The Exception to American Exceptionalism

by Derrick G. Jeter

He’s done it again.
Probably not since John Adams appeared before George III on June 1, 1785—a time before Americans had settled on the appropriate use of titles and protocols before monarchs—and presented to the king three deep-wasted bows, has such a high ranking American official genuflected before royalty the way Barack Obama has before the Saudi King (April 2, 2009) and the Japanese Emperor (November 14, 2009). Every administration, from George Washington’s on down, has struggled with the proper protocol before king, queens, emperors, and potentates. In 1994 President Clinton committed a minor faux pas when he nodded his head and inclined his shoulders forward at a White House reception for Emperor Akihito. At the time, the chief of protocol, Molly Raiser said, “It was not a bow-bow, if you know what I mean.”1 I guess Douglas Jehl, of the New York Times, didn’t know what she meant, for he acidly concluded: “Canadians still bow to England’s Queen; so do Australians. Americans shake hands. If not to stand eye-to-eye with royalty, what else were 1776 and all that about?”2
That’s a good question.
Obviously, we don’t want the American President to be unnecessarily rude to any head of state, especially with allied heads of state, but Obama could have greeted the Japanese Emperor with a polite nod of the head and a handshake. One gets the impression, however, that his bowing is more than a sign of respect; its a sign of deference—of announcing that America, if not inferior, is at least no better than other sovereign powers. In other words, there is an exception to American exceptionalism; an exception that American is unique among the “family of nations.” When President Obama was in Strasbourg, France, on what some called “The Apology Tour,” he was asked about American exceptionalism. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” Obama answered.3 But as James Kirchick rightly points out, “This is impossible. If all countries are ‘exceptional,’ then none are, and to claim otherwise robs the word, and the idea of American exceptionalism, of any meaning.”4 In Obama’s America we are simply part of the smorgasbord in the salad bar of world powers—we are no better and (one hopes) we are no worse.
It hasn’t always been this way. Frankly, it’s never been this way.
American exceptionalism was first discussed at length by Alexis de Tocqueville in his masterwork, Democracy in America. Tocqueville identified four characteristic of America that made her peerless: liberty, egalitarianism (the idea that all citizens have equal rights), individualism (that is, independent or self-sufficient), and laissez-faire (the notion that the free market should work without interference from the government). Many of these characteristic have increasingly come under attack by an ever bloating government and an ever yapping public for more entitlements, especially since the turn of the 20th century, but these ideas were so distinctly different than what the Frenchman Tocqueville knew in Europe or in history that he concluded: “The situation of the Americans is . . . entirely exceptional, and it is to be believed that no [other] democratic people will ever be placed in it.”5 America was not formed around the love of a homeland (place) nor on ethnicity (people) but on ideas (principles). These ideas found their most eloquent expression in the Declaration of Independence. No other nation on the face of the earth had ever articulated such sweeping principles, and then back them up with blood. This is why Abraham Lincoln could proclaim in the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”6
Yet, ironically enough, the first black president while on his travels to Europe proudly apologies for American exceptionalism: “In America, there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.”7
“Arrogance . . . dismissive . . . derisive”—no other president in the history of the United States have ever used such words to describe the country he has led. Where was our arrogance, our dismissiveness, or our derisiveness when Europe turn to America for aid in World War I and World War II? Did Europe know something then that we’ve forgotten today—that America was exceptional and the only country who could have saved them from despotism? Perhaps our President has forgotten, or never knew, what these two worthy Englishmen had known about American exceptionalism:
“America is the only nation that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.”8
–G. K. Chesterton
“The Declaration of Independence is not only an American document. It follows on Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights as the third great title-deed on which the liberties of the English-speaking people are founded. By it we lost an Empire, but by it we also preserved an Empire.”9
–Winston Churchill
“The action of the United States will be dictated, not by methodical calculation of profit and loss, but by moral sentiment, and by that gleaming flash of resolve which lifts the hearts of men and nations, and springs from the spiritual foundations of human life itself. . . . Westward, look, the land is bright!”10
–Winston Churchill
Did you notice in Chesterton’s and Churchill’s words what Barack Obama fails to see? American is the “only nation founded on a creed.” The ideas of the Declaration of Independence “preserved” the British Empire. America “lifts the hearts of men and nations and its land is bright.” Too bad the American President is so blind to what others so clearly see—American is exceptional and has no reasons to bow to self-inflated potentates.
1. Douglas Jehl, “The President’s Inclination: No, It Wasn’t a Bow-Bow,” The New York Times, June 19, 1994, (accessed November 19, 2009).
2. Jehl, “The President’s Inclination: No, It Wasn’t a Bow-Bow.”
3. James Kirchick, “Squanderer in Chief,” Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2009), (accessed November 19, 2009).
4. Kirchick, “Squanderer in Chief.”
5. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 430.
6. Abraham Lincoln, “Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg,” November 19, 1863, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 7, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 23.
7. Barack Obama, “Remarks at Strasbourg Town Hall,” April 3, 2009, Strasbourg, France, (accessed November 19, 2009).
8. G. K. Chesterton, “What I Saw in America,” in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, vol. 21 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 41.
9. Winston S. Churchill, “Liberty Day Meeting,” July 4, 1918, in Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, ed. Richard Langworth (New York: PublicAffiars, 2008), 128.
10. Winston S. Churchill, radio broadcast, April 27, 1941, in Churchill By Himself, 131.