A cornerstone of the American image over the last 250 years has been the idea that the United States is a shining example for other democracies to follow. Inauguration speeches throughout the years have provided many superlatives for the United States to support this notion of American superiority. Ronald Reagan’s ‘A shining city on a hill’, George W. Bush’s description of the United States as ‘a servant of freedom’ and Donald Trump’s infamous slogan ‘Make America great again’ all demonstrate the persistent and self-proclaimed idea of American exceptionalism.

Exceptional American Mistakes

This ideology has had its critics. Barack Obama questioned the idea of America in a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, in which hundreds of African Americans once again experienced the viciousness of police brutality in a protest for voters’ rights.

Recent events have arguably provided the circumstances for this list of critics to grow. Americans living in a post-Covid world have been forced to rethink their idea of the United States.

As the virus spread across the globe, it showed no prejudice as to which economies and health care systems it would decimate. Instead, it was up to individual countries to respond. In the United States, the handling of Covid-19 raised alarming questions surrounding the government’s ability to effectively control the disease.

On the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organisation declaring a pandemic, Covid had killed 530,000 Americans. As of February 2022, the death toll has reached 875,755. A number of mistakes condemned the US pandemic response to failure, one of which was downplaying the severity of the virus in its early stages. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) stated that the virus’ original risk to the public was low, followed by Donald Trump’s persistent narrative that it was no worse than the flu.

The response was also hindered due to the fact that only the CDC was given the green light to develop a test for the virus, which was ultimately unreliable. Meanwhile, in countries such as Germany and South Korea, much more freedom was allowed regarding test development.

Most can agree on the failure of the government’s response to Covid-19, but it soon became apparent that American exceptionalism was a significant factor as well. Political Scientist R. Daniel Keleman suggested that this very exceptionalism deterred Americans from learning from the experiences of those outside the United States when it came to the Covid response.

Many Americans have coupled this stubbornness with the view that wearing masks and following other social restrictions was a hindrance to their rights to freedom. Such individuals were determined to ignore certain pandemic rules. Another failure of the American response to Covid was the lack of travel and social restrictions. During the initial months of the pandemic, experts debated the importance of mask-wearing and whether enforcing their use in public was necessary or not. Meanwhile, the public in Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan listened to advice and masked up, observing the benefits as cases dropped significantly. The CDC later decided to recommend wearing a mask in early April. However, many Republicans did not mandate masks, with Donald Trump even suggesting that they were a political statement against him.

Doomed Intervention Abroad

An even more recent dent in the idea of American exceptionalism came when the United States concluded its military operations in Afghanistan in August 2021, after almost 20 years of intervention. The involvement of the US military in Afghanistan began under the pretext of avenging terrorism, by seeking out and eliminating Al-Qaeda. This would eventually lead to the expulsion of the Taliban government.

Whilst the invasion demonstrated initial success, 20 years of conflict ultimately led to the deaths of over 71,000 civilians, displaced another 5.9 million, and worsened poverty, malnutrition and standards of living in Afghanistan. Had the war been successful, it could have been argued that the end justified the means. However, as the United States withdrew its remaining personnel from Kabul, the Taliban declared its reinstatement as Afghanistan’s official ruling government on August 15.

The United States, the self-proclaimed ‘world police’, the founder of Pax Americana, failed to deliver on its latest endeavour of ensuring peace and stability abroad. The case of Afghanistan comes to show that American exceptionalism has little validity. Being a force for good is a key value in sustaining this exceptionalism, yet arguably the direct opposite happened in Afghanistan.

The Question Of Survival

Can American exceptionalism survive in the wake of Covid and Afghanistan? There was considerable sentiment in the midst of the pandemic that America’s response to Covid marked the end of the nation’s ‘exceptionalism’. This argument was further bolstered in the aftermath of rioters storming the US Capitol on January 6 2021, and again by William Reinsch in his recent article that reflects on what Covid-19 and the Capitol riots meant for the decline of American exceptionalism.

Whilst there is a general consensus that American exceptionalism is coming to a halt, past experiences say otherwise. The concept survived questioning after American failure in Vietnam, and once again after the alarming intervention in Iraq. Even whilst agreeing that this ideology is at its end, William Reinsch still maintains that every American generation has been plagued by a minority resistant to change. It’s this mindset that helps perpetuate the exceptionalism rhetoric.

For many both within and outside the United States, American exceptionalism has reached its conclusion. Either that or they believe that it was in fact a myth all along. However, as long as enough Americans still stand by the notion of their nation’s superiority, the idea will continue to survive. In January 2021, despite the poor handling of Covid-19,  53 per cent of Americans agreed that the world would be much better off if other countries adopted American values. Seventy-three per cent believed that the United States had always been a force for good, and 62 per cent said they were either extremely or very proud to be American.

Clearly, it is not up to the rest of the world to decide when American exceptionalism expires. As long as the American people believe in it, it will stay alive.

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