American and Israeli exceptionalism

Foreign Policy‘s latest issue looks at American exceptionalism and Stephen Walt writes:

Over the last two centuries, prominent Americans have described the United States as an “empire of liberty,” a “shining city on a hill,” the “last best hope of Earth,” the “leader of the free world,” and the “indispensable nation.” These enduring tropes explain why all presidential candidates feel compelled to offer ritualistic paeans to America’s greatness and why President Barack Obama landed in hot water — most recently, from Mitt Romney — for saying that while he believed in “American exceptionalism,” it was no different from “British exceptionalism,” “Greek exceptionalism,” or any other country’s brand of patriotic chest-thumping.

Most statements of “American exceptionalism” presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.

The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America’s global role is that it is mostly a myth. Although the United States possesses certain unique qualities — from high levels of religiosity to a political culture that privileges individual freedom — the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics. By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.

No doubt it behooves Americans to recognize the things that tie this country to the rest of the world, but there is an aspect of exceptionalism Walt does not touch upon — one that sets apart American and Israeli exceptionalism from most others: the exceptionalism of colonizers.

Nations that come into existence by dispossessing, imprisoning and slaughtering the indigenous population have two problems with history:

1. Its ugliness makes it hard to glorify.
2. Its shortness exposes the tenuousness of any claim that this is “our land”.

Others look back at their national history and can trace a rich tapestry of events, places, and people in which the contours of their nation have over the preceding centuries been carved by culture and inscribed in geography. All around are stepping stones that lead into the near, middling, distant, and sometimes ancient past. The punctuations of history rest on a continuum.

If without sentiment we look back into our ancestry as Americans or Israelis, we see migrants and murderers fast preceded by a void. Our actual roots in abandoned lands take us far away from the very thing that supposedly makes us exceptional.

With histories much harder to glorify, we find the need to make our pasts less linear and more mythically grandiose. We ignore the catastrophes that we imposed on others. We didn’t steal the land; it was a gift from God.

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One thought on “American and Israeli exceptionalism

  1. Óscar Palacios

    I can’t begin to imagine how “high levels of religiosity” are actually a quality. When you consider highly religious societies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, well, you’re not precisely talking about the most peaceful or trouble-free societies in the world.

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