In Defense of American Exceptionalism: Why the U.S. is the Greatest Nation on Earth

ARGUMENT (Declared Bias: Right Authoritarian, Strong Foreign Policy)

Through the last century, the U.S. has gone from being one of a number of Great Powers to being one of two Superpowers and entered the millennium as the world’s only Superpower. This global hegemony can be attributed solely to the idea of American Exceptionalism, which states that the U.S., as a society, has certain characteristics that make it the greatest nation in history. These traits are observed in American foreign policy, its status as the world’s most prosperous nation, and the faith its population has in its institutions.

Looking at the list of historical foreign interventions undertaken by the United States, a clear pattern emerges — the U.S. has acted in international affairs solely based on morality and ideology rather than national self-interest. This virtuous foreign policy has permitted the U.S. to intervene in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas to protect the oppressed and defend a system of liberal democracies. American intervention has secured Europe from Fascism, the Americas from Colonialism, and Africa from Communism. As these flawed concepts challenged personal liberty and basic rights, the U.S. ensured that democracy and hope prevailed. This trend can be seen in any of the last five U.S. interventions — Panama, Iraq (1990), Kosovo, Iraq (2003), and Afghanistan. Each of these interventions can be ascribed to the removal of a despot who violated human rights, or to the desire to bring humanitarian relief to a nation torn up by warlords.

Although the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are ceaselessly criticized, both were rooted in the noblest of goals — to bring hope and democracy to millions who had suffered crippling human rights violations under oppressive regimes. Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against his own people, killing 10,000 Kurds in a genocidal attack on civilians [1]. In 1990, Hussein wantonly attacked a sovereign nation, trying to seize its natural resources, until U.S.-led intervention liberated Kuwait and restored its independence. Similarly, the Taliban has massacred thousands of Afghans while trying to take over control of Afghanistan and violated basic human rights for all females in Afghanistan [2]. Action against such tyrants was thoroughly merited, and despite being in a quagmire for over a decade, U.S. intervention in the Middle East has made millions of lives immeasurably better.

The same can be said about U.S. intervention in Europe and Latin America. In Kosovo, the U.S. ousted Slobodan Milosevic, the Russian-backed genocidal leader through a multifaceted conflict, leading to an unqualified success for interventionism and democracy. Action by the U.S. prevented the murders of millions of Bosnians, Kosovs, and Croats. In South America, the U.S. deposed a narcotrafficker who posed as the dictator of Panama and only used his political office to enrich himself. This intervention, in turn, led to the formation of a well-functioning democracy that now is one of the most competitive economies in South America.

Moreover, the U.S. has intervened in purely humanitarian ways, proving security for U.N. aid missions to war-torn nations like Somalia and East Timor. Not only did such action permit the U.N. to provide aid in war-torn areas, but also cemented the idea of U.S. foreign policy being a purely moral force.

Aside from intervention, the U.S. has undertaken massive public relief projects at its own expense to better serve the world. The Marshall Plan of 1948 was transformational for Europe — the U.S. provided $12 billion to allow nations to rebuild after World War II. Strikingly, nations which chose to oppose the U.S. were not excluded, and three years after the end of the war, Germany, Austria, Romania, and Italy were given aid to rebuild through the most generous foreign aid package ever given by a single nation. The Marshall Plan was not a deviation from decades of U.S. foreign policy, but typical of it. The U.S. has provided similar aid plans through the Young Plan of 1929, the American Relief Administration in the early 1920s, and the Committee for Relief in Belgium in 1917. More recently, it has provided $43 billion of aid to other nations in 2015 [3]. This amount is by far the greatest offered by a single country (more than double that of the U.K., a distant second) and emphasizes the fact that the primary motive behind U.S. foreign policy has been, and will continue to be the willingness to help fellow nations. Indeed, the U.S. has always been willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” as promised by John F. Kennedy [4].

"[T]he primary motive behind U.S. foreign policy has been, and will continue to be the willingness to help fellow nations."

