The United States is the most powerful country on Earth today, and perhaps in human history. So much of US power comes from its size: it is one of the largest countries in the world by population and area, with a globe-spanning network of alliances and military bases. It is rich in natural resources and human capital. It is in many ways an island nation; because it faces no major threats on its borders. It is freer to project power globally.
It is practically unrecognisable from the way the country began — and, indeed, what many early Americans thought it would be: from an insular former colony to an international superpower. The story of how that came to be is long, fascinating, complex — and often misunderstood.
As Fareed Zakaria documents in his excellent book From Wealth to Power, the United States was the only country to emerge from the war in strong economic and military shape, and thus was in a unique position to shape the terms of the peace. Hashmi’s book, A Nation Imprisoned in Myths, is also an insightful ride through the history, nature and consequences of American Exceptionalism.
The book is divided into four parts, with an enlightening explanation of what entails exceptionalism.
What is exceptionalism? In recent history, other nations have claimed exceptionalism: whether the civilizing mission of Britain’s empire, the universal liberty, equality, and fraternity of the French Republic, or the Soviet Union’s proclaimed bastion of the global proletarian revolution. None have weathered history’s judgement especially well. There are other sources of claimed exceptionalism. For instance, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia base their claims on being the physical and spiritual homelands of particular faith traditions. China and India point to their role as the cradle of great civilisations. These claims of exceptionalism, too, don’t amount to much when measured against an objective yardstick.
The first part “A Focus on What Makes a Country Special and Exception” sheds light on what makes a nation truly great, the assessment of the greatest countries, and the standard and the wealth of the great nations. The second part, “The case of American Exceptionalism: the legacy” deals with American Nationalism and its history, how its values, constitution, and judicial systems differ from other countries. It also goes on to explain the myths and realities of American Exceptionalism, combined with the politics and timeline of its foreign policy.
The third part “The future of American Exceptionalism: a look further ahead” talks about the foreign policy, going forward, and how the changing social structure will restore its economy. The last part, “Conclusion: Is America exceptional… or a nation imprisoned in myths?” focuses on the need for a policeman, a statesman, who would keep intact the land of liberty and equality, land of democracy, principals of freedom and rule of law.
Continuing on the same tangent, Sada Cumber, Former US Ambassador to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), explains in the foreword, “The belief in inherent American Exceptionalism has convinced large segments of the electorate that issues such as the cratering of American manufacturing, shockingly high numbers of children without health coverage, or the disaster of our early Covid-19 response don’t matter. Or that we have nothing to learn from other nations in these areas. After all, ‘we are exceptional’.”
One wonders as to what is left of exceptionalism. Prolonged war in Vietnam and Afghanistan did enormous damage to those nations, and they were left to clean up the American mess. In the 1980s, the US walked away from citizen-focused dialogue, reducing public discourse to a screaming match between the left and right. Globally, they have given away manufacturing to the developing economies, given away innovation to Japan and Germany, and all they have left is the US dollar, which also seems to have lost its charm following recent fluctuation.
Various aspects of the US mentioned in the book also echo the narrative of ‘American greatness.’
Firstly, the US with its open embrace of immigrants is not unique, but it is commendable and remarkable. Moreover, how it allows – even expects – immigrants to succeed is close to unique. Next, when Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan was building the Taj Mahal in India, the land that was to become the US was building Harvard University. The country’s strong relationship with higher education has empowered their economy, military, scientific and cultural supremacy. Its universities and PhD programs open to students from around the world are second to none. This decision enabled the whole world, not merely one nation. Over the long term, the US track record of wealth creation and prosperity creation has been unparalleled, driven by capitalism and the private sector. Then, the US grip on the global financial system is unprecedented in human history, a truly exceptional feat. Moreover, US democracy – although it may have been compromised now and has been even more imperfect in the past – has endured for almost 250 years.
The argument runs: while other countries have transitioned to and from fascism, communism and other forms of authoritarianism, America has stood tall, despite the odds.