As the year 2023 draws to an end, commentators generally twist their noodles to review the past and project the future in all aspects (economy, social issues, life-styles, etc.) but inevitably the national politics and international order come to the top especially because of the coming 2024 presidential election. Professor Joseph S. Nye at Harvard University just published a thought-provoking article, American Exceptionalism in 2024, in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI recently noted for its biased China view causing Australia a diplomatic nightmare with China). Prof. Nye chose to include 2024 in the tile of his article and published it in ASPI, perhaps, it is to gain an early time stamp of December 17, 2023, to inform the international audience about his new book, A Life in the American Century to be published in January 2024 by Polity Press. I enjoyed reading Professor Nye's article although he has only mentioned the 2024 election at the end with no serious discussion. This author feels that while Prof Nye is right about the Biden camp trying to preserve the existing order and the Trump followers wanting to destroy it, but their causality reasons related to National Exceptionalism deserve clarification. In this article, the author wishes to discuss such a connection.
To discuss international order today, understanding American exceptionalism is a necessary element but not sufficient unless extending to a comprehension of 'national exceptionalism'. As Prof. Nye quoted French intellectual Stanley Hoffman. “Every country considers itself unique, France and the U.S. stand out believing their values are universal.” (Exceptional!), this author believes that there is 'national exceptionalism' which will play a role in influencing international order. Broadly speaking, national exceptionalism, exemplified by the American Exceptionalism, is cultivated in a shallow sense by brain- washing (media, Hollywood, textbooks, etc.), in a deeper sense through beliefs (religion-God's chosen people, theorism such as racism and colonialism, etc.) and in a realistic impactful sense by national power such as economic power, military power, and technological power. The similarities and difference between American and French exceptionalism can be traced through their history, religion, racism, and culture, all played a role, but national power made a definite difference (and consequences) since the two world wars. The British, the Germans, and the Japanese all had their exceptionalism, cultivated by some of the influencing factors discussed above but accentuated especially in different times by naval power (Britain), industrial discipline (Germany), and copism (Japan, ability to copy excellence) which haunted the Japanese in its national exceptionalism creating a mixed (and tortured) feeling.
“Americans may want to believe that their country is a force for good” (Quote from Prof. Nye) but yet the American foreign policy/behavior shows hypocrisey. American foreign policy has had a huge influence on international order since World War II because of its power. Prof. Nye commented that the world would be very different if Hitler or Stalin won the war. Today, U.S. power is in decline whether Americans want to admit it or not. Most American politicians would like to blame that on China's rise rather than the U.S. mismanagement of its domestic and international affairs. In an objective analysis, we can see that the Chinese do think they are unique as well. Chinese have a long history (far longer than French and American history). Throughout its history, China has truly absorbed many races thus racism has not played a significant role in Chinese exceptionalism. The U.S. has an enormous land (rich resources) and geopolitical advantage (surrounded by two oceans and two weak neighbors), but China in contrast has 14 troublesome neighbors. When the U.S. becomes the world's largest economy, it thinks in terms of global power, whereas China rises from the poorest country to the world's number two economy, it thinks in terms of co-prosperity and joint development. China's national exceptionalism came from its glorious history (boosted and sustained its pride) and endurance through hardship (hardwork ethics) not inflamed by military power or religious belief.
Prof. Nye commented that in history isolationism (Monroe Doctrine) was there before global power. It wasn't until 1917 that President Woodrow Wilson sent two million troops to Europe leading the U.S. to global power. At that time, China was so weak and had no choice but to accept the U.S. mediation of the Russo-Japan war forcing China to give up sovereignty to make Russia and Japan cease fire. There was no justice in the U.S. behavior but global power play. Today, China has risen in economic power and military power. Will the U.S. continue with its global power foreign policy or take a real honest realist power analysis to accept reality? Indeed, the U.S. is still number one, but its American First slogan, like its American Exceptionalism, is tainted with color (racial – black rights vs white rights vs others), extreme liberalism versus extreme conservatism, and religious divide. Global power may not be easily maintained as the Russian-Ukraine war and Israel-Hamas conflict have shown. China, on the other hand, is promoting peace talks and economic cooperation. China not only can manage its mid-Asia land neighbors but also has succeeded in bringing Saudi and Iran to create diplomatic relations.
We Americans should not have a blind belief in American exceptionalism. We must accept the truth that national exceptionalism exists in every country with roots in many factors - historical and changeable factors. The American people should understand other nations' exceptionalism and study our own. For example, why some countries strictly oppose the LGBT movement which is 'endorsed' or 'promoted' in our country. Another example, why some countries have different climate change and energy policies. Do we just take advantage of our resources to pursue a good future for ourselves? In our 2024 presidential election, do we have the right candidates making the right debate on issues and solutions rather than shouting slogans? American exceptionalism does not solve our economic problems, employment and skill development issues and new world order unless we understand our own exceptionalism in depth and other nations' exceptionalisms. This author is glad to see Prof. Nye starting an essay at the year-end of 2023. We Americans must understand the real significance of this slogan. We can contribute positively to the new world order but not dictate it.