Secondly, the U.S. is the most prosperous nation that has ever existed. Throughout the last century, it has exuded an aura of wealth, opportunity, and achievement. This characteristic success has been built upon the American Dream, which values labor and ingenuity. Though this can clearly be seen by the fact that the U.S. has the greatest share of global GDP, the idea of American prosperity goes far beyond this [5]. The idea of the American Dream has encouraged emulators across the political spectrum, from Imperial Germany in the early 1900s to a nascent South Korea during its economic boom in the 1970s and 80s. Today, the simple yet appealing belief: work hard, work smart, and you will be rewarded, is being peddled by Mr. Xi and Mr. Modi in China and India respectively [6]. While the reason behind leaders encouraging their populations to seek a better standard of living is simple, the basis for its attainment lies in something far less quantifiable: A can-do entrepreneurial spirit, which is unique to the U.S.. Though multiple nations point to their important technological advancements, the sheer importance and multitude of American innovations have rightly placed it as the world leader in innovation and enterprise. The origins of this tradition of invention can be traced further back than the development of the first telephone, aircraft, and mass produced automobile (all American products); the founding fathers of the U.S. held patents to their name [7]. This tradition has continued to today, and the greatest corporations like Google, Walmart, and Exxon-Mobil are more often found inside the U.S. than outside it. This bottom-up system of excellence has allowed the U.S. to create technological miracles, right from the moon landing to smartphones. These technological innovations in turn fuel American prosperity, leading to a virtuous cycle of growth and public wealth, unmatched by any other nation.

"...the sheer importance and multitude of American innovations have rightly placed it as the world leader in innovation and enterprise."

This “spirit of innovation,” as christened by Charles Conrad Jr. has permeated through American society and has shaped the views of the government too. It was NASA, a government agency, that landed humans on the moon. Ever since, NASA, and by extension, the U.S., has been the guardian of human endeavors into space, from the Voyager probes to landing on the Rosetta comet. This special position as the leader of the world in space exploration factors into American greatness. The exploration of outer space is the next logical step in the evolution of humankind, and by acting as the de facto leader of humanity’s expansion, the U.S. demonstrates why it is exceptional.

What allows the American government to aim for lofty ideals like space exploration is the fact that the U.S. has not recently faced political revolutions or internal war, like much of Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. This has allowed it to continue with an arrangement of representative democracy not challenged by anarchists, autocrats or communists who undermine faith in the existing system. This fortunate occurrence is as much a product of the American political system as a contributor to it. As American society provided transparent democratic elections, low corruption, and checks and balances on power, faith in the national institutions grew.

These institutions have allegedly come under threat under the current administration, according to influential media outlets [8]. However, the threat posed to the American system of government by the Trump administration is far lesser than that posed by previous administrations. The Nixon, FDR, and Johnson regimes were more threatening to the system of checks and balances established by the constitution. However, the American system prevailed through a scheme to wiretap the opposition, a bid to rig the supreme court, and bestowment of war-making powers to the president. The Trump administration is in no way threatening the balance of power maintained between the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court. It therefore is in no way threatening American democracy, and though the U.S.’s international prestige may decrease in the next four years, it is in no danger of losing its coveted status as the world’s greatest nation.

The argument for the American-style democracy was also made by the failings of other systems- International Communism collapsed under its own weight, and autocratic nations around the world ran aground through ceaseless war and corruption. This trend among other nations which claim to challenge the U.S.’s position as world leader and greatest nation can still be seen. Russia and China, the two plausible alternatives, have far too much internal strife and far too little international and economic influence.

"Indeed, the clear hypocrisy of Russian foreign policy is demonstrated by its vocal opposition to international intervention in any nation's affairs in the years between its invasion of Georgia and its aggression in Ukraine."

Russia, a declining empire masquerading as a democracy, has an unstable economy, a paranoid dictator whose bellicose foreign policy has killed millions, and a regression towards the disenfranchisement of all minorities. A nation whose sole foreign policy agenda is the impediment of American foreign policy cannot claim to be in defense of its own values. Indeed, the clear hypocrisy of Russian foreign policy is demonstrated by its vocal opposition to international intervention in any nation's affairs in the years between its invasion of Georgia and its aggression in Ukraine. Russia’s contempt for human rights abroad can, however, be understood when viewed in context with the way it treats its citizens. In the last two years, the Russian parliament has debated the mass incarceration of homosexuals and has decriminalized domestic abuse, while its police regularly use rape and torture as “interrogation methods” [9][10]. China has a better claim to America’s position as world leader, provided one chooses to ignore wanton aggression in the South China Sea, an economy built on crony capitalism, and the fact that China has a special definition for human rights and officially believes that loyalty to the party is more important than human rights [11]. Furthermore, neither China nor Russia have the soft power associated with the U.S., which is seen as a melting pot of cultures where social mobility provides opportunity and wealth to the industrious. The soft power of the U.S. cannot be quantified, but the effects of American media, American universities, and American films cannot be discounted in globalizing American culture and values, allowing the U.S. to act as a global leader and adding to the argument for its greatness.

Aary SheoranStaff Writer and General Editor

Edited by Politics Editor Ross Reggio

Sources and Notes

Featured Image: “Painted Flag Art” by Stuart Seeger — Own work. Licensed under Cc BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons —


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