Is American Exceptionalism Justified?

"My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different,but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal." Russian President Vladimir Putin's Op Ed in New York Times

Clearly, Mr. Putin does not like the fact that the United States considers itself exceptional. But what does "exceptional" mean?

To me,  "exceptional" is just another word for "special". I don't know of any nation that doesn't think they are special in some way and they use it to whip up their own brand of nationalism.

In the case of  United States, however, there are genuine reasons based on rational data and facts that establish US as "special" in multiple dimensions.  The US is a multi-dimensional hyper-power the likes of which the world has not seen.

The current world order and its institutional framework were architected by post-WW II American leaders. Establishment of international institutions like the United Nations and its multiple agencies, the World Bank, IMF, GATT and WTO was spearheaded by Americans.

Not only is the US the biggest military power many times larger than number two Russia, the US dollar is the world's unchallenged currency which is used for the bulk of international trade and as reserve currency by central banks around the globe. The US is the world's largest economy and the biggest trading partner of most of the countries of the world. The US also boasts the world's top entrepreneurs, most innovative companies and bulk of the top universities with the lion's share of Nobel prizes. The US leadership in wide range of technologies and industries is unquestionable. And the US lead is growing, not shrinking with new developments.

In spite of its great technological advances, the US still retains many vestiges of its Wild West.  With its powerful gun-rights advocates in many western,  mid-western and southern states, the US is still a gun-slinging frontier society in many ways which makes it jealously guard its exceptional status in the world.

The US seeks to avoid the fate of other great empires of the past which were brought down by barbarians and desert tribesmen over the centuries.

Here's a excerpt of a piece by NY Times Nobel Laureate economist-columnist on Ibn Khaldun's lessons for established powers: "Desert tribesmen, he argued, always have more courage and social cohesion than settled, civilized folk, so every once in a while they will sweep in and conquer lands whose rulers have become corrupt and complacent. They create a new dynasty — and, over time, become corrupt and complacent themselves, ready to be overrun by a new set of barbarians...I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to apply this story to Microsoft, a company that did so well with its operating-system monopoly that it lost focus, while Apple — still wandering in the wilderness after all those years — was alert to new opportunities. And so the barbarians swept in from the desert".

US intelligence analyst and author George Friedman in his book "The Next 100 Years" describes the United States as "young and barbaric" with the barbarian instincts to fight off most threats, including those from the rag-tag bands of  tribesmen and barbarians who have toppled great empires of the past like the Roman empire, the Byzantine empire, the Persian empires, the Umayyid empire, the Abbasid empire and the Soviet empire.

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

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Godfather Metaphor for Uncle Sam

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Comment by Riaz Haq on September 14, 2013 at 10:31pm

Syria ’s Assad May Be Losing Control Over His Deadly Militias.. rise of Shabiha with chem weapons?

One regime official tells TIME that what bothers him most about the long-term prognosis for Syrian stability is not the collapse of the regime, but the rise of Assad’s militias, commonly referred to as shabiha. Says the official: “After this crisis, there will be a 1,000 more crises — the militia leaders. Two years ago they went from nobody to somebody with guns and power. How can we tell these shabiha to go back to being a nobody again?”

Comment by Riaz Haq on September 17, 2013 at 8:30pm

Here's a NY Times story on chemical weapons used in Syria:

Details buried in the United Nations report on the Syrian chemical weapons attack point directly at elite military formations loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, some of the strongest findings to date that suggest the government gassed its own people.

The inspectors, instructed to investigate the attack but not to assign blame, nonetheless listed the precise compass directions of flight for two rocket strikes that appeared to lead back to the government’s elite redoubt in Damascus, Mount Qasioun, which overlooks and protects Mr. Assad’s presidential palace and where his Republican Guard and the army’s powerful Fourth Division are entrenched.

“It is the center of gravity of the regime,” said Elias Hanna, a retired general in the Lebanese Army and a lecturer on strategy and geopolitics at the American University of Beirut. “It is the core of the regime.”

