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Exceptional Americanism

They call it American exceptionalism. It holds that America is culturally superior to the rest of the world, a beacon to the rest of the world, and has an evangelical mission to spread American values to the rest of the world.

President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney paid due lip service to it in the last of this election’s three Presidential debates, the one dedicated to discussion of foreign policy.

Obama said America remains the world’s one indispensible nation. Romney promised to maintain the United States as “the hope of the earth.”

But the interesting thing about the debate was the tacit acknowledgement — more on the part of Obama than Romney, to be sure, but by the challenger too — that the way America projects itself to the world has to change.

The traditional way for America to do that of course, is by force. As the great satirist Tom Lehrer once sang: “When in doubt, send the marines.”

<p>SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images</p>

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

US President Barack Obama (L) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R) following the third and final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012.

In fact one of the standout characteristics of American exceptionalism, right from the start, is its martial nature.

Since it became independent — through war — the United States has engaged in literally hundreds of foreign military interventions of one kind or another.

Back in April this year, the web site Upworthy ran a striking graphic representation showing how many years America had been at war and how many at peace since 1776. The score was: war years, 214; peace years, 21.

Very few countries in the world are as devoted to their militaries as the United States. According to World Bank statistics, in 2011, the US spent 4.7 per cent of its GDP on the military. Only Israel, Oman, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan spent higher proportions of their national incomes on the military. Australia spent 1.9 per cent of its GDP.

American military spending — let’s not call it defence spending, for it is arguable how much of it is truly defensive — accounted for almost 43 per cent of the total for the world in 2010.

It was close to six times the spending of the number two country, China, and well over 10 times that of Russia. Indeed, as Obama pointed out during the debate, the US spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined.

War is a business for the US. America accounts for more than three-quarters of the global arms trade, and had a record year in 2011, with USD66 billion in sales.

Thus the manufacture and sale of products designed to kill people was one of the few growth industries in the flat US economy.

And that kind of makes the real point here: these days, the things that make the United States exceptional are often not things to be proud of, as Scott Shane pointed out in an opinion piece in The New York Times recently, entitled “The Opiate of Exceptionalism”.

He noted the US ranked 34th out of 35 developed countries in child poverty rates, 28th in the number of four-year-olds attending preschool, 14th on higher education, 49th for infant mortality, and well down the list on measures of social mobility.

There are some areas where America is still a world leader, of course. Economic size, for one, although that won’t be the case for much longer. Also for the number of its people who are imprisoned (grossly disproportionately racial minorities). And gun ownership. And obesity.

So to the debate, which was held, as the moderator — Bob Schieffer, of CBS — pointed out, on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s revelation that soviet missiles being installed in Cuba.

What was interesting about it was how un-bellicose both candidates were, by traditional American standards.

Right off the bat, Romney surveyed the difficulties posed by the Arab spring in the Middle East and north Africa and declared: “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.”

And while the candidates sparred about whose policy was better, and talked tough about trade sanctions and embargoes and supplying weapons to allies and maybe a little targeted killing of al-Qaeda types, they were at pains to eschew any commitment to major force.

No, they both said, we don’t want US forces in Syria. We don’t want war with Iran. We want forces out of Afghanistan by 2014. We must continue to engage with the government of Pakistan, even if we don’t like them.

It was quite extraordinary. There was Mitt Romney, carrier of the Republican torch previously held by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, conceding you could not defeat extremists by starting wars.

“We don’t want another Iraq,” he said. “We don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us.”

The right course, he suggested, was “to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own”.

It was to extend more foreign aid, more trade, to encourage better education, gender equality, the rule of law, the institutions of civil society.

But from a distance, not by invasion.

Of course Romney had to throw a bone to the war buffs who make up such a large part of his party’s base, by saying he would spend more on the military. Now, you might think this a bit crazy. Why increase military spending by another trillion dollars when you already have the biggest armed forces in the world, by far? But if you think that, you’re not a true Republican patriot.

Anyway, the essence of it was that the candidates made debating points, but really the event was an agree-a-thon. On foreign affairs, that is.

The real debate was not about foreign affairs, however. It was about domestic policy, to the point where moderator Schieffer kept having to intervene to pull the candidates back to the supposed focus of the debate.

But they found cunning ways to circumvent him. Obama, for example, began to talk about the futility of US efforts at nation building abroad, and segued into the need for nation building at home.

“And we’ve neglected, for example, developing our own economy, our own energy sectors, our own education system,” he said.

“And it’s very hard for us to project leadership around the world when we’re not doing what we need to do here.”

Romney did likewise, arguing that “for us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong, and that begins with a strong economy here at home…”

He cited Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who “says that our debt makes us not a great country, that’s a frightening thing. The former chief of — chief of the Joints Chief of Staff said that — Admiral Mullen — said that our debt is the biggest national security threat we face.”

