Globalist Bookshelf

Was America Ever Exceptional?

How it hurts a nation that cannot distinguish between strength and power.

"Spirit of the Frontier" by John Gast. Public domain, via Wikimedia

"Spirit of the Frontier" by John Gast. (Wikimedia)


  • Power discourages authentic reflection and considered thought. It produces a certain weakness in those who have it.
  • America was exceptional once – but not for the reasons Americans commonly think of. It was the land, not the people.
  • Living in distance from others leads to an inability to see and understand other nations.
  • Clinging to exceptionalism keeps Americans from understanding the distinction between a strong nation and one that is merely powerful.
  • In a strong nation, neither the place of the individual nor the role of government is exaggerated.
  • Power gave Americans the temptation of certainty without anxiety.

America was exceptional once — but not for the reasons we Americans commonly think of. America was exceptional from independence until 1890 when the country’s immense westward expansion was underway. Land seemed limitless then. For roughly a century, then, there was such a thing as exceptionalism — of the land, not the people.

Either way, for well over a century, Americans were indeed able to reside outside of history — or at least pretend they did. But it is key to understand that this entire period, paradoxically, was no more than a circumstance of history.

Strength versus power

How the American penchant for clinging to exceptionalism even today actually hurts our nation becomes visible if one examines the most crucial distinction for any large nation — the distinction between a strong nation and one that is merely powerful.

The difference between the two was plain to Americans of the 18th century. But then, the United States gradually left the ability to distinguish between the two behind.

Power is a material capability. It is a possession with no intrinsic vitality of its own. It has to do with method, as opposed to purpose or ideals. It refers to sheer means, and the deployment thereof. Power tends to discourage authentic reflection and considered thought, and, curiously, produces a certain weakness in those who have it.

In the U.S. case, this weakness is heightened by the fact that we live in distance from others. This leads to an inability to see and understand others and unwillingness to tolerate differences.

This power-mindedness also induces a crisis of belief. Over time, a truly bizarre development takes shape. While the powerful country’s faith in itself quivers, its own faith in its power and prerogative increases.

Certainty without anxiety

In power, Americans found an especially compelling temptation when it began to accrue to them. It was the temptation of certainty without anxiety. It seemed, from the Spanish war onward, within America’s grasp to leave behind its old apprehensions at last.

The 20th century became the century of power because Americans became ever more reliant upon power alone as its years and decades went by. When power functions by itself, means and ends are inevitably confused.

Despite all this, it is actually not difficult to understand the distinction between a powerful nation and a strong one. Strength derives from who one is. It is what a nation has made of itself by way of vision, desire and dedication. It has nothing to do with power as we customarily use this term.

Having power makes one fearful

Paradoxically, strength is a form of power greatly more powerful than the possession of power alone. Strength is a way of being, not a possession.

Another paradox: Power renders one vulnerable to defeat or failure — and therefore to fear. Strength renders one not invulnerable — no one ever is — but able to recover from one’s defeats and failures. The history of the last century bears out these distinctions very clearly

A strong nation, then, is institutionally stable. It is democratic in more than merely form. It is not freighted with secrets and secret histories. It operates based on the authentic, informed accord of its people, without coercion or manipulation.

In a strong nation, there also is an evident degree of assent even amid a healthy measure of complaint. Neither the place of the individual nor the prerogative of government is exaggerated. Decisions are made thoughtfully and without emotion — but, perhaps, for sympathy and empathy.

As a result of all this, power is exercised sparingly — and is not held in particularly high regard. It certainly is no fetish. Most of all, a strong nation is capable of self-examination — and of change.

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century by Patrick Smith (Yale, 2013). Published by arrangement with the publisher. Copyright © 2013 by Yale University Press.

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  • PamB1

    In a nation which can hardly get 43% of it’s citizenry out to VOTE in elections, it is pretty hard to develop strength in a democracy by the people for the people. You may think this country is not really exceptional, but do a review of how many people enter lotteries to come to this come country, compared to others. And the reason is—opportunity. Not found in other countries.

  • JamesMN

    That people want to come here doesn’t make this country exceptional, it just makes it better here than there and we’re willing to take them; there’s a big difference. As for other counties, they can’t absorb nearly as many immigrants as we can, and traditionally this has been a country that has welcomed immigrants, so when you come right down to it if you don’t want to be where you are, here’s the best place to shoot to come to.
    When a country has as many children who are poor and have insufficient food in the course of their day, when infant mortality is as high as it is here, where educational results are consistently below that of other countries, where more money is spent than any country in the world for health care with such poor results to show for the expense, where a massive and extraordinarily expensive military for questionable ends is considered a point of pride, where average citizens lose to those with money with the help of elected officials, where the basis of an economy are primarily focused on making money and NOT taking care of this country’s citizens (like paying them a decent wage and providing benefits that were common thirty years ago but largely going away now), where the politicians representing the citizens of this country gridlock substantive action on important issues, and the list goes on, all this doesn’t make for an exceptional nation. In fact it makes for a nation which is not meeting its ideals and is less than what the average citizen likes to kid him or herself into thinking that it is.


    I have spent 60 years as a student of international relations and political science. I have worked 13 years on NATO matters, in close discussions with allies, two-plus years in direct discussions with Middle East countries, 7 more years on security assistance and foreign military sales, and had ten years of strategic discussions with the Russians. I have no idea what this guy is talking about when he uses the word “power.” I have just written a 219-page book on the future of U.S. defense, and I used the word power only once (as “electric power”). There is no substance to this whole essay.

  • thoomfoote

    It is almost always dangerous when a nation feels so strongly that they are exceptional. That belief, especially when promoted by the government, can only lead to disagreeable outcomes, or at the very least exceptional surprises for that country.

  • hotmonster

    I think basically it’s a problem of sometimes making the mistake of hitting the brake or the accelerator.