China, the US and the State of the Union: why American exceptionalism isn’t going to work for much longer

Ezra Klein laments President Obama’s inability to speak the truth to the American people about the role of the United States in the world:

This bugged me last night, and it’s worth talking about today: One of the first big applause lines of the speech came when Barack Obama said, “For all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world.” But as Matt Yglesias notes, soon, we won’t. China will. And that’s okay.

A decent future includes China’s GDP passing ours. They have many, many more people than we do. It’s bad for both us and them if the country stays poor. A world in which China becomes rich enough to buy from us and educated enough to invent things that improve our lives is a better world than one in which they merely become competitive enough to take low-wage jobs from us — and that’s to say nothing of the welfare of the Chinese themselves.

But perhaps it’s better to think of it in terms of Britain rather than China. Was the economic rise of the United States, in the end, bad for Britain? Or France? I don’t think so. We’ve invented a host of products, medicines and technologies that have made their lives immeasurably better, not to mention measurably longer. We’re a huge and important trading partner for all of those countries. They’re no longer even arguably No. 1, it’s true. But they’re better off for it.

I’d tend to agree on that first, very valid point. China’s peaceful development, and its continued growth even in a tough economic climate, has been the only thing that’s kept us from a complete global financial meltdown (as opposed to the worst crisis in most people’s lifetimes). But I’d go one further: the rise of China means that America has to fundamentally change the way it sees itself in relation to the rest of the world.

Not having grown up in the United States, it took me a long time to finally understand the idea of American exceptionalism – that idea that America is, by its very nature, without actually doing anything, better at everything than everywhere else, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is insufficiently patriotic and should perhaps move to France. Granted, I do get a little misty-eyed at the sight of the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the wind or a beautifully-sung patriotic song like the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’. And I love Americans. I love America. I admire my country’s ability to step up to the plate and act as the world’s policeman where European nations dither and equivocate about sending a few police observers. The USA is, and will remain, the academic and cultural centre of the world long after China surpasses it in economic and military clout.

It is deeply unpopular to suggest that America is just another country. And, in many ways, it is not. It is special. It does play a unique role in the world. It funds 22% of the UN’s budget. It is the only nation militarily present on every continent. It is the only thing separating North and South Korea from mutual annihilation.

Yet other countries are special too – and America is losing what makes it unique, or rather being caught up to by China and other developing countries. While America’s universities are still the best in the world, school test scores are lamentable compared to most European countries. Americans are not the healthiest or happiest people on the planet. They are not the only people to live middle-class suburban lives with middle-class suburban living standards. Increasingly, even with the most forward-thinking economic policies that harness the country’s strengths to build the infrastructure for tomorrow and train a workforce fit to take on the 21st century, America’s ability to have that ‘Sputnik moment’ that President Obama mentioned in the State of the Union is slipping away. There just isn’t that much that the USA can do to hold onto its lead.

And as Ezra Klein says himself, that’s not a bad thing, as long as Americans are living long, happy, prosperous lives. But what it means is that America must start learning that it can no longer live by a different set of rules. While America’s positive influence in the world is not given enough praise, Americans are too often perceived as a petulant bully using their current economic and political supremacy to justify actions that would be condemned as unilateral and almost rogue-statish if coming from anyone else. That’s a shame – because if we continue to pretend that the rules don’t apply to us, we shouldn’t be surprised to see other nations engaging in a little Schadenfreude at the thought of our demise.

I know that this sounds like the America-bashing of a whiny lefty. It’s really anything but. I love my country. I want to see it live up to its promise. I want it to be the best it can be. I just don’t think that raising a middle finger to the rest of the world and telling our friends and allies that we’ll only play by our rules is the best way to do it. I think we’re better off learning from, and working with, other countries to make sure that we can build better schools, hospitals, transport infrastructure and data networks than anyone else – meaning that if we can’t be the world’s biggest superpower any more, we can at least live longer, happier, healthier lives than anyone else.

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6 thoughts on “China, the US and the State of the Union: why American exceptionalism isn’t going to work for much longer

  1. And what exactly, is ‘America’s promise’? Sounds like you got trapped in discourse somewhere along the way, and I’d HATE to agree with you by saying that ‘being an American, you probably have to speak like one’. From a whiny European leftist perspective,it is an interesting topic, with interesting points made, but unfortunatly some of them are just non-sensical for non-American-hugging citizens…

    1. America was founded on certain ideals, however sincere you believe those ideals to be. American-ness has always been based more on shared values and goals, or at least the perception thereof, than on an actual cultural identity. Sure, being American means sharing certain cultural traits and speaking English, but as a constantly-changing nation of immigrants it’s more the idea of America (the values set out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, as well as the writings of the founding fathers) than the culture that’s held the country together.
      Now, whether you think that America has ever lived up to what it’s set out to be is another story. Nevertheless, the country is founded on the myth of American ideals, freedoms, rights – America as an example of all that could be good in the world, or what John Winthrop and so many other later on called the ‘city on the hill’.
      In that sense, there’s really only one other country in the world that’s somewhat similar in terms of its universalism and messianic vision and purpose – France.

  2. Yes, I do see what you mean in terms of a certain ‘unifying vision’, and that is indeed special regardless of whether it is ‘realized’or even realizable. If only because so many people have believed in it and achieved so much through chanelling their energies through it. There are major issues with such a strong national vision nowadays though as you have also pointed out in the article above, and the discrepancies between reality and ‘the vision’ are bound to grow increasingly obvious…or not. Well, either way, it is historicizing by the day. Would you say that matters or do you stand by the idea that a good idea is timeless? What about all the different conflicting views and policies that fill in the frame of this vision? Does it undermine it or does it not matter, as long as the frame subsists and people recognize themselves in it in some way?

    Thanks for answering so genuinely to a somewhat angry outburst on my part…

    1. I think that a national idea/ideal/vision/philosophy is a fairly neutral concept which probably does both good and harm. Even myths can be useful in providing a sense of national unity and purpose. As an example, the idea of the American dream, while deeply flawed and only tangentially linked to reality, is something of a motivational tool for ordinary citizens and immigrants alike.
      At the same time, America’s perception of itself as an exceptional nation does breed complacency and an unwillingness to tackle tough challenges – because America must already be perfect, so there’s no need to change anything. It’s the classic conflict between left and right in the US. The right believes that America is automatically the best country in the world, and to make changes is to undermine that greatness; the left believes that a country needs to constantly evolve and adapt to maintain or nurture what makes it special.

  3. Hey would you mind stating which blog platform you’re working with? I’m looking to start my own blog soon but I’m having a hard time deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something completely unique. P.S Sorry for being off-topic but I had to ask!

    1. Hey – as the URL suggests, I’m using WordPress. I find that for someone with no programming/art/design skills like myself, WordPress actually has quite a lot of interesting and attractive themes and allows you to play around with the appearance of your blog quite a bit.

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