Yesterday, I was reading an article when a sentence stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t something profound or groundbreaking, it was something I found confusing that I had to re-read it to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.
The sentence implied that there were several factors which were the reasons this country was exceptional. The country in question was the United States and the writer was an American.
I was struck by the sentence because as I read it I realised the ridiculousness of the assertion. How is one country more exceptional than another?
By what metric do we measure exceptionalism by? Is it by the size of their economy? Is it the infant mortality rate? Or is it something else entirely.
To just state that you believe your country is exceptional without quantifying why is a mystifying statement to make.
However, this hints at a deeper belief among certain nationalities, my own one included. This idea that there are intrinsic qualities that set our countries apart from others.
This myth has persisted throughout history and each time it’s taken to its logical endpoint it hasn’t ended well.
Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking of countries as exceptional and acknowledged that some are better than others in some regards and worse in others.
Trappings of exceptionalism
An interesting thing happens when you google what makes a country exceptional. Instead of articles which discuss the topic, they all discuss one country in particular, America.
This isn’t surprising the idea of American exceptionalism is one that is fostered in the country. You only have to see the number of articles that pop up to realise this is true.
The question then is why? Why do people in certain countries believe their country is exceptional? I can’t speak for Americans, but I can use my experiences of growing up in England, where the idea of British exceptionalism still exists, to answer the question.
The idea of Britain being exceptional stretches back to the time of the British Empire, when, as the song goes, Britannia ruled the waves. Despite the breakup of the Empire, there is still a belief in the country that we are an exceptional people. That we are predisposed to lead the world and more advanced than other countries.
This myth was represented on 23 June 2016 when the country voted 52% to 48% to leave the European Union. The debate was framed by those wanting to leave as one of the pesky European bureaucrats holding the British bulldog back.
Not to mention the underlying tone of racism that festered throughout the debates. On 31 January 2020, we formally left the European Union to grand claims of having reclaimed our sovereignty to become a free country once again.
I’m sure many people who were fervent supporters of leaving the European Union now believed that Britain would reclaim its rightful place at the top of the food chain. However, there is a fatal flaw in this argument. The world has changed immeasurably since the downfall of the Empire.
There is no going back. We cannot reclaim past glories if they ever were glorious. The future is a dangerous and unknown place, relying on comforting stories of the past is no way to approach an uncertain future.
This is the fundamental issue with the idea of exceptionalism. It evokes memories of the past, a time when things were better and purer. Rose-tinted glasses can make even the most barren of fields look plentiful.
Exceptionalism is interwoven with nationalism. The two are almost indistinguishable from one another. One purports that a country is better than others and the other places the interest of a country above all others.
This idea may have persisted in a fractured and loosely connected world, but it is redundant today. We are more connected than ever. The internet has shrunk the planet, we can now contact all corners of the globe via Skype.
We are more reliant upon each other than ever before. If America catches a cold, the rest of the world sneezes. But the same is true of China and Japan too. The exploitative economies of the past have been replaced with a co-operative one which is incompatible with exceptionalism.
At its core, exceptionalism is a rejection of the present and a desire to return to a past that only existed in the imaginations of the deluded.
If you want an answer to what makes a country exceptional, a trip back to 1930s Germany will provide you with an answer.
The Nazis were firm in their belief that they were an exceptional country and should ascend to the top of the food chain. More living space was required for the German people to live in as they were more exceptional to the Slavs and Poles to the East.
Blacks, Jews, the disabled and other minorities were deemed to be a perversion of the superior German whose potential was to be an Aryan superman.
The Nazis pointed to the German identity, work ethic and culture as reasons why they were more exceptional than other countries. We all know what happened next, the bloodiest conflict in the history of mankind.
The idea of exceptionalism is an alluring one, but it is also deadly. By declaring that your country is exceptional, you are declaring that every other race and nation is inferior. However, the belief that your country is exceptional does not make it so.
Many Americans, Brits and others no doubt think this, I have met many British people who view themselves as superior to the rest of the country based on nostalgic visions of the past that bear no reality to what actually occurred.
The problem is it’s impossible to quantify what makes a country exceptional in any way today. If we look at the Global Peace Index, which rates how safe a country is, the United States and Britain are ranked 128th and 45th. Hardly exceptional.
The infant mortality rates in the States and the UK are 3.9 and 5.8 per 1000 live births. While the suicide rates are 7.3 and 13.9 respectively. None of these indicators reflects countries that are exceptional in regards to others across the globe.
Yes, their economies are among the biggest in the world and they both have seats on the United Nations Security Council, but this hardly makes a country exceptional. More, this is a legacy of the post-war world.
The real answer is that the proponents of exceptionalism believe in a misguided notion that, somehow, their countries are better than others. Be it through past glories, perceived superior character traits, or pure racism, the myth gives people the belief that the country they belong to, and thus, the identity they take from it, is a cut above the rest.
It’s an attractive notion and for a species that has evolved to believe in a variety of stories, it’s a compelling one. However, it’s not we need to move past if we are to face the challenges of the future and prosper.
A more perfect future
The coming decades will be defined by how well countries can work together. The challenges of the future require global co-operation, not nationalistic pride and sentiment.
We live in a global, interconnected society. A single country can no longer decide it wants to do things its own way. Britain will find this out to its cost once the fallout from Brexit hits home after the transition period ends.
The growth of artificial intelligence, the threat of climate change and the need to trade with other countries not lord over them necessitate collaboration.
Exceptionalism does not fit into this agenda. It asserts that because my country is better than all the others it can do what it wants and get what it wants. Unfortunately, the reality does not match up with the myth.
Britain will not reclaim its Empire and stand-alone in Europe. America can not act as the world’s policeman and impose its view of the world on others. China, Russia, the European Union and emerging economies in Africa and South America will only get stronger and demand more of a say at the top table.
The modern world is haunted by the past and unable to present a way forward. We cling to the ideas of past glories, not because they were right, but because they offer comfort.
We can comfort ourselves with the idea that our country once ruled the waves or is the home of the free and the brave even if the present does not reflect that.
However, the challenges of the future will not be met with looking longingly to the past. They require new ideas and a different way of looking at the world. We have seen what happens when countries believe they are superior to others, it ends in catastrophe.No country is exceptional.
We are all unique in our own way. We all have our pros and cons. We can all learn from one another. For the world to move forward we need to realise we work better together than in competition.