The Hubris of American Exceptionalism Devalues the Rest of the World

US exceptionalism is a hubris that reeks of bigotry and is harmful to life in other nations, David Swanson argues in this excerpt from his book.

What we’re dealing with is not just valuing the United States, but also devaluing the rest of the world — and not just as observers, but as people who believe they have the right, if not the duty, to impose their will on the rest of the world. Exceptionalism is an attitude that tends to include arrogance, ignorance, and aggression, and these tend to do a great deal of damage.

In recent polling on possible future wars, a majority in the United States is willing to support an air attack, even a nuclear attack, on a foreign country, such as Iran or North Korea, that kills 100,000 civilians if it is an alternative to a ground attack that could kill 20,000 Americans. In fact, the US public has largely sat by for the past 17 years of wars in which the nations attacked have suffered tens and hundreds of times more deaths than the US military. Americans overwhelmingly tell pollsters that it is fine to kill non-Americans with US drones, but illegal to kill US citizens. Keith Payne, a drafter of the 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review, back in 1980, parroting Dr. Strangelove, defined success to allow up to 20 million dead Americans as the price for killing a much higher number of non-Americans. The US government has placed compensation for an Iraqi life at no more than $15,000, but the value of a US life at no less than $5 million.

When people ask how President Harry Truman could have used nuclear weapons that killed so many Japanese people unless he actually believed he was saving at least some significant number of US lives, they are assuming that Truman placed some positive value on the life of a Japanese person. Truman was the same man who had earlier remarked, “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.” US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously remarked that the deaths of a half million Iraqi children was “worth it,” without really being pressed to explain what the “it” was. During the war on Vietnam, the US military bragged on a weekly basis about how many people it killed. In recent wars, it has avoided mentioning that topic. But in neither case does it weigh the non-US lives taken against whatever the supposed good is that’s being attempted, as it might do if it believed those lives had any value.

This is where exceptionalism looks like a form of bigotry. One type of person is much more valuable. The other 96 percent of humanity is just not worth very much. If people in the United States valued all human lives equally, or even remotely close to equally, discussions of foreign aid funded by the US government would sound very different. The US government budget devotes less than 1 percent to foreign aid (including weapons “aid”) but the US public on average believes that 31 percent of the budget goes to foreign aid. Reducing this mythical generosity is extremely popular with the US public. The US public usually sees itself as enormously generous to the rest of the world, but often believes its imagined generosity to be unappreciated. Several years into the war on Iraq that began in 2003, a plurality in the United States believed, not only that Iraqis should be grateful, but that Iraqis were in fact grateful for a war that had scholars using the term “sociocide” to describe its impact on Iraqi society.

US exceptionalism does not just devalue the individual lives of others. It also devalues the earth as a whole. US policy is generally not shaped by concern for its impact on the planet’s environment. And the attitude of constant competition for the most growth on a finite planet is destructive and ultimately self-defeating. As an exceptionalist — or, as the US government would call the same attitude in someone else, a rogue — the United States keeps itself out of more international treaties than do its peers. It also keeps itself out of the jurisdiction of courts of international law and arbitration. This position hurts the US public, by denying it new developments in human rights. And it deals a severe blow to the rule of law elsewhere, because of the prominence and power of the world’s leading rogue nation.

The US Constitution and US laws are not independently updated to match world standards. In fact, it seems that the further the United States’ ancient constitution falls behind, the more it is treated as a sacred relic never to be improved. In an exceptionalist outlook, it is the responsibility of foreigners to learn from the US Constitution, not the responsibility of the US public to learn from the constitutions or laws more recently developed elsewhere. If you give rights to the environment or to indigenous people, you’re being silly. If we give rights to corporations, we’re being American — and that’s not to be questioned. End of discussion.

In an exceptionalist worldview it is of absolutely zero interest that many countries have figured out big advances in healthcare coverage or gun control or fast trains or green energy or drug treatment. Why would anyone in the United States care to hear such news! A study of presidents’ state of the union speeches between 1934 and 2008 found 2,500 mentions of other countries, but only 3 suggestions that the United States might learn anything from any of them. As the Greatest Nation on Earth it is the rightful US role to continue bumbling along with its always greatest policies, even if those policies kill us — but especially if they merely kill other people.

The United States not only turns away ideas. It also turns away actual emergency aid offered by other countries following natural disasters. What are human lives in comparison with national pride?