A traveler to America, especially one from Europe, might be surprised by how patriotic its people are – American flags are all over (some people even wear t-shirts with the flag and/or the bald eagle), the national anthem is played before almost all official events, and politicians constantly speak about how America is “exceptional.” And you might wonder why.
The belief that America is an exceptional nation –one that has a mission to lead other countries in the world- goes back to the founding of the country. The idea argues that America is different from all other countries in the world, that it is superior, because it was founded on and dedicated to the idea of freedom and equality. The belief that America is exceptional is by no means shared by all Americans, but it is unquestionably a prominent strand in the country’s politics, affecting how Americans view others, and how others view Americans. So how did this belief develop, and what does it mean in practice?
Back in 1630, John Winthrop, the leader of one of the first English settlements in what is now Massachusetts, described the new lands of America as “a shining city on the hill,” an example to the rest of the world. American independence, not achieved for another 150 years, was itself predicated on the basis of freedom and equality for all and is seen as the birth of modern democracy and liberty. To citizens of countries in Europe, America appeared as the land of dreams and settlers set off to find their dreams in this promised land and they brought their expectations with them. The land of America, with its many navigable rivers, mountains, and perfect agricultural land, appeared to some to be uniquely positioned for success. As time went on, some began to argue that America was not only the first modern democracy, but that it had a responsibility to share that with the world.
It is from this idea – that America is the best example of freedom in the world, and that it has a duty to spread liberty– that American exceptionalism springs, still evident today.
According to the tradition, in the eyes of those who subscribe to this idea, America has not just the right but the duty to lead the world politically and economically. The United States is seen as justified in taking whatever actions it thinks are necessary to protect its interests. When America chooses to invade a country or topple a government, this is justified by arguing that America’s duty is to spread freedom. In this, the U.S. is unique.
In order to understand any society you have to look at its history. As a democratic super power the United States has been forced to step up and act to protect other countries´ freedom and democracy repeatedly in the past. Some believe that if America were to lose its position as the world’s premier power, the ideals of democracy and liberty would be threatened everywhere. American politicians often pay lip service to this ideal and use it to attract votes and gain support for their foreign policy goals. The most prominent example of this was Ronald Reagan, who frequently echoed Winthrop’s famous notion of America as a “shining city on the hill” that could defeat the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. George W. Bush was also a proponent of America being exceptional in its duties to promote freedom throughout the world. However, Barack Obama has declared that while he believes in American Exceptionalism, it is in “…the same way that Brits believe in British exceptionalism and Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Even though the concept of American Exceptionalism is an extreme, it does explain the attitudes of the Americans you meet, entrepreneurs going abroad and the American customers, distributors and suppliers you meet when importing to the United States. Remembering the U.S. history on Independence Day July 4th, the day that made the United States the first country to be created as a republic, might help you understand why America still acts as though it is different from every other country in the world and have an obligation to spread freedom and democracy.
Written by: Jason Mumma and Emmy Melander, SACC-USA