In presenting the data concerning two rocket strikes — the significance of which was not commented upon by the United Nations itself — the report provides a stronger indication than the public statements to date of intelligence services of the United States, France or Britain that the Syrian military not only carried out the attack, but apparently did so brazenly, firing from the same ridges from which it has been firing barrages of high-explosive conventional munitions for much of the war.

Looming over a tense capital and outlying neighborhoods bristling with anger and fear, Mount Qasioun is Damascus’s most prominent military position. It is also a complex inseparably linked to the Assad family’s rule, a network of compounds and positions occupied by elite units led by members of the president’s inner circle and clan.

The units based on the mountain are “as close to the Assad regime as it’s going to get,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Mr. Hokayem added that theories that the chemicals had been launched by a rebel mole seeking to discredit the government were unlikely because of the solidity and tight control of those units.

Mr. Assad’s government and its ally Russia have continued to claim publicly that Syrian rebels were responsible for the attacks, which killed hundreds of people, many of them children, in the most lethal chemical warfare attack in decades. But the United Nations data, if accurate, would undercut that claim and appear to erase some of the remaining ambiguity.

Rebel forces have never penetrated the major military installations of Mount Qasioun. In tactical and technical terms, they would almost certainly have been unable to organize and fire sustained and complex barrages of rockets from there undetected.
Speaking on Tuesday in New York, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, took pains not to express publicly any conclusions about culpability that could be drawn from the report, noting that assigning blame was explicitly beyond the United Nations’ mandate.

The investigators’ mission, Mr. Ban noted, “is to find out facts and whether or not chemical weapons were used; if used, to what extent.”

“It is,” he added, “for others to decide whether to pursue this matter further to determine responsibility and accountability.”

Pressed later about whether he thought those responsible should be referred to the International Criminal Court, Mr. Ban was unequivocal. “The international community is firm and I am firm that any perpetrators who have used these chemical weapons under any circumstances under any pretext must be brought to justice,” he said.

Comment by Riaz Haq on September 19, 2013 at 4:58pm

Here's Sen John McCain's response to Putin as reported by Reuters:

Senator John McCain accused Vladimir Putin on Thursday of allying himself with tyrants and ruling through violence and repression, in a retort to a New York Times editorial by the Russian President earlier this month.


"(Putin) is not enhancing Russia's global reputation. He is destroying it. He has made her a friend to tyrants and an enemy to the oppressed, and untrusted by nations that seek to build a safer, more peaceful and prosperous world," wrote the senior senator from Arizona, who is also a leading Republican voice on military affairs. considers itself a successor to the Soviet-era Communist Party newspaper but is not connected to it. Like the newspaper, which still exists, it has a limited readership.

U.S.-Russia ties are at one of their lowest points since the Cold War. Tensions over the Syrian conflict have been compounded by differences over human rights and the fate of fugitive ex-U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, to whom Russia awarded asylum.

Putin's op-ed article said a military strike against Assad could escalate a conflict that has already killed more than 100,000 people.

Russia, a longtime ally of Assad, sees the rebels as the chief instigator of civil war in Syria. It has blocked three U.N. resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end violence, but is involved in talks on a plan enabling the Syrian leader to give up his chemical weapons to avoid possible U.S. military strikes.

Putin, speaking to a gathering of the Valdai Club of journalists, social scientists and public figures, said he regretted that MacCain had not taken up an invitation to the meeting. The Senator's positions, he said, were largely a product of ignorance.

"It all speaks of the fact that MacCain has a deficit of information about Russia," Putin said. "The more we speak to each other directly, the better it will be."


McCain, who is known in Russia as one of the Kremlin's harshest critics, warned Putin in 2011 that "the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you" when fraud allegations triggered mass street protests after a parliamentary election.