There are plenty more examples, but you get the point. Having fought two protracted wars on credit, and having put itself in the poorhouse as a result, America is now tired of foreign adventurism.

And Romney and Obama know that.

This election cycle, for the first time in a very long time, there is no great advantage to be found in the expression of martial sentiment.

It was clearest at the end, as the candidates gave their closing statements.

Obama talked about the economic damage done by Iraq and Afganistan, about the need for a more equal society, for the return of manufacturing jobs, about energy independence, and “nation building here at home”. He did at least talk about the need to provide better care for returning troops, which sort-of related to foreign policy.

Romney didn’t even try to relate his closing remarks to foreign policy, unless you count a vague reference to promoting “principles of peace”. His pitch was about national debt, falling pay, unemployment.

All considered, this was the most inward-looking debate on “foreign policy” I can ever recall.

It was truly a bit of exceptional Americanism.

16 comments on this story
by Nick Mosey

Here in the US there is no journalism that comes close to this witty perceptive and comprehensive summary of the essence of a fatally flawed country. That such a fine piece of analysis can hang from the peg of an empty ritual gladiatorial sounbite contest is a further tribute to Mike's skill. It's fortunate Mike is back home - I doubt the MV Times would have published anything like this here.

I owe my sanity to the internet & the access to writing such as this.

October 24, 2012 @ 12:54am
by Marilyn

Australia has become even worse. WE think we can colonise the neighbours with refugees to protect our borders while invading their borders.

October 24, 2012 @ 5:37am
by John Kilcullen

"Obama talked about the economic damage done by Iraq and Afganistan"

Shouldn't "by" be "to"?

October 24, 2012 @ 10:57am
by Mike

Check your sources Mike!
War for 214 years for the US?
1974-1983 (end Viet Nam to Grenada/Lebanon) is 9 years
1984-1990 (Lebenon to Kuwait) 6 years
1991-1995 (Kuwait to Bosnia) 4 years
1996-2002 (Bosnia to Afhanistan/Iraq) 6 years
Total since Viet Nam in years 25 years by my simple math.
I guess it's all how you spin it, but when quoting sources, I think your rhetoric would be much more worthwhile with factual data. By comparison, here's a note from your old pals @ Wikipedia (lover of the US): $52.7 billion out of $3.55 trillion (1.5%) spent on foreign aid. $15.0 billion was military in 2010. Hmmm.

October 24, 2012 @ 1:41pm
by violet

For the Mike in the comment section - That's where you get wrong! You should actually add up all the secret wars US had played. Cuba (1962), Lebanon (1958), El Salvador (1980s), Nicaragua (1980s), Korea (1951 -1953), Laos (1969 - 70s) there are plenty of examples!

October 24, 2012 @ 4:05pm
by Mike Seccombe

@Mike Your math is indeed simple, Mike. Your list, which began with the end of Vietnam, overlooked US military involvements in Egypt, Honduras, Chad, Grenada, Libya (twice), Panama (multiple times), Haiti, Somalia, Liberia, Sudan and many others. Not to mention the use of the military across South America in the war on drugs.
You suggested I check my sources. I suggest you check my sources; there was actually a link to the full list -- Instances of use of US Armed Forces Abroad, compiled by the Congressional research Service -- in the story. It's worth a read.

October 24, 2012 @ 4:50pm
by Peter Best

What about Randy Newman's "Political Science"?
" No-one likes us, I don't know why, we may not be perfect but heaven knows we try,
but all around even our old friends put us down, let's drop the Big One and see what happens...
we give them money but are they grateful? No they're spiteful and they're hateful,
they don't respect us so let's surprise them, we'll drop the Big One and pulverise them....
Asia's crowded, Europe's too old, Africa's far too hot and Canada's too cold,
South America stole our name, let's drop the Big One there'll be no-one left to blame us...
We'll save Australia, don't want to hurt no kangaroo
we'll build an all-American amusement park there, they've got surfing too!
Boom! goes London, Boom! Paree, more room for you and more room for me,
and every city the whole world round, will just be another American town,
Oh how peaceful it will be, we'll set everybody free,
you'll wear a Japanese kimono, there'll be Italian shoes for me
They all hate us anyhow, So let's drop the Big One now....
Let's drop the Big One now"

October 24, 2012 @ 4:57pm
by Mike

Your diatribe is typical and I would assume that you would check several sources sir!
While at first glance your article is compelling, it quickly turns on stretches in "fact". If you compiled your list on any and all nations for 7,000 years of history you may then find that the world has been in conflict/war for our entire history. No nation would fall short by your assessment, certainly none in the Middle East (not all conflicts due to the US),
China and Russia (within their own borders and out at the cost of millions of lives). I just find that your article could have made your point without exageration soley towards one state.
Your assessments are as far to the left here as some far right wing assessments that Muslims are populating the world @ 15 times the rate of Christians. Or that the Crusades were caused by the Muslims when they lost at the battle of Tours, France in 732ad. Both are pretty far fetched and simply don't resonate with me.
Still interesting to know what others really think and disagree.

