American Exceptionalism has been a topic of Presidential campaign speeches and debates recently. Candidate Mitt Romney says he believes in Exceptionalism. Candidate Barack Obama seems to prefer the term "indispensable," which is a more diplomatic term.
The United States of America is hardly the first nation to think that it is exceptional: that it is blessed by God above all other nations, and that therefore it can do no wrong. Famously the Jews, in the ancient nations of Israel and Judah, made the same claim. That did not prevent them from being enslaved in Babylon. A few centuries later the Romans kicked them out of Jerusalem. Those remaining in Palestine mostly converted to Islam by 700 A.D.
Americans have done a lot better than the Jews, so far. Our founding fathers preferred to see us as a future Roman empire, only with as a Republic. By 1776 generations of Euro-Americans and African-Americans had died in this "new" continent. The survivors were a healthy, aggressive, rapidly breeding lot that eventually got us to where we are today.
The problem with Exceptionalism is that it glosses over real causes and effects. If America is exceptional, why? Could we lose our exceptional status?
Education, in the most general sense of preferring knowledge to ignorance, was a key generator of the wealth of this nation. Many of the founding fathers were highly educated men, and among other things they saw to the founding or expansion of a number of colleges and lower schools. Federal lands were set aside specifically to finance schools in the new territories to the west. Free public schooling became a foundation of both our democracy and our economy. By the 1850's Americans were among the world's best educated people. Between 1850 and 1910 American inventors, educators, and scientists joined with workers and businessmen to create the first economy that was not powered mainly by human sweat.
In the 1990's however, the U.S. education system began slipping into a steep decline. Can America remain exceptional if it has a sub-par education system?
Look at other nations that thought they were exceptional if you want to learn a thing or two. The prior most exceptional nation before the U.S. clawed its way to the top during the aftermath of World War II was Great Britain, aka England or the British Empire.
The Brits were sure they were favored by God. Their soldiers and bullets made the idea hard to argue with. The Sun never set on the British Empire. Until it did.
A promoter of American Exceptionalism might want to ask: how did the Brits loose their exceptional status? Idiots may think a capricious God just decided to punish the Brits for some slight, but policy makers should look for real world causes.
The main obvious difference between the British Empire and the global dominance of the United States was that the Brits ruled over people through colonies, while the U.S. has largely maintained a business empire in which we depend on puppet governments to rule our "allied" nations.
You might argue that God, or macroeconomics, favors the American System over the more old-fashioned British Imperialism. But I think you would be wrong. The baton was not passed from the British to the Americans because we perfected "soft" imperialism.
America took over the British Empire, and it was a well-planned maneuver, executed over decades. We did it with what can only be called exquisite timing. We encouraged the European great nations to fight each other, and we even encouraged the Japanese and Chinese to fight each other. [As my dad, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, liked to say: "Let's you and him fight."]
In both World War I and World War II the U.S. lent money to the belligerent nations so they could buy U.S. goods (including weapons). Then when they were weakened and indebted to us we chose a side (the Brits in both wars), went in, and with the loss of relatively few men became leaders of the victory camp. More importantly, our economy was strengthened by each war, while those of the other nations were weakened.
In particular, in World War II the Germans destroyed British and Russian factories. The British destroyed German factories. The Japanese destroyed Chinese factories, and the U.S. destroyed Japanese factories (and helped destroy German factories).
At the end of World War II, we had the factories. We had mines, and we had a vast agricultural system. We also had the atomic bomb. We did not need God on our side. We just needed the British Empire to close up shop. After India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, we really just had to use our economic power to mop up. We also mopped up most of the colonies that had belonged to the Netherlands and France, and we sent Douglas MacArthur to play God in Japan.
The Communists tried to ruin it for us, and ran some nice nationalist revolutions here and there, and even defeated America's military might in Vietnam. But America's empire gave us so much economic muscle that the Soviets just ran themselves into the ground. They sought world dominion, but could not even conquer Afghanistan. Their economy choked on their vast military machine.
The dark reality is that you have to work hard to be exceptional. It isn't a gift from the gods. If you have years of drought, your agricultural output will not be exceptional. If you teach Genesis instead of Evolution in the schools, your engineers and scientists will not be exceptional. If you don't have air superiority, your armies will not be exceptional.
And if China or Germany has more and better factories than the United States, then like the British Empire and the Dutch Empire (and Ottoman Empire and French Empire, and Spanish Empire) before us, the larger our military is, the less exceptional we will become.
Personally, I am looking forward to a Return to Normalcy.