The senator has been critical of Putin's domestic policies, including Moscow's response to the protest movement that has all but died out after Russia's parliament passed laws that critics say are intended to clamp down on dissent.

"President Putin and his associates ... don't respect your dignity or accept your authority over them. They punish dissent and imprison opponents. They rig your elections. They control your media," McCain wrote.

"To perpetuate their power they foster rampant corruption in your courts and your economy and terrorize and even assassinate journalists who try to expose their corruption."

After Russia gave asylum to Snowden, who is wanted by U.S. authorities, McCain said Washington should complete missile-defense programs in Europe and expand NATO to include Russian neighbor Georgia - both endeavors that are anathema to Moscow.

McCain made reference to anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in pre-trial detention after accusing officials of a $230-million fraud, and mentioned recently passed laws criticized in the West for being anti-gay.

He also said that the members of the protest punk band Pussy Riot, two of whom are serving time behind bars for a protest against Putin in a Moscow cathedral, had been convicted on political grounds.

"They write laws to codify bigotry against people whose sexual orientation they condemn. They throw the members of a punk rock band in jail for the crime of being provocative and vulgar and for having the audacity to protest President Putin's rule," he said.

Comment by Riaz Haq on October 19, 2013 at 10:47am

Here's a Washington Post Op Ed challenging those talking about US decline:

predicting the decline of the United States has always been risky business. In the 1970s and late 1980s, expectations of waning power were followed by periods of geopolitical resurgence.

There’s every reason to believe that cycle is recurring today. Despite gridlock in Washington, America is recovering from the financial crisis and combining enduring strengths with new sources of influence, including energy. Meanwhile, emerging powers are running into troubles of their own. Taken together, these developments are ushering in a new era of American strategic advantage.

Emerging economies were the darlings of the past decade, growing at an average of roughly 7 percent annually between 2003 and 2012. By some calculations, China was poised to surpass the United States in GDP by 2016.

Today, the picture couldn’t look more different. Brazil’s growth rate has fallen from more than 7 percent in 2010 to just under 1 percent. Likewise, Indian growth tumbled to about 3 percent in 2012, down from double digits as recently as two years earlier. Perhaps most pronounced, China’s government is revising down its official growth targets. Analysts are no longer asking whether there will be a Chinese economic slowdown but rather how hard the landing will be.

Morgan Stanley has identified five particularly fragile emerging-market currencies: Brazil’s real, India’s rupee, Indonesia’s rupiah, South Africa’s rand and Turkey’s lira. Those countries are vulnerable to high inflation, large deficits, low growth and a downturn in China. And they may soon face problems in international financing.

The political systems in emerging powers are fraying, too. There have been huge protests in Brazil over wasteful government spending and inadequate social programs. Russia looks more authoritarian by the day. And the Chinese Communist Party is stepping up efforts to crack down on journalists, academics and bloggers in what seems to be an attempt to control the discontent that accompanies slower growth and painful economic reforms.

These “rising powers” are hardly faring better collectively. The international institutions they established — BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and IBSA — continue to disappoint.

At the same time, the United States is experiencing a turnaround of fortunes. The unemployment rate has fallen to just over 7 percent from an October 2009 peak of 10 percent. By contrast, euro-zone unemployment remains stuck at around 12 percent.
The United States also remains the linchpin of the international community. Through hard-nosed diplomacy, economic pressure and the specter of military action, Washington has retained its ability to marshal effective multinational coalitions, bringing down Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, getting weapons inspectors on the ground in Syria and embarking on serious negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program. You can quibble with process and style, but it’s hard to argue that any of these would have happened without the United States.

More broadly, and most important, the United States is blessed with a superior combination of sound fundamentals in demography, geography, higher education and innovation. That ensures it has the people, ideas and security to thrive at home and on the world stage. There’s a reason elites around the world remain eager to send their fortunes, and often their families, to the United States.

Comment by Riaz Haq on October 19, 2013 at 10:47pm

America's $17 trillion national debt is all denominated in US currency and two-thirds of it is domestic.

