By Derek Chisholm,
Adjunct Professor in Business Adminstration, Tyndale University College
America’s distinctive exceptionalism has become a sensitive political issue within the United States. In April 2009 President Obama gave a relativistic interpretation of American exceptionalism by stating that it was really not that different from the exceptionalism of Britain or of Greece. In October 2011 Mitt Romney gave an absolutistic interpretation of America’s exceptionalism by stating that God did not create America to be a nation of followers.
As a careful observer of the United States from one of its very closest neighbors, I believe that America’s distinctive exceptionalism cannot be understood without clearly identifying what exactly its exceptionalism is, and where it comes from. Based on these aspects it becomes evident how America’s exceptionalism distinguishes it from every other country in the world.
America’s exceptionalism is its resilience, which is the way that its culture, politics and socio-economic arrangements have enabled it to consistently respond to its setbacks and failures with resounding successes. Critics of American exceptionalism often point to perceived failings in the country’s foreign policies, economic policies and its religiosity. Supporters of American exceptionalism often point to perceived successes in the country’s foreign policies and its undoubted economic prosperity. Thus the critics and the supporters talk past each other and have overlooked the key, which is America’s resilience. It is this resilience that has consistently enabled the country to move from its undoubted failures to its outstanding successes.
The critics often mention the Vietnam War as exemplifying a manifest failure of the American policy of containing communism. While that painful, humiliating experience did trigger some late-term gains for the Communist movement in Africa and Asia, America’s resilience in the subsequent decades led to a gradual and profound shift in domestic politics that culminated with President Ronald Reagan’s overwhelming victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the communist movement and a new world order with close to two decades of world wide prosperity.
The critics also mention the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 or the collapse of the Bretton Woods international monetary system in the early 1970s as significant failures in America’s international economic policies. The Smoot-Hawley tariff undoubtedly led to international economic warfare that worsened the worldwide impact of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1932. Nonetheless, the resilience of the American political system led to Cordell Hull becoming the Secretary of State in 1933 who worked tirelessly for liberalization of international trade and became the “Father” of the United Nations and the international trading system that brought unprecedented prosperity to the free world in the decades after 1945.
The collapse of the Bretton Woods international monetary system as a result of inflation in America and other countries in the late 1960s was interpreted as a serious failure of America’s economic policies. However, the resilience of America’s international economic policies and the international economic policies of other countries during the later 1970s and the 1980s adapted very smoothly to a new era of globalization and worldwide economic prosperity.
America’s religiosity has been a favorite target of the critics of American exceptionalism. They have caricatured it as the misconception that “God is always on America’s side” or that the United States has a divinely ordained mission to lead the rest of the world. These misconceptions rest on the heretical notion that the creatures can somehow know the Creator’s mind on the outcome of conflicts and the leadership of the world. Instead, America’s religiosity is the root cause of America’s resilience because it has given America’s leaders a deep and abiding hope for the future through their trust in the outpouring of God’s grace. As a result the many failures have consistently led to changes in the society that have also lead to America’s outstanding successes because the hope has led to the changes that were necessary.
America’s exceptionalism is absolutely different from the exceptionalism of Britain or Greece because both these countries lack America’s distinctive resilience. That resilience derives from the hopes of all Americans, which does not require knowledge of God’s creative intentions on the leadership of the world.