness, our focus on the practical, our religiousness, our community spirit, etc. Adherence to international norms played no part in Tocqueville’s account of American exceptionalism; if it had, the Frenchman would have become a laughingstock instead of a sage.
Seymour Martin Lipset, in his outstanding book on the subject, defines American exceptionalism as a unique blend of libertarianism, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, populism, and laissez-faire. Other than egalitarianism, President Obama seems to have a quarrel with each component of the blend.
We can only hope that our newly-minted Army officers have a more coherent and robust view than the president of what makes American exceptional. Judging by their tepid response to key portions of Obama’s speech (at least as it came through on television), they do. Indeed, if they didn’t it’s unlikely that they would have committed themselves to serving as officers in our military.
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