THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK
Aggression born of American 'exceptionalism'
By HIROAKI SATO Jan. 30, 2012
NEW YORK — I thought American exceptionalism was debunked and dying. I was wrong.
Most recently, American exceptionalism jumped to the political fore at the start of this century. It did so with a swagger, ironically, because of the 9/11 attacks. In his speech that night, President George W. Bush put forward the United States as "the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world."
That assertion was a bit odd in the circumstances, but no matter. He condemned those who carried out the attacks as "evil" and told the world that America, being goodness incarnate, would bring those responsible to justice, making "no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."
As Bush pushed his intent to attack Iraq, which had nothing to do with those "evil" acts, some advised that the U.S. assume the role that Britain played from the 19th to the early 20th century. The U.S. is powerful and enlightened enough, the argument went, to relegate those benighted, ne'er-do-well Middle Eastern countries back into colonial status and rule them as lord and master.
Even a plan was cooked up to send schoolteachers to Iraq after its "liberation." The story appeared in The Education Week — a periodical that constantly reports on the problems American education faces.
Behind all that lay the age-old belief that America is a country like no other. That high self-regard faltered as the Iraq War, like the war against Afghanistan that had started earlier, did. Then came the bursting of the financial bubble. The argument that American exceptionalism is a "myth" came to the fore.
Three years ago Godfrey Hodgson published the book The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale Univ. Press). The most cogent case against "the myth" I've read of late is Stephen M. Walt's article with the same title (Foreign Policy, November 2011). In it the Harvard professor dissects it from five angles to show it is fantasy based on ignorance and self-aggrandizement.
First, Walt points to the notion that "there is something exceptional about American exceptionalism." There simply isn't. Powers of any international standing at one time or another entertained similar ideas to justify their "missions."
Walt doesn't cite Japan among his examples, but Japan once projected itself as "the leading race" among the Asian nations. That self-appointed role included what may be called belligerent eschatology. Japan's exceptional mission required the country, some prominent men argued, to fight the U.S. even if that meant Japan's annihilation.
Walt's second point of rebuttal is the belief that the U.S. "behaves better than other nations." He cites expansionism and the accompanying slaughters. He doesn't mention it, but it was none other than Fortune magazine that plainly stated, in 1935, that the U.S. was second only to Great Britain in the total size of territories it had seized by then. more