To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them. Charles de Montesquieu
The rhetoric of the on-going campaigns underscores the unwritten rule that to be elected President of the US you have to endorse “American Exceptionalism.”
If you’re not a student of IR or Poli Sci you may be wondering what that is.
US Exceptionalism is the prevailing belief that we’re the single greatest nation–past or present–and that our country was endowed by God to lead the free world.
That is right, the US was ‘called’ to forever more be a shining beacon of leadership and morality for the other 192 countries recognized as members’ states of the United Nations (as of 2011).
To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with having a healthy national-esteem. There’s also nothing wrong with recognizing and celebrating our achievements.
And yet, US Exceptionalism borders on being a pathology.
It is killing us.
Instead of looking for the best medical specialists possible to help us to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment for our maladies, we’re in denial that we’re ill, even though the symptoms are there.
If you’ve seen the viral clip from HBO’s The Newsroom, you’ll know that there are many reasons why US Exceptionalism is a myth.
While the series is being tongue in cheek, several of the statistics as well as the overall point is salient.
If you look at all the major measurements of ‘success’ and well-being, the United States is increasingly slipping behind.
Don’t believe me? Let’s review the facts.
Peace and Development
One commonly held explanation for our greatness is that we’re ‘developed.’
Yet, according to the CIA World Fact Book that tracks instances of maternal mortality, a leading measure of a country’s service delivery, the US is ranked 136 out of the 183 countries assessed.
There are over 47 countries that do a better job of making sure pregnant women don’t die giving birth, including Hungary, Puerto Rico, Bahrain, Turkey, Luxembourg, Croatia, and South Korea who are ranked directly above us.
It’s not just on maternal health that we’re bad off; we’re ranked 4th in Human Development according to the 2011 Human Development Report. This report is synonymous with measures of a country’s overall quality of life.
We’re 88th of 158 countries, according to the 2012 Global Peace Index (GPI). The GPI measures a country’s level of peacefulness and tests a range of potential “drivers” or determinants of peace—including levels of democracy and transparency, education and material well-being.
Measuring peace may sound hooky to you, but it’s serious research and draws upon the latest available figures from a wide range of respected sources, including the International Institute of Strategic Studies, The World Bank, various UN entities, Peace Institutes and the Economist Intelligence Unit.
How about justice?
The United States ranks number one in the world for the number of people incarcerated per capita and our level of incarcerations is only increasing.
All you have to do is look at the work of the Innocence Project to know that the American justice system is flawed.
We’re not just in dire straits at home.
We’ve also staunchly refused to sign the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is the FIRST permanent, treaty-based, international criminal court established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.
Our refusal to ‘play ball’ flouts the rules created to prevent the most egregious crimes–genocide and systematic rape being prominent examples.
Still, there are those, like the Heritage Foundation, that argue that the US shouldn’t join the ICC because of the potential constraints it would pose on US interests and/or our national sovereignty.
Yes, national sovereignty is important, but so is setting common norms.
You can think of the international community as being the school yard playground and all the countries in the world as your fellow students. The ICC is like the teacher. If Timmy throws a rock at you and so does Justin, would you want Timmy to be held exempt?
Even the Good Book says: “Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.” (Proverbs 16:19)
Similarly, there are those who argue that we shouldn’t beholden to the same standards as other ‘students’ because we’re such a force for good in the world.
But it’s absurd and grossly historically inaccurate to suggest that the United States has never been wrong or wronged anyone–whether internally or internationally. Checks and balances are important.
Our founding fathers knew this.
A final rational is that by not joining the ICC, it allows us to be ‘neutral.’
It’s worth quoting Bishop Desmond Tutu to address this claim: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Let’s talk about education. Public Schools are our thing! We know that it takes an educated population for democracies to work and economies to thrive. And yet, we keep moving down in international rankings!
American students scored 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries.
Instead of learning from our peers, the ethos of Exceptionalism encourages us to ignore the accomplishments of the 22 countries that are beating us out.
The Challenges Exceptionalism Creates
America’s Exceptionalism is our Achilles’ heel.
If you’ve ever read Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you’d know that timely adaptation is KEY to success.
Yet, the world around us is changing around us, but we’re not paying attention, because we’re too busy singing our own praises to adapt, anticipate further changes and plan accordingly.
Our success and security in the next fifty years will require unprecedented levels of cooperation: stalwart intelligence gathering, development and greater inclusion of the marginalized in decision-making nationally and internationally.
That is why I took great exception to Condoleeza Rice’s recent assertion that the United States “cannot lead from behind.”
Here is the only line from Condoleezza Rice’s RNC Convention speech that I feel is accurate: “Today, today, when I can look at your zip code and I can tell whether you’re going to get a good education, can I honestly say it does not matter where you came from, it matters where you are going? The crisis in K-12 education is a threat to the very fabric of who we are.”
Her comments reflect another disconcerting trend that is affecting our economy, which is struggling to pick-up momentum.
The World Economic Forum’s 2012- 2013 Global Competitiveness Report, which has studied and benchmarked the many factors underpinning national competitiveness, ranks the US economy 7th out of 144 economies.
Yes, you can cite the recession, or blame Bush and Obama, but how did the recession begin? There is a sequence of factors at work here that Why Nation Fails aptly explains. The book is written by two leading economic professors, one from Harvard and one from MIT.
It argues that for countries to grow economically they have to have strong institutions. You may be thinking, “but we have those here!”
We do, but the catch is these institutions need to be INCLUSIVE not extractive. Inclusive institutions help level the playing field. Extractive institutions forsake the public good to appease and increase the concentrated interests of the wealthy and influential.
As one of the authors’ states: “‘The real problem is that economic inequality, when it becomes this large, translates into political inequality.’ When one person can write a check to finance your whole campaign, how inclusive will you be as an elected official to listen to competing voices?”
I’m Not Just Complaining, I Have Ideas
So you see, our problems are interrelated, but so are our solutions.
If you know me you’ll know that I think Stephen R. Covey is a genius.
One of the things that he says is that: “Reactive people are driven by feelings, by circumstances, by conditions, by their environment. Proactive people are driven by values—carefully thought about, selected, and internalized values.”
His quote holds true for people and countries.
I believe that truth is a fractal. It applies at all scales — for individuals, communities, countries and the world.
So how do we redefine what truly makes the US great?
There are those who say it’s our diversity, or our military might, but if you ask people overseas what they admire most about our country, you’ll hear things like our Declaration of Independence, our Civil Rights Movement, Steve Jobs and all things Apple, and of course all things Hollywood and Disney.
What these things all have in common are the true drivers of our excellence: innovation and inspiration.
So, it’s not that America can ‘make’ things, as has been the common refrain during the election cycle, but that we ‘CREATE’ things.
These are hallmarks of the American opportunity, which makes us tough to beat.
So, how do we steer ourselves back on course?
Our remedy lays in a little dose of reality, and a heavy bitter pill of humility. We need to read the writing on the wall – our society, our economy, our self-conception is unwell.
Redefining our greatness will mean renewing our commitment to creating the systemic conditions for everyone to succeed—so more and more people can participate in our success story.
That’s not exceptional, it’s laudable.