By Ian Reifowitz
American Exceptionalism, It’s difficult to divine when the term became a political weapon, but insidiously, it has — despite the fact that both sides of the political aisle are proud Americans.
In his foreign policy address this week, Mitt Romney contrasted his belief in American Exceptionalism to that of Barack Obama. Romney accused Obama of having spoken “derisively” about it, and of having said that we are exceptional only “in the way that the British think Great Britain is exceptional or the Greeks think Greece is exceptional. In Barack Obama’s profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States.”
Here’s the problem. Like many things Mitt Romney has been saying of late, his characterization of what the president said is utterly false. On April 4, 2009, in Strasbourg, Obama stated: “I believe in American Exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British Exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek Exceptionalism. I am enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.”
Is any derision evident here? We can clearly see the president expressing great pride in his country and, in recognition of the international audience to whom he was speaking, a humble acknowledgement that many people are proud of their country as well. Would Romney have preferred that Obama have finished his statement by adding: “But the British and the Greeks are wrong, my friends, for only America is exceptional!”?
Perhaps, given that Romney felt compelled to add on Monday that he would “never, ever apologize for America.” Of course, Ronald Reagan apologized for America’s internment of its own citizens of Japanese origin during World War II. And George W. Bush apologized directly to Iraq’s prime minister after a U.S. sniper had used a copy of the Quran for target practice. Romney recently published a book about how America has never and undoubtedly will never do anything it would need to think twice about — or learn from, one assumes. The book is called “No Apology.” Maybe Romney should have called it “No Humility.”
In reality, Obama has detailed his own belief in American exceptionalism. This April, he noted that his first national speech in 2004: “was entirely about American exceptionalism ... my entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism.” And in the Strasbourg speech, the president also said: “we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”
There is another aspect to Obama’s understanding of American exceptionalism and our role in the world, one he laid out in a speech on Sept. 11, 2010. Obama spoke about how al-Qaida had “attacked the very idea of America itself.” He then described that idea in detail: “we will not give in to their hatred and prejudice. ... And just as we condemn intolerance and extremism abroad, so will we stay true to our traditions here at home as a diverse and tolerant nation. Those who attacked us sought to demoralize us, divide us, to deprive us of the very unity, the very ideals, that make America America — those qualities that have made us a beacon of freedom and hope to billions.”
Diverse and tolerant
Here Obama defines America as standing opposed to hatred, prejudice, intolerance, and extremism. America is diverse and tolerant, a people whose ideals and whose unity make us who we are, make us exceptional. Furthermore, it is that idea of America — a diverse yet unified people sworn to freedom and democracy — that inspires billions.
Obama, like his opponents, embraces American exceptionalism and sees America as having a unique, special role to play in the world. The difference is that the president’s American exceptionalism isn’t about chest-thumping and cheerleading. His centers on our ability to show the world that a population of many faiths, cultures, and races can see itself as a single people, pluralistic yet united. Our role in the world is to serve as an alternative model to fundamentalism of every stripe. To Barack Obama, we lead not only by the strength of our arms, but also by the example of our unity.
Ian Reifowitz is a professor of history at the State University of New York-Empire State College. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from Brown University and a PhD in history from Georgetown University. His first book, “Imagining an Austrian Nation: Joseph Samuel Bloch and the Search for a Multiethnic Austrian Identity, 1846–1919,” was published by East European Monographs and Columbia University Press in 2003.