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Is Exceptionalism Exclusive of Americans?

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

American exceptionalism is the term used to describe the idea that values, political system, and evolution (historical point of view) of the United States of America are notoriously (in a good way) different from the rest of all other nations. I briefly mentioned this idea in the article Emily in Paris and Ted Lasso: Two Different Ways to Acculturate.

Even though the term has been used more frequently recently, the expression has been around for about a century now, dating back to the 1920s. It became more popular in the 1980s, probably as a natural consequence of the peak of the cold war, and nowadays it’s more known, probably because of the Internet and availability of media, such as movies, podcasts, e-books, and others.

In 2009, the then President of the United States, Barack Obama, declared, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” And I must agree.

A few years ago, while I was visiting family in Mexico, a Mexican relative asked me, “so do people in other countries see Mexico as this amazing place full of natural resources and great people?” My answer was not a cheerful “Yes! Mexico is exceptional”, but it was a glooming “You know, all countries feel the same, and all people of all countries feel that way.” I guess, in a way, all nations are exceptional, in their own way –positive or negative–, and their citizens recognize it unequivocally.

Thinking about it, maybe the term exceptional carries some arrogance. In the magnificent book “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Jared Diamond attempts to answer the question, “Why did history unfold differently on different continents?” The answer –not to spoil the book for you– is related to the environment and resources available. The same thing is true about culture and cultural evolution, making perfect sense that every nation is unique in its singular way. Therefore, thinking a nation is exceptional (especially a powerful one) is the norm, not the exception. Oh, the irony!

American exceptionalism is the equivalent of stereotyping in national culture terms. Stereotyping is “an over-generalized belief about a particular category of people.” And such an over-generalized view makes it harder for Americans to understand how other nations see their policies, positions with international law, and other elements of exceptionalism, as mentioned above. Conversely, a more open way to see the point of view of other nations would probably make Americans closer to “being destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage,” to use the words of Stephen M. Walt.

So, what’s your take on this?

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