Friday, August 31, 2012

The United States is the world's original and still-greatest political experiment, founded upon a creed of liberty for all in a land of unprecedented, unparalleled opportunity. This land's manifest destiny is to be a shining city on a hill, a light by which the rest of the world may see the glories of a new and better world. This is, was, and always shall be an exceptional nation, the envy and wonder of the world. America is, like, awesome.

Calls for a "second American century" cannot quite silence the suspicion that, for all America's great strengths, time and history are against the United States -- and, worse still, Americans know it. Just as the glories of the Roman republic were never so keenly hailed as when the republic was dying, so there is a decay about American exceptionalism.

When George W. Bush suggested in 2004 a manned mission to Mars, the proposal was mocked to death. Rightly so, perhaps, because it was a ploy smacking of desperation and, what's more, one designed to distract attention from troubling events and setbacks elsewhere.

Today, the more a party talks about American exceptionalism, the more one suspects it fears for the future. It reeks of fear -- not strength -- and like most such boastfulness seems designed to camouflage insecurity.

If Americans fear they're no longer as exceptional as they should be, that's at least in part a consequence of poor George W. Bush's failed presidency. Empires wither when they're overextended abroad and underresourced at home.

Despite all this, the United States does remain an extraordinary, even an exceptional country. It does not lack resources or will, and its relative decline vis-à-vis other powers is, in one sense, evidence of the American century's success. That is, American notions about the path to liberty and prosperity remain powerful, even inspirational ideas. And Americans are right to celebrate them. The American idea really is worth preserving and celebrating. But that doesn't mean it must be cheapened...Leadership is never as selfless as its leaders like to suppose it must be.

Britain long ago accepted relative decline as something inevitable. Bankrupted and exhausted by two world wars, Britannia reappraised its position. Yet today this small island of just 60 million people remains the world's sixth-largest economy and is still, in so many ways, an exceptional and extraordinary place.

Someday, some time still long in the future, the United States will tell a comparable story of its own. This too will be no disgrace. Sometimes it's enough to be good without having to strain to be exceptional.

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