Comment by Riaz Haq on October 28, 2013 at 8:41am

Here's an excerpt of an article on US $ establishment as reserve currency in 1944:

In July 1944, delegates from 44 nations met at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire – the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference – and agreed to “peg” their currencies to the U.S. dollar, the only currency strong enough to meet the rising demands for international currency transactions.

Member nations were required to establish a parity of their national currencies in terms of the US dollar, the "peg", and to maintain exchange rates within plus or minus one percent of parity, the "band."

What made the dollar so attractive to use as an international currency was each US dollar was based on 1/35th of an ounce of gold, and the gold was to held in the US Treasury. The value of gold being fixed by law at 35 US dollars an ounce made the value of each dollar very stable.

The US dollar, at the time, was considered better then gold for many reasons:

The strength of the U.S. economy
The fixed relationship of the dollar to gold at $35 an ounce
The commitment of the U.S. government to convert dollars into gold at that price
The dollar earned interest
The dollar was more flexible than gold
There’s a lesson not learned that reverberates throughout monetary history; when government, any government, comes under financial pressure they cannot resist printing money and debasing their currency to pay for debts.

Let's fast forward a few decades…

The Vietnam War was going to cost the US $500 Billion. The stark reality was the US simply could not print enough money to cover its war costs, it’s gold reserve had only $30 billion, most of its reserve was already backing existing US dollars, and the government refused to raise taxes.

In the 1960s President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration declared war on poverty and put in place its Great Society programs:

Head Start
Job Corps
Food stamps
Funded education
Job training
Direct food assistance
Direct medical assistance
More than four million new recipients signed up for welfare.

Comment by Riaz Haq on October 28, 2013 at 10:29pm

Here's NPR Science Friday intro to Craign Venter's "Life at the Speed of Light" about accelerating evolution:

In his new book Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, Craig Venter writes of the brave new world synthetic biology may some day deliver: from consumer devices that print out the latest flu vaccine to instruments on Mars landers that analyze Martian DNA and teleport it back to Earth to be studied—or recreated.

Comment by Riaz Haq on November 6, 2013 at 11:01pm

Legitimizing of double standards is the West's idea of the "new liberal imperialism" in post-modern world as proposed by British diplomat Robert cooper....It's ok to play by different rules in developing world than at home.

Comment by Riaz Haq on April 2, 2014 at 9:58am

Here's a NY Times Op Ed by a former Afghan Jihadi on "foreign fighters" in Syria:

The numbers certainly demand our attention. Of an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters in Syria, as many as 2,000 are said to be European nationals, as well as some 100 Australian citizens and several dozen American passport holders, according to published sources. While some are fighting alongside “moderate” rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army, most have reportedly joined the ranks of the militant Jabhet al-Nusra and the formerly Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

I know the mentality of these nationless combatants. I fought beside them.

As a teenage Afghan refugee living in Pakistan in the 1980s, I joined the anti-Soviet resistance. I took up arms in a cause we called jihad, or holy war — but one focused on liberating our homeland, not exporting an ideology. War came to us through Soviet invasion: We hated it, and we wanted to live through it to see a free Afghanistan at peace.

Pitting a small, impoverished Muslim nation against an infidel invader, Afghanistan’s conflict attracted up to 20,000 foreign fighters in the 1980s, the largest contingent drawn to any Muslim country in modern history. Made up mostly of Saudis and Pakistanis, the army of volunteers also included Egyptians, Tunisians and Indonesians, among others.

