We all know where that slogan came from! Let’s look at the real picture. We’ll examine the history, the current facts and trends, a forecast for the future, and maybe even a prescription. We’ll also come to grips with whether or not we should consider America an “exceptional” nation.
When the United States was founded, we were a collection of small colonies of the British Crown. We struggled to gain our independence from an overseas, absolute monarch not of our choosing (nor of anyone else, for that matter). Although small and weaker than our former rulers, we won because of distance, logistics, local knowledge, grit and determination, and a powerful ally in France. When we wrote, ratified, and enacted the Constitution, we became great—not in terms of wealth, power or cultural sophistication, but in the philosophy of government. We were a republic among monarchies, a democracy where the general population (at least of white males) got to choose its leaders, lawmakers and law enforcers.
Throughout our history, we remained exceptional, though not unique, by means of transfer of power under the rule of law, without accompanying violence. We did this even through several assassinations, deaths of a president through natural causes, impeachments, and a resignation. We were far from exemplary in other ways—the manner of treating indigenous peoples, the persistence of slavery for a number of years, Jim Crow laws, some imperialism at the end of the 19th century, etc. Some of these appear worse today when we ignore an understanding of the context at the time; nonetheless, they were blemishes on the record.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, we were among the leaders of the world in adoption of industrialization and the deliberate discovery and use of technology. We slowly found our voice in the artistic and cultural realms, but only became a leader with the advent of recorded sound and cinema.
But it was in the period from our entry into World War II until very recently that we became “great” in the sense of a colossus astride the world. How did it happen? We and our allies won the war against the greatest power on the European continent and the greatest power in Asia. By the end of the war, our enemies were completely devastated. But our allies, closer to the battle front, were injured too, and exhausted by a war that lasted at least 2 years longer for them and followed (for some) an equally terrible war one generation prior. Meanwhile the United States, separated from its enemies by two vast oceans, escaped unscathed, with an industrial base vastly expanded to produce war material.
We were the “greatest” nation on Earth from then. And we behaved in an unprecedented and magnanimous way toward former enemies and devastated allies, with aid in the form of the Marshall Plan. And unlike other victors in the past, we allowed conquered lands to return to self-government, albeit with some restrictions on their ability to re-militarize. We were challenged by the Soviet Union, but its enmity helped build and preserve unity amongst our population, and we eventually defeated it as a threat, due to our willingness to hold steadfast until it fell of its own internal contradictions. With an unmatched industrial base and no competition, our exports dominated world markets.
Where have world events gone? We can no longer say we are the “greatest” among nations. Why? We have had several serious miss-steps by our leaders in foreign affairs and national security. We have seen increased partisanship internally. We have seen the growth of identity politics spawn feelings of victimization and divisiveness. Events outside of our control also have had a major diminishing effect, such as loss of secure employment due both to automation and globalization.
The world’s most populous nation, China, has undergone radical growth. They are 4 to 5 times our size in population, and have moved incredibly fast in terms of economic growth. Given their size, a GDP per capita of only 1/3 of ours would still make them a larger economy. They are building their military capability. We cannot change these facts. Unless they are split or fractured by a civil war, which is possible but unlikely (given their suppression of any opposition to the ruling party) we cannot change their importance on the world stage.
Russia, under its current thugocracy, is a challenge to us in world affairs, but not a significant long term challenger. Their system is corrupt, they have major looming demographic problems, and they will slowly be less important to the world. Other nations, such as Germany and Japan will challenge us in competition for goods and services in world markets, but do not and likely will not, have the ability to project military power. India is populous enough (3-4 times US population) to challenge us, but their impoverished status, and their socialist/bureaucratic obstacles will not lift them to prominence on the world stage. The Islamic jihadists will continue to prove a serious annoyance, and may damage us with 9/11 insecurity from time to time, but are not a nation-state, have no industrial base, and will never rise above their current status.
But the world has changed, and we have, too. Even if we were more united, better governed, we cannot change the existence of other economic powers, or especially the economic/population/industrial challenge that is China. The post-World War II years where we clearly the leader of the Free world, and in retrospect, the leader of the world, are gone and not recoverable. The years 1945-1990 were unique and impossible to replicate.
That does not mean we are insignificant. We are clearly the most important nation in the world, but no longer the undisputed “greatest”. We can improve, and improve our status with better government, a less fractured population, greater civility and better policies. We are not consigned to perpetual slow growth of 2% per year or less. We don’t have to be low on the totem pole of K-12 academic achievement. There are lots of dimensions in which we can recover leadership with better government. That does not necessarily mean more laws, more regulations, more government programs, etc. It does mean a Congress and President more concerned with the common good than with being re-elected, regardless of the consequences.
We can be great again—but not in the sense of the 1945-1990 period. In fact, change “great” to “greater”; we are still great, even if not a giant among pygmies.
Are we exceptional? Of course, one could argue that every nation is exceptional in some way—after all, each is unique and has had a unique history. But I do believe our exceptionality is of transcending value—in the freedom we all enjoy as citizens, and the way we have used that freedom to improve ourselves and all mankind.