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POV: What’s So Exceptional about America?

We lead the world in unenviable ways


In the international community, there has been a dramatic increase in talk of American exceptionalism in intellectual circles. President Obama reiterated his belief in it during his September speech at the United Nations. The idea is not a recent phenomenon. Long before the post-World War II recognition worldwide that the United States had the strongest military and economy, the Founding Fathers believed theirs would not be just a nation among all nations, but a fundamentally distinguished nation.

This Thanksgiving week, as Americans focus on their blessings, the fact that people around the world increasingly question American exceptionalism may be sufficient to suggest its progressive downfall.

There seems to be a critical point that is almost always neglected or simply unnoticed. The word “exceptional” can be used in two different ways. On the one hand, American exceptionalism can mean that America is different, even unique, compared with other countries. On the other hand, it can be understood as American superiority over other countries, that somehow America is better. Almost all previous discussions of American exceptionalism have centered on the idea that America is superior to other nations. While there are certainly many benefits the United States can claim militarily, economically, and technologically, it may actually be falling behind other countries because of its supposed excellence.

First, in terms of military expenditure, spending more on the military does not make America any better than other countries, and could even be seen as a bad investment. According to a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, US military expenditure in 2012, at a shocking $682 billion, was higher than that of the next 11 countries combined, with China following at only $166 billion. The prodigious military budget also explains another exception: the United States has the world’s largest network of military bases overseas, with more than 700. As US military bases drastically increased after World War II, so too did military and CIA interventions. From the Korean War to the most recent Iraq war, the United States has engaged in countless overt and covert military campaigns, including continuous drone warfare in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan.

Of course, the United States was also the first country in the world to acquire nuclear weapons. Although many other countries followed with the acquisition of their own nuclear weapons, America to this day is exceptional in that it holds the title of the only country to have actually used a nuke. When weapons are developed, therefore, they will be used. As more money flows into the military, more weaponry will be developed and utilized, resulting in more wars and an increase in young American lives lost in distant lands.

American exceptionalism does not end with military prowess, however. Another issue worth mentioning is the US world standing in income inequality. Although the United States is the richest country in the world in terms of GDP, distribution of that wealth is by far one of the worst around the globe. According to data compiled by the Global Post using the Gini Index—the most commonly used metric to gauge a society’s income inequality—the United States has a higher degree of inequality than almost any other developed country. Among 34 nations, ranked equal to unequal, the United States was 32nd. Despite the significance of such an economic disparity, it seems all too often ignored here. Yale economist and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller says that “rising economic inequality in the United States…is the most important problem.” Because of economic inequality, poor social welfare services have also become a national concern.

Furthermore, recent revelations of illegal government surveillance of US citizens and 35 world leaders on a massive scale have only fueled the growing concern about American power exploitation. The misuse of the word exceptionalism as  superiority seems to have prevailed again. Indeed, although America may be superior in areas like military power, national wealth, and spyware technology, that does not necessarily mean that America is better than other nations. Instead, where superiority actually exists, America seems only to be exploiting its power.

Attributing the skewed definition of exceptionalism to a particular country serves only to create further complications. Perhaps Obama—in his first overseas trip after winning the presidency—was right when he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” There is some truth to that.

Numan Aksoy (CAS’16) can be reached at nuaksoy@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


13 Comments on POV: What’s So Exceptional about America?

  • James Madison on 11.25.2013 at 6:08 am

    America is still exceptional because the founders had the good sense to look at all the systems of government in the world and concluded that a representative constitutional republic was far better at protecting individual liberal than was democracy. Our declaration of independence and bill of rights reflects the founders respect for the laws of nature and man’s natural rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of right to life is not only given lip service but ensured by the second amendment which allows Americans to defend their own life and when necessary form a militia with their brethren to defend their homeland form all forms or tyranny foreign and domestic. These fundamental rights can also not be taken away by our government without due process of law.

    The author thinks American exceptionalism should not be measured entirely by her being the bastion of liberty but rather by her failure to provide income equality as if this is a fundamental human right. The right to life, liberty and the “pursuit” of happiness are recognized in the declaration of independence because the founders understood, as should we, that while all men are created equal and have the right to pursue their dreams all men will not rise to the same level. Exceptional men will create more wealth than less fortunate men and in doing so raise others from poverty. No business can survive without a customer base and there is no business model wherein destroying your customer base by failing to pay your potential customers a living wage is successful. There is also no economic system known to man that permits entrepreneurs the chance to prosper and produce better than free market capitalism. But today we do not have free market capitalism per se rather what we have is crony capitalism fueled by government regulations that benefit big business monopolies at the expense of small business and competition. The military industrial complex exists to expand the turf of these same big businesses.