Make no mistake: The Afghan mujahedeen, equipped with Western arms, won that war. International volunteers played a marginal role in sealing our victory, their numbers notwithstanding.
With an estimated 1,500 groups fighting in Syria, the conflict is clearly far more complex than the Afghan war. Europeans and Americans of Syrian heritage are fighting to liberate their homeland from the murderous Assad regime. Sunnis from Saudi Arabia and Libya have been drawn by their solidarity with coreligionists.
The build up to intervening in Syria is all too similar to the run up to Iraq in 2003. Farivar underestimates foreign fighters by some 6,000...
In an attempt to understand the foreign fighters, some Western experts have crafted caricatures — the revenge-seeker, the status-seeker, the identity-seeker and so on — but the legion of fighters with varied and often overlapping motives defy easy stereotypes. As the scholar Thomas Hegghammer observed: “In reality, most foreign fighters never engaged in out-of-area operations, but fought in one combat zone at the time.”
In Afghanistan, hundreds of veterans stayed behind and followed in Osama bin Laden’s footsteps to later infamy. Others, gripped by religious fervor and martial wanderlust, went on to cause mayhem in places like Algeria and Egypt during the 1990s.

But not all did, of course. For some, their adventure concluded, quiet civilian lives beckoned. I befriended a young Arab-American from New York who was happy to be heading home at the end of the war. A Harvard-educated British convert I knew went on to become a distinguished war correspondent. I, too, became a writer and journalist. You might say that in the end, we were more closely allied in peace than we had been in war.

Comment by Riaz Haq on April 14, 2015 at 3:40pm

Coming to Terms With the American Empire

World War II and the Birth of an Empire

The United States became an empire in 1945. It is true that in the Spanish-American War, the United States intentionally took control of the Philippines and Cuba. It is also true that it began thinking of itself as an empire, but it really was not. Cuba and the Philippines were the fantasy of empire, and this illusion dissolved during World War I, the subsequent period of isolationism and the Great Depression.

The genuine American empire that emerged thereafter was a byproduct of other events. There was no great conspiracy. In some ways, the circumstances of its creation made it more powerful. The dynamic of World War II led to the collapse of the European Peninsula and its occupation by the Soviets and the Americans. The same dynamic led to the occupation of Japan and its direct governance by the United States as a de facto colony, with Gen. Douglas MacArthur as viceroy.

The United States found itself with an extraordinary empire, which it also intended to abandon. This was a genuine wish and not mere propaganda. First, the United States was the first anti-imperial project in modernity. It opposed empire in principle. More important, this empire was a drain on American resources and not a source of wealth. World War II had shattered both Japan and Western Europe. The United States gained little or no economic advantage in holding on to these countries. Finally, the United States ended World War II largely untouched by war and as perhaps one of the few countries that profited from it. The money was to be made in the United States, not in the empire. The troops and the generals wanted to go home.


The geography of the American empire was built partly on military relations but heavily on economic relations. At first these economic relations were fairly trivial to American business. But as the system matured, the value of investments soared along with the importance of imports, exports and labor markets. As in any genuinely successful empire, it did not begin with a grand design or even a dream of one. Strategic necessity created an economic reality in country after country until certain major industries became dependent on at least some countries. The obvious examples were Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, whose oil fueled American oil companies, and which therefore — quite apart from conventional strategic importance — became economically important. This eventually made them strategically important.

It is true that the United States did not genuinely intend to be an empire. It is also true that its intentions do not matter one way or another. Circumstance, history and geopolitics have created an entity that, if it isn't an empire, certainly looks like one. Empires can be far from oppressive. The Persians were quite liberal in their outlook. The American ideology and the American reality are not inherently incompatible. But two things must be faced: First, the United States cannot give away the power it has. There is no practical way to do that. Second, given the vastness of that power, it will be involved in conflicts whether it wants to or not. Empires are frequently feared, sometimes respected, but never loved by the rest of the world. And pretending that you aren't an empire does not fool anyone.

The current balancing act in the Middle East represents a fundamental rebalancing of American strategy. It is still clumsy and poorly thought out, but it is happening. And for the rest of the world, the idea that the Americans are coming will become more and more rare. The United States will not intervene. It will manage the situation, sometimes to the benefit of one country and sometimes to another.


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