How conservatives corrupted American exceptionalism.

In October, Mitt Romney delivered a speech at the Citadel in which he laid out his foreign policy views. “As president of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century. And I will never, ever apologize for America,” he pledged. “Some may ask, ‘Why America? Why should America be any different than scores of other countries around the globe?’ I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world.” The speech was hardly an unusual moment. Throughout this campaign, Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum have spoken in similarly strident tones about their belief in American exceptionalism.

Perhaps the first thing to say about this rhetoric is that there has been something deeply unappealing about it. For a presidential candidate to say “I will never, ever apologize for America” is flatly ridiculous. All humans and all countries err sometimes; how can Romney be so sure that the United States on his watch will never do anything worth apologizing for?

With such bombastic talk, it is hard to escape the suspicion that, for many contemporary Republicans, American exceptionalism is really a philosophy of not wanting to learn from the rest of the world, especially from European countries with bigger social safety nets. Of course, Republicans are free to argue the merits of health care or government regulation of the economy; but the mere fact that some of these ideas have been put into practice in Europe does not make them worthless. In fact, as Timothy Noah shows conclusively in this issue (see “The Mobility Myth”), Western Europe has lately been outperforming the United States in income mobility—even though the possibility for economic advancement has historically been one of the core values of American society.

Conservatives have also in recent years made a fuss about the use of foreign law by U.S. courts. They are horrified by the notion that American judges might look at decisions by their foreign counterparts in democratic countries to inform their interpretations of our own Constitution. But why should the idea of drawing on expertise from foreign judicial systems be so terrifying? We are not asking foreign judges to decide our cases. If there is some insight to be gleaned from looking elsewhere, what could be the harm in considering it?

In the end, the current Republican incarnation of American exceptionalism is actually rather isolationist in spirit. It is a bid to place Americans on a different plane from the rest of the world, a confidence that we have nothing to learn from others and that we can interact with them dismissively. It is ironic that Republicans, who have spent much of the past generation accusing Democrats of isolationism, have now arrived at a worldview that would, at some level, counsel Americans to shut themselves off from other countries.

And yet that does not mean there is nothing to be said on behalf of American exceptionalism. The core American ideals of freedom, opportunity, justice, and human rights were exceptional when America began putting them into practice. And, while they are—thankfully—no longer exceptional today, it is true that, because of our outsized power, we remain uniquely positioned to stand up for these ideals when they are under threat elsewhere in the world. For all the ugliness of Romney’s rhetoric on the subject, he does get one thing about American power right. “America,” he said in his Citadel speech, “must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.” To be sure, he seems not to appreciate that a pledge to “never, ever apologize” is not really compatible with good leadership; nevertheless, he is correct that American leadership is vastly preferable to leadership by China or Russia, both of which are implacably opposed to the cause of freedom.

On the question of American leadership in the world, President Obama’s record has been mixed. At the outset of his presidency, he badly overcorrected for the foreign policy arrogance of his predecessor. He appeared more concerned with conveying a sense of humility toward other governments than in standing up for human rights and democracy abroad. Lately, he has seemed more willing to assert American power, most notably in Libya. During the campaign to come, we hope he will counter Republican bluster about exceptionalism not with a diffident view of American global leadership, but with the argument that our exceptional power and our exceptional history obligate us to serve as advocates for certain ideals on the world stage.

This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.