    As for our military largess, once again we can look to the military industrial complex and the incestuous relationship between the banking cartel that is the federal reserve and an entrench congress comprised of career politicians who that have been running perpetual wars without an official congressional declaration of war since WWII. No longer do our representatives in congress have to bear the burden of turning to we the people to ask us to fund wars by purchasing war bonds instead congress just goes to banks and borrows the money. This behavior has insidiously eroded liberty by making the USA a debtor nation while at the same time causing other nations to view us as oppressive and meddling.

    SInce the days of Eisenhower thanks in part to the military industrial complex and our own apathy the USA has insidiously lost her way. The way back will not be easy but we can do it if Americans can accept the fact that without exception liberty is more valuable than anything other asset. Our constitution still compels our elected officials to behave in our best interest and their oath of office compels them to uphold and defend the constitution.

    It is not the purview of government to tell us how to live our lives. On the contrary we the people do have the right to a government that does not ruin our lives and that of our progeny.

    It is time we the people made sure that our representatives put we the people ahead of their allegiance to the military industrial complex.

  • Jeremy Milner '84 on 11.25.2013 at 11:22 am

    Typical “America Sucks” POV by a child of BU. If it is so bad here Numan, please relocate to those utopia’s of equality, such as Cuba or N. Korea. That way you can participate in a society where all are equally miserable. But hey, you won’t have any of that guilt associated with daddy paying $200K for your worthless CAS degree.

    • Respect on 11.25.2013 at 4:45 pm

      Typical Child? I extremely suggest you respect others opinions. Everybody has their own beliefs. I am certain he considered “Cuba or N. Korea” However America also has it’s own issues. When we are living on American soil, we should focus on America right now, not others issues. You sir seem like the the typical child. Who knows, this “child” has much more knowledge and insight better than you. Please just standby with unnecessary comments.

      • Respect is wrong. on 11.25.2013 at 5:19 pm

        Jeremy Milner hit the nail on the head with this one.

      • Tom on 11.25.2013 at 8:09 pm

        In America one has the right to call drivel “drivel”

      • James Madison on 11.26.2013 at 6:33 am

        You are right two wrongs do not make a right. The author is wrong to think America cannot be exceptional without income equality and you are wrong to insist that Jeremy respect that kind of wrong headed thinking if he does not wish too. I would like to see you offer up some insightful commentary yourself rather than wasting space attacking Jeremy from atop your high horse.

        • Respect on 12.02.2013 at 1:16 am

          It is not a matter of attack rather respect. Insightful commentary myself? No need because if you are not already able to see what I said in such “wasting space” then wouldn’t you rather say it goes for Jeremy and you as well.
          Respecting belief is the first step, consideration is second, action is third. Without respect, humans will always fight.

    • İgnorance on 11.26.2013 at 1:35 am

      Comments like this make one think ignorance is what brings the misery you speak of. That is, the low, self-degrading, childish comments that make you seem one. Perhaps you truly are ignorant. Try throwing out more intelligent remarks next time you decide to post your opinions about something.

      • Respect on 12.02.2013 at 1:24 am

        We are speaking of reality not fantasy. Ignorance you say? Wouldn’t ignorance be towards the whole world then? That is what majority of the countries are doing, especially America. Conspiracy here and there, nothing can be right anymore from what people babble out of their mouths. Everything is a lie and a waste. I am American who currently has no power in say but am working for it. If you guys have power, belief and respect, then please use it well rather than criticizing another ones opinion. All I want to point out is respect others opinions. Even though I am a bit contradicting right now, spite of that, I must be to show you all the path.

    • Nick on 11.26.2013 at 12:35 pm

      Why don’t you disprove his point with a valid answer to the question “What makes america so exceptional?” instead of a pointless “Go to Cuba” argument. What makes it more exceptional than the other 31 developed countries mentioned in the article. Not Cuba, that’s foolish. I think life in America is great, but not exceptional. Try something smart, change my mind.

      • Respect on 12.02.2013 at 1:19 am

        Might be great for you but not everyone. There are Americans that are trying their best to survive. That is the case with ALL the other countries however just because you call it great for “yourself” doesn’t truly define great for everyone. Those two countries were only example

  • Chris on 03.06.2015 at 10:41 pm

    Criticizing the amount of money we spend on our national defense is just lol.

    First of all, the fact that our military spending far outpaces everyone else’s would be another argument for American exceptionalism.

    Second, for critics of our emphasis on national defense and the subsequent knee-jerking need to point to European countries for unfavorable comparisons….the only reason European countries are so privileged that they barely have to maintain any sort of military is because they know that, if poop hits the fan, the US will be there to save them with overwhelming force. Without the US to protect them, they’d have to maintain their own sizable militaries.


  • Jose Artigas on 04.28.2015 at 6:38 pm

    This is an important issue in American policymaking, deserving of the thoughtful analysis that Numan offers. Then, unfortunately, we are treated to the kneejerk “you don’t like it, leave” responses of the Know-Nothings. Their rhetoric has changed little since the 1850s. Meanwhile the nation & the world moves on. Bah.

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