American exceptionalism is an intriguing, occasionally lethal, notion. Americans, it seems, are brought up to believe the United States is exceptional, the best, "number one." From Main Street to Pennsylvania Avenue there's this rich messianic broth that sets Americans apart, above all others.
But what is American exceptionalism absent a world community that is willing to believe? Is it just the sound of one hand clapping? Surely notions of superiority, to be meaningful, need to be indulged by those content to deem themselves inferior. You can't be Number One unless the rest of us are numbers other than one. You can't be the winner unless the great unwashed are the losers.
On this Canada Day, let me state that America is indeed exceptional but not necessarily in many good ways. It has the most expensive healthcare system in the world. Americans are unquestionably Number One in terms of per capita healthcare spending. Yet they're far, far off the mark when it comes to what matters - healthcare outcomes. Money, they say, can't buy happiness. Well America proves that money spent unwisely can't buy much health either.
America has the mightiest military in the world, at least in terms of firepower and lethality. Definitely Numero Uno on that score. The United States spends more on its armed forces than the next twenty-five big military spenders combined, some say more than the rest of the world combined. America which, in effect, plunges deeper in debt by the day to pay for its military, now finds it the preferred instrument of its foreign policy.
Yet all the King's horses and all the King's men repeatedly have shown themselves unable to deliver meaningful victories in combat. In Iraq, Iran has emerged the winner and it didn't even have to fight American forces although that might change soon. In Afghanistan, a greatly outnumbered band of farmers equipped with Korean-vintage assault rifles, light machine guns and RPGs, has fought to a standstill a far larger force of highly-trained Western forces armed with the latest in high-tech, ultra-lethal small arms, artillery, tanks, drones, attack helicopters, strike fighter jets, even strategic bombers. They have stripped America of its perceived military invincibility, a cornerstone of its myth of exceptionalism.
Just don't expect American hyper-militarism to end anytime soon. Washington, seemingly indifferent to restoring American "can do" dynamism, is perversely attached to its perceived military prowess like a bodybuilder flexing his gigantic biceps in hope that no one in the crowd notices his steroid-shriveled testicles.
Andrew J. Bacevich, in one of his early books, American Empire, Harvard University Press 2002 at the very beginning of the Bush/Cheney "War on Terror" discussed the American addiction to military force and focused on our air campaign over Kosovo:
"...if Americans sensed vaguely that Kosovo had been a defining event, few placed it in its larger context. In fact U.S. involvement in a war for the Balkans marked the culmination of decade-long process in which U.S. foreign policy became increasingly militarized. As Madeleine Albright noted, it was incumbent upon 'the indispensable nation to see what we can do to make the world safer for our children and grandchildren, and for those people around the world who follow the rules.' Making a safe world required the use of force to ensure adherence to those rules. In pursuit of this requirement, actual U.S. military practice diverged ever further from published U.S. national security strategy and official U.S. military doctrine. Kosovo showed how wide the gap between policy and practice had become.
"The contradictions that enabled tiny Yugoslavia to frustrate the world's only superpower and its allies for so many weeks are rooted in changing American views about the role of military power. Contrary to the expectations expressed by George Bush following the Persian Gulf War, Bush's successor hesitated only briefly before concluding that mere possession of superior military power would not suffice to advance the cause of global openness. As a result, not force held in abeyance but force expended became a hallmark of U.S. policy in the 1990s. The two terms of President Bill Clinton produced an unprecedented level of military activism. A blue-ribbon commission appointed to assess future national security policy reported in 1999 that 'since the end of the Cold War, the United States has embarked upon nearly four dozen military interventions ...as opposed to only 16 during the entire period of the Cold War.'"
It's time we re-assessed our addictive notions of American exceptionalism to see it clearly in its stripped-down militarist context of the 21st century. America is no longer socially exceptional. In terms of societal outcomes - longevity, mental health, teen pregnancy, education, crime and incarceration, etc. - it's well down the list of superior countries.
It is no longer economically exceptional. While still the second-largest economy in the world, in terms of economic outcomes measured by balance of trade deficits, balance of payment deficits, public and private-sector debt, the loss of manufacturing base and the devastation of its once vibrant middle class plus its resulting dependence on foreign lenders, America is no longer economically exceptional.
But why should this matter to Canada? Because America has become something of a one-trick pony. It resorts to military force as its preferred instrument of foreign policy and it expects its traditional allies to sign on to its adventures. The F-35 stealth light bomber is an integral part of this thinking. It is how America's Foreign Legion will participate in America's future wars.
Today's America has become what Mark Twain warned of when he wrote, "To the man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail." We would do well to heed his advice.