The Price and Command of Exceptionalism

At issue in debates over our conduct with foreign nations, and our commitment to the rule of law despite the war on terror, is the critical question of whether “American exceptionalism,” a term the right wields like a sword to argue that our chief executive shortchanges our future everytime he so much as speaks with a foreign leader, is a passive trait we simply exude by virtue of existing, or an honor that we’ve won and must maintain. Posts like this — stating, essentially, that we’ll stop persecuting Muslims when the Islamic world stops persecuting Christinas — conclusively adopt the former definition.

This argument is sadly common, or it would merit no reply. But the idea of American exceptionalism can’t be that we’re immune from the world; rather, it must be that we sometimes are and otherwise should be better than the rest of the world. The world holds us to a higher moral standard because we claim to deserve it, and unless we hold to it, we risk forfeiting all the benefits it entails. Exceptionalism is something we do and actively maintain — by, for example, treating our enemies better than they would treat us — not something we are.

History gives us this simple lesson: the only nations that ever rested on their laurels, imagining their role in history complete, quickly found that to be the case.

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