OPINION: American exceptionalism must be reconsidered to advance our country

A group of people silhouetted against the sky. One of them waves an American flag.
Rakesh Peddibhotla PZ ‘24 argues that we must reevaluate the idea of American exceptionalism if we are to improve our democracy and progress. (Courtesy: Jamie Squire via Getty Images)

American exceptionalism is an idea that many of us have taken for granted, but one that has dangerous and pernicious political implications. The New World Encyclopedia defines American exceptionalism as “the belief that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its national credo, historical evolution or distinctive political and religious institutions.”

However, this belief impedes progress and threatens to undermine improvements in our democracy. Additionally, several harmful U.S. interventions in other countries, militarily or otherwise, are based upon principles of exceptionalism. 

We can only fix it by acknowledging its deep flaws and understanding more about the world as a whole. Additionally, American exceptionalism even exacerbates the greatest crisis of this planet: climate change, which America cannot be exceptional on. It has enabled us to disregard treaties and international laws and agreements, as opposed to honoring and respecting international norms. American exceptionalism contributed to pulling out of climate agreements and influences lack of concern and even downright denial of climate change

We must respect global accords to reduce carbon emissions and take national and local actions, including making sustainable food choices, using renewable energy sources, planting trees and crops and using alternative transportation when possible. 

One obvious problem with American exceptionalism is that it is not an established fact, but rather a debatable point that should not be taken for granted. If one defines greatness in terms of power and wealth, then the United States would seem to be the greatest country in the world. The United States has been ranked as the most powerful country in world influence and has the largest GDP on Earth. 

However, the United States ranks behind other countries in several crucial areas, including health care, social progress and freedom of the press. This is important because part of greatness is quality of opportunity, which access to health care, social progress and an independent press are a crucial part of. 

Even in freedom and democracy, often the hallmarks of American exceptionalism, the United States is not exceptional. For example, in freedom, the United States was rated an 86 out of 100 by Freedom House, which is lower than several other countries, including Japan, Norway, Sweden, Chile, Australia and New Zealand, all rated at a 90 or above. 

In democracy, the United States is not even rated in the top 20 countries. While the country may have been the first democracy in modern times, its current form does not appear particularly democratic compared to several other countries. 

American exceptionalism has led to notions that the United States is the one true country that can solve the problems of other nations. That has been one of the reasons we have interfered with the internal affairs of other governments

At the time of the Iraq War, the United States did not act as if international norms applied to it, as it blatantly disregarded international law. Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan even stated that the Iraq War was illegal and violated the U.N. charter.

Exceptionalism on the homefront can be equally damaging. It tricks people into complacency, and also prevents a thorough and accurate review of the issues and how to solve them. 

This level of politicization of the climate crisis is unique to America, as while climate denial is found in other countries, it is unusually high in the United States. The data shows a correlation between conservatism and climate change denial, which makes sense given the correlation between conservatism and American exceptionalism, who might feel as if the United States is immune to problems like climate change.

America has had a very important global role to play, and it still does. But to solve the problems of this world that has become so interconnected and interdependent, America must understand how the world has changed. 

Journalist Fareed Zakaria explained the shifting in global powers as a phenomenon of “the rise of the rest.” As one example, China and India are expected to surpass the U.S. economy in the near future. Additionally, with several other countries who have strong democracies and growing economies, America will inevitably have to share the stage more and more with these state actors. 

However, we must address the root cause of these issues, which is a belief of American exceptionalism. To truly address our own domestic problems, we must learn more about the world’s countries, and specifically look at the rankings of the United States in key areas such as health care, incarceration, education, etc. and devise ways to improve them. If we do not take significant action, the United States will continue to suffer losses in several crucial areas, and the climate crisis will only continue to worsen. 

Improving the United States is perhaps the best patriotism that we can do. 

Rakesh Peddibhotla PZ ’24 is from Fremont, CA. He enjoys learning about issues of social justice and international relations, as well as playing the trombone and singing.

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