The 20th was popularly and widely known as “The American Century” for a lot of reasons, some of which are embodied in something I wrote at the end of the last century in response to a request by a publication to characterize it in 50 words or less, as follows:
“They (the Americans) reluctantly assumed the mantle of world leadership; challenged and ultimately defeated the primary instruments of totalitarianism; exported the principles of democracy and human rights to regions where those concepts were unknown; and, for better or worse, initiated popular cultural hegemony over a major portion of the world’s population.”
But it’s a new century, and many, including our own citizens, believe we are in decline. Most point to economic factors. We are no longer the colossus of the mid-20th century in terms of economic dominance, which has recently been vividly demonstrated by the Swedish professor Hans Rosling in his fascinating portrayal of the convergence of world standards of living over the past two centuries. Other countries have dramatically closed the gap with us. Some would have us believe that this represents a loss of our vaunted exceptionalism.
But the American brand of exceptionalism is not measured in GDP; it’s about our values and about who we are. No nation has ever assimilated immigrants and foreign cultures as successfully as America; no other nation has been founded by a creed, particularly one which has been so severely tested over two centuries as America’s has; and no nation has so successfully embodied pluralism and tolerance in its strongly grounded religious culture. The rising economic powers and competitors cannot compete with America in these cultural foundations. These are the basis for American exceptionalism. It’s incumbent on us to select leaders who actually believe in it and won’t squander it.