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Law and politics

American Exceptionalism and the Dangers of Complacency


David Rothkopf’s recent article, The Myth of the Innovation Nation” makes for somber reading. But while questioning the alleged American monopoly on creativity, it is of note that he somehow avoids a single mention of American Exceptionalism. It seems hard to avoid questioning what has been one of the central tenets of American foreign policy, while simultaneously raising doubts over a notion that American’s have for so long taken for granted: “We are exceptional, and will therefore remain the most powerful, presperous and influential nation for eternity, so help us God.” Yet Rothkopf manages to dance around this phrase, perhaps for fear of repeating those contentious words: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”. But are Americans and America exceptional or aren’t they?

The truth behind American exceptionalism, I think, is not in the DNA of its people as opposed to that of the Brits and the Greeks per se, but in the DNA of the nation itself. The beauty and wisdom of the constitution, the system of government and it’s separation of powers, protection of freedom and the solid foundation that system has laid for economic progress over the last couple of hundred years. That the U.S’s exceptional status, which was once a given, is now being brought into question as in Rothkopf’s article (whether in terms of creativity and innovation or educational standards) says wonders about the kinds of changes that have been taking place over the last few decades. Many of these are changes which the founding fathers warned against.

In a word: complacency.

Nothing breeds complacency as effectively as great success. From the Greeks to the Romans to the British, the hubristic thinking that often precedes the eventual fall of empires fills our history books. We can only hope that it is not too late to learn the lessons of history. U.S spending over the years has been increasingly focused on the military industrial complex, 2 recent wars have stretched the country’s deficit, while the investments crucial to the much lauded American innovation and creativity have been cut and trimmed. U.S educational spending and the budget for scientific research have faced sharp cuts over the years. Many schools are in disarray, and while the Chinese and Indians are channeling funds towards greater research and education to fuel their development, we’re seeing sharp cuts in these areas as pressures mount to cut deficit spending.

Rothkopf’s article does not make for cheerful morning reading. But it should send some alarm bells ringing, as it ends with this message of warning:
“Indeed, the greatest threat to the U.S. economy may not be those costly, financially rickety entitlement programs most politicians are afraid of touching. Rather it may be a different kind of entitlement altogether, the sense of entitlement many Americans have to a position of global economic leadership that is vouchsafed to no nation and indeed, is regularly passed on from one era’s great nation(s) to a new set of leaders in the next.

Will there be time to make the changes to avoid the fate of the Romans? We hope so. But the history books are full of unheeded warnings. And, unfortunately, history has this annoying habit of repeating itself.

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