By DAVID RIEFF
National holidays, like the Olympics or the World Cup, are times when national differences inevitably take center stage. It would be as unreasonable to expect a French person to care deeply about the Fourth of July celebration in the United States as it would be to expect an American to be stirred by the annual 14th of July military parade down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Another way of putting this is to say that for all the loose talk about America's exceptional place in the world — talk that tends to be positive at home and increasingly negative abroad — every nation, not just the United States, considers itself exceptional to some extent.
"America Against the World," a recent book based on comprehensive polling data from the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, makes the point that our exceptionalism is not exceptional with particular force. While a robust 60 percent of Americans agree with the proposition that "our culture is superior to others," such self-confidence pales next to that of South Korea and Indonesia, where some 90 percent of the population assents to the idea. The book's authors, Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, also note that "poll after poll finds the Japanese to be the most pessimistic of people, expressing far less satisfaction with their lot in life than might be expected given their relatively high per capita incomes. Yet, compared to other Asians, the Japanese are, like Americans, highly self-reliant and distrustful of government and, like Europeans, secular. It is the Japanese public, not the American public, that is most exceptional in the world."
And yet even if America is not more anomalous than a number of other countries, our anomalies are what make the difference in contemporary global affairs. Ever since the time of Tocqueville, observers have commented on various peculiar characteristics of the American people: their belief in the power of the will, their suspicion of government, their conviction in their own benevolence. Of course, some facets of American exceptionalism are more recent in origin. For example, our particular focus on terrorism has everything to do with the entirely warranted sense of vulnerability that we all felt after 9/11. But the Pew surveys make clear that there's much more to America's exceptionalism than that. For example, while people in most of the world look to government to solve their problems, Americans do not. They are strongly attached to their belief in individual responsibility and unwilling to hold "outside factors" responsible for failure in life. Indeed, the American commitment to such beliefs appears to be becoming stronger with time. In this respect, at least, we are becoming more different.
Does all of this make American exceptionalism a vital national resource or a serious problem, both for the world as a whole and for the United States in particular? However appealing our individualism and positive thinking may be, such traits easily translate in the global context into hubris and a refusal to cooperate with others — in other words, into unilateralism. Americans may cherish in themselves what, in the military, is called the "hoo-ah" spirit — an optimistic mind-set that, as Kohut and Stokes put it, fosters the belief that "technology, and Americans, can fix anything." But in our soberer, less celebratory moments, we know that there are no unilateral American solutions to multilateral problems and that most of the great challenges we face in today's world are multilateral — from terrorism to global warming, and AIDS to mass migration. In the streets of Baghdad and the deserts of Al Anbar, we have learned that optimism and self-reliance are simply not enough. In fairness, recent efforts by critics to lay our hubris at the Bush administration's door fall wide of the mark. Our particular sense of national entitlement, of being specially chosen, is a bipartisan affair. After all, it was Madeleine Albright who, while serving as Bill Clinton's secretary of state, declared the United States to be "the indispensable nation."
Obviously, the United States will remain strong enough to exercise considerable power for the foreseeable future. In the medium term, however, an America that does not understand — and makes little effort to understand — why it has become so unpopular abroad is almost certain to find itself both disliked and ineffective in many parts of the world. Indeed, just last month, the Pew Global Attitudes Project issued a new survey showing that anti-Americanism, which seemed to be in decline a year ago, is again on the rise. By 41 percent to 34 percent, a plurality of Britons believe that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is a greater danger to world peace than the government of Iran — this in Tony Blair's Britain, supposedly America's staunchest ally. The Bush administration clearly realizes that such findings are not good news and has greatly toned down its earlier unilateralist swagger.
Of course, if unilateralism is a dead end, multilateralism is no panacea — as the current impasse with Iran demonstrates. But we have to start somewhere. Simply to repeat that we live in a post-9/11 world, while the Europeans have not yet heard the bad news — in other words, waiting for our allies to come around to seeing things as we do in the United States — is unlikely to do anything but aggravate the differences that already exist. Even during the cold war, when America was a creditor nation and its allies largely accepted their subaltern status, the United States needed the assent of its global partners. Unilateralism is still less of an option today — something we should not lose sight of on even that most "unilateralist" of holidays, the Fourth of July.