Sign Up

Was America Ever Exceptional?

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

September 15, 2013

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

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.


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.