Cliff May

Some years ago, John Podhoretz, a right-of-center writer, now the editor of Commentary, admonished his colleagues on the left: "We speak liberal as well as our own tongue. Why don't you speak conservative?"

I was put in mind of this quip while reading a recent column by the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen. In “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” he boldly posits that the “problem of the 21st century” is “the culture of smugness. The emblem of this culture is ‘American exceptionalism.’ It has been adopted by the right to mean that America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God.”

Cohen provides no evidence that anyone on the right defines exceptionalism as he does. What do those of us who use, defend and advocate exceptionalism mean instead?

Among other things, that America is simply different from other nations. It is a nation of immigrants from every corner of the Earth, a nation bound not by ancestral blood but by revolutionary ideas and beliefs brilliantly articulated more than two centuries ago in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The founding of the United States ushered in the modern democratic experiment, along with new concepts of freedom and human rights. In the 20th century, the Greatest Generation fought for the survival of that experiment against its totalitarian enemies, Nazi, Fascist and communist alike. Today, the challenges posed by Islamic totalitarianism test a new generation.

America has been a uniquely productive nation: a font of invention, creativity and economic dynamism. In America, tens of millions of people have risen from poverty. The United States has been a singularly generous, if not always effective, provider of assistance to other countries including those where Americans are not popular.

But, most of all, exceptionalism implies that the responsibility for global leadership rests on America’s shoulders. Not because Americans hunger for power but because there is no good alternative.

At the conclusion of World War II, the British rejected Winston Churchill -- without whose vision and determination Hitler might well have triumphed -- and turned inward to focus on building a welfare state. That meant relinquishing global leadership. They could do that because they could pass the torch to America.

If that torch has now become too heavy for Americans, or if it is seen as unfair for America to continue to lead, who is prepared to take America’s place? Those who rule Iran, China and Russia are no doubt eager. But they are despots as Cohen ought to appreciate.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.