One of the many benefits of working at NYSE/Euronext is that I have been able to establish relationships with people from all across the world — both coworkers and clients; many of whom I would consider close friends. These relationships have represented an incredible opportunity to learn of the cultures, values, and perspectives of those from a wide variety of countries, religious backgrounds, and philosophical persuasions. For me it is fascinating to see how my perspective, as an American, compares to the perspectives of those from vastly different backgrounds and experience. In many cases we have a shared perspective and in others, we differ based on our own unique upbringing and experience. What I have found is that while we do have our differences in outlook, what we share in common far outweighs any differences we may have. We are all proud to be citizens of our respective countries. We are all proud of our cultural heritage.
I of course, am no exception. I am — to use a tired and somewhat hokey phrase – proud to be an American partially because I believe in the concept of American Exceptionalism; albeit a form of American Exceptionalism quite different from the view held by some within the United States — primarily the so-called neo-conservatives. Broadly speaking, American Exceptionalism puts forth that the United States holds a unique and special place in the world and, due to its good fortune and great power, has a responsibility to be a force for good. Neo-conservatives and many Americans of strong religious backgrounds hold America up as a “city on a hill” to shine forth and demonstrate the virtues of freedom and democracy; however, they often do so as if America is exclusively exceptional in this regard and in many cases this has prevented them from taking an objective view of American action, policy, and history. Such ideas can be easily traced back to the 17th century when the first European settlers in North America saw themselves, quite literally, and “God’s new Israel”; a chosen people with a divine destiny. This idea continues to permeate the American ethos today even if some of the overtly religious and metaphysical claims have been considerably tempered.
While I do agree that because of its good fortune, economic strength and position as a world Superpower, America does indeed have a moral obligation to be a force for good in the world, to be an example of freedom and tolerance and to offer aid and assistance to countries and people in need. However, I fundamentally reject the idea that America is exclusively exceptional. Many countries are, or have been, exceptional. These countries are themselves a force for good. There are many “cities on a hill”, as it were. Consider America’s closest cousins: Ireland and England. Both nations have made, and continue to make incredible contributions to the good of the world.
Being exceptional is not something that actualizes spontaneously and is not a state of being that is static. To become and remain exceptional countries must continually evaluate their motives and actions; they must constantly seek to improve and to maintain their status as being exceptional. In particular, America must recognize both its incredible successes and its tragic failures. By so doing we can learn from both and become a better nation tomorrow than we are today. The same is true of all other nations who seek to become exceptional or maintain their status as such. Putting on rose-colored glasses and viewing our respective nations as flawless, without blemish, and blameless can only lead to tragic failures and ultimate disaster. To blame ourselves for all world’s woes would be dysfunctional at best and extremely harmful at worst. Likewise, to see oneself as completely blameless and without flaw is equally problematic.
I prefer a more balanced and objective view. Let America learn from her mistakes, be proud of her successes, and continually strive to maintain her status as a nation of exceptional people and action.
To read more on these and similar ideas, I highly suggest two books: