American Exceptionalism

This past week “American Exceptionalism” has been much in the news.  First President Obama referred to it in his incoherant speech on the necessity of sending missiles into Syria—not a pinprick, but not “incredibly small”; not now—but maybe later.  Then Putin in the NYT Op-Ed dismissed American Exceptionalism with the same terms that Pres. Obama has often used over the years in his own statements.  Putin gave Obama a rhetorical noogie, and left Obama supporters to sputter “No really America is exceptional”.  I fear many do not understand what made the United States “exceptional.”


The first is fortunate geography.  The United States sits on a large land mass with tremendous natural resources and had a huge and long-lasting frontier.  And oceans separated it from the old population centers.  Because it was so difficult to get here, those settlers who braved the arduous journey self-selected themselves into the most intrepid and the most industrious settlers.  But geography is not sufficient to create Exceptionalism—the large South American countries have had these same advantages.  We were also given wise founders.  They feared the tyranny of the ruler so they formed a democracy and rule by the people.  But they also feared the tyranny of the majority, so they developed unique checks and balances between the branches of government and balances between the federal government and the states.  A handy way to access this is to look at the mottoes on our coinage:  “Liberty”, E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust”.  With liberty the individual has the opportunity to build his life to its fullest extent without the hindrance of class or caste and with minimal interference from the government.  “From Many One” states that wherever the settler was from, his culture was blended into a broad, unified and unique American culture.   The United States was founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic.  The founder’s insight was to provide a secular government for a religious people.  With that stroke of genius the United States became a place where all sects and creeds flourished.  From these roots, then, American Exceptionalism developed.   American Exceptionalism doesn’t mean that the U.S. is always right.  Nor should it connote jingoism or cheap chants of “USA, USA” The United States is a sovereign nation and as such should act in its own best interests in foreign affairs.  American Exceptionalism means that acting in its own interests almost always means that it is acting in the world’s best interests.


The United States is the most prosperous and powerful nation the world has ever known.  It has been the greatest force for good in the history of civilization.  When the United States’ economy is strong the world prospers.  When the U.S. projects strength the world is safer.  Conversely, when the U.S economy is sluggish the world suffers and when we project weakness or disengagement the world becomes more dangerous.

There has been a lot written in the last few weeks about our policy towards Syria and the broader Middle East.  These three writers, James Piereson, Mark Steyn and Shelby Steele provide the most clarity.

Woody Smith