Americans have long enjoyed (or suffered from, depending on one’s perspective) a belief in our own exceptionalism.  Many nations and cultures believe in their own superiority despite empirical data suggesting that citizens of the Nordic countries are the most fulfilled[1].  However, the United States is, perhaps, unique in believing that the history of the US is inherently different from that of other nations and that the US has some special mission to transform the world.


While the assertion of American Exceptionalism never rang true to me despite my pride in the many  achievements of the United States over the past  240+ years, my travels to and knowledge of other countries, coupled with a decent grasp of world history, suggests (i) the United States is hardly the only country to excel and (ii) if we would like this long period of American dominance to continue we had best not take this role and status for granted.


The world has known multiple flowerings of great civilizations, each of which has believed itself to be unique: Ancient Egypt enjoyed preeminence in the Mediterranean world for 30 centuries, commencing around  3100 B.C.; Ancient China flourished from the Shang Dynasty (c. 1700 B.C. ) with some long interruptions to 1901 (and it could be argued that a new period of Chinese dominance has already begun); Ancient Greece enjoyed its centuries in the sun from the 8th century B.C. until it was eclipsed by the great Roman Republic and then Empire which survived until the fall of Rome in the 5th century A.D.; and, finally, but by no means exhaustively, the Mayan Civilization endured for some 95 centuries closer to home.  By comparison, the “American Century” has lasted just that.


American Exceptionalism not only largely ignores world history — what I think of as vertical blindness — it also myopically focuses on what occurs in the admittedly large, but by no means global, US landmass — what I label as horizontal blindness.  During the last century we have seen Britain lose and hand over one of the great empires in the modern world, and in this hemisphere, Argentina fall from one of the wealthiest countries in the world at the turn of the last century to the 24th by per capita GDP today.  None of Modern Egypt, Greece, Italy or Argentina should give us confidence in our own immortality.


The point I am trying to make beyond this litany of declining statistics is that if we wish to maintain this self-proclaimed exceptional experiment in democracy, Americans need to look backwards across history and outwards across other nations (which each seek their own form of greatness) to preserve what makes us special.  I would argue that this goes well beyond the economic and military might of the country, although these are intertwined to preserve global relevance, to the idea of America.  It is the “shining city upon the hill” in the often-borrowed words of John Winthrop. It is the land of freedom and opportunity; of religious belief but also religious tolerance; it is a country that opens its doors to immigrants and the oppressed; and it is a country that embodies the rule of law, aspires to equality among peoples; and looks hopefully to a better future.


It is the anthesis of all that is Donald J. Trump.

[1] See, e.g.World Economic Forum Report, Finland is the World’s Happiest Country – again, 21 March 2019