October 24, 2012 @ 5:23pm
by Mike

Violet, simply making a comment from Vietnam Nam forward. Still doesn't add up to 214 years of total war in the US' 236 year history, no matter what source you look at.

October 24, 2012 @ 5:27pm
by LeoAlfonsMaria

Sorry Violet. Mike has been very diplomatic and mild considering the facts. Americans and North Koreans are the most brainwashed people in the world living in Propagandastan.

October 24, 2012 @ 6:34pm
by Michael

Mike Seccombe has written an accurate well-sourced article on the The Divided States of America. The hyper-militarization of the U.S. is matched by the high civilian murder rate, by the absence of gun control and by the extra ordinary imprisonment rate, relative to comparable First World nations. Add in the obscene wealth gap extremes which match those of India, and we begin

October 24, 2012 @ 11:02pm
by Patrick

"I suggest you check my sources; there was actually a link to the full list"

If you have *important* topical information to share, please don't bury it in an innocuous in-line hyperlink. I absolutely ABHOR this stupid trend in blogging which demands that readers play whack-a-mole with embedded links just to find the source of the information... which is usually 10,000 times more interesting to read than whatever hyperbolic spin the individual blogger has to share. Is it not "hip" to list sources anymore? *leaves to go chase kids out of the yard*

October 25, 2012 @ 6:59am
by Mike

Even the link suggests the hyperbole:
1831-32 -- Falkland Islands. Captain Duncan of the USS Lexington investigated the capture of three American sealing vessels and sought to protect American interests. 2 years of war!
1841 -- Samoa. - February 24. A naval party landed and burned towns after the murder of an American seaman on Upolu Island. 1 day, I mean 1 more year of war!
1849 -- Smyrna. In July a naval force gained release of an American seized by Austrian officials. 1 month, oh sorry, 1 more year of war!
1855 -- China. - May 19 to 21. US forces protected American interests in Shanghai and, from August 3 to 5 fought pirates near Hong Kong. 3 days, no sorry 3 more years of war!
My favorite 19th Century one: 1870 -- Hawaiian Islands. - September 21. US forces placed the American flag at half mast upon the death of Queen Kalama, when the American consul at Honolulu would not assume responsibility for so doing. 1 day, oh sorry, one more year of war!
1874 -- Hawaiian Islands. - February 12 to 20. Detachments from American vessels were landed to preserve order and protect American lives and interests during the coronation of a new king.
1 more year to the tally!
On & much for checking your sources sir. I guess I really did need to dig into the sources to come up with my original conclusion of exageration & inaccuracy. Sorry man,

October 25, 2012 @ 2:00pm
Show previous 13 comments
by Jane

I sent this article to my 24 year old daughter this morning - who has for the past three years been studying and is now working in the US. Her response offers another perspective :

This article makes some interesting observations, however, it is based on at best, a poorly researched and literal definition of american exceptionalism, and at worst, a wilful misappropriation of the term. I studied american exceptionalism in my US foreign policy class, and it is not the belief that the "United States is culturally superior to the rest of the world" as this author claims. Rather, it is a term coined originally by american political philosopher, Alexis de Toqueville in the 1800s to describe the uniqueness (its "exceptionality") of the United States' democratic foundation, relative to other nations.

The author should have checked wikipedia. the issue gets murky though when US politicians believe that it is their responsibility to spread democracy to the world.

Indeed, the US does have absymal rates of child poverty, poor educational outcomes, high incidences of gun crime, etc because they have spent so much money investing in their military and not enough on social reform. ironically, it is decision makers' fervent belief in democracy which has eroded the well-being of their own people.

Thus, american exceptionalism is more about the eruption (cause/bringing forth) of democracy and why that makes a nation fundamentally different, rather than a belief that there is something culturally superior about the US and american people.

October 25, 2012 @ 5:03pm
by Chris

I feel sorry for you, author of this article, for having to endure how many hours of watching this puppet show debate in order to write an accurate piece such as this. Why don't you take a year off, travel and write about the food you eat. I think you deserve it.

October 25, 2012 @ 9:50pm
by Celina

Very good article. A small correction to Jane (or her daughter): Alexis de Tocqueville studied the American system, but was French.

November 1, 2012 @ 11:37am
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