(Bloomberg Opinion) — Pundits have recently proclaimed “the end” — or exposed “the myth” — of British exceptionalism. It’s hard for Brits to keep seeing themselves as uniquely heroic while bungling their response to a pandemic, fumbling through Brexit and literally boxing up statues of national idols to save them from being defaced.
Other observers have similarly announced the end of Swedish exceptionalism, because of an unorthodox epidemiological approach to Covid-19 that basically failed. But Sweden’s belief in its own special status apparently became untenable even earlier, and for many other reasons.
For every commentator declaring the end of a given national exceptionalism, others pop up reasserting it. This seems to be an iron law of history: Every nation at one point or another claims to be superior to others or endowed with a special mission. Exceptionalism, ironically, is universal.
Notable examples include my own two countries (I’m a dual U.S.-German citizen). When John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony spoke of a “city on a hill” in 1630, he was thinking of a smallish group of Puritans. By the time President Ronald Reagan in 1980 turned that phrase into a “shining city upon a hill,” Americans got the point. Their country was not only a superpower but also the most virtuous nation in the world, morally superior to others and endowed with a special historical role.
This ideology transcended party politics. In 2016, Hillary Clinton also embraced American exceptionalism, in part as a way of attacking her opponent, Donald Trump, whom she considered strange for not believing in it. She was right to point out that he wasn’t convinced: Told that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a killer,” Trump, by then president, merely shrugged: “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
My other country got into the game earlier. Two centuries ago, long before there even was a nation state called Germany, romantic philosophers such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte espied German exceptionalism in the unique spirit or soul of the “Volk” — the people or tribe. These ideas led to the rise of nationalism in Europe.
During the 19th century, this exceptionalism turned into a conviction that German “culture,” presumed to be very deep, was superior to Anglo-French “civilization,” a term used by German writers to connote shallowness. The “land of poets and thinkers” was self-evidently different: equidistant between East and West and on a “Sonderweg” (special path) that would lead to something superior to monarchy, aristocracy or democracy. After World War I this mutated into racist exceptionalism — that is, Nazism — and World War II.
Of the many exceptionalisms around today, one in particular resembles the 19th-century German variety. Russia has long seen itself as a “Third Rome,” following the empires of the Caesars and the Orthodox Byzantines, whose role “Holy Rus” tried to take over. Like the Germans of yore, Russians are sure their culture and soul is deeper than the West’s. As expressed in the thought of scholars such as Aleksandr Dugin, this exceptionalism implies a manifest destiny to rule over an anti-Western “Eurasia.” Putin is said to subscribe to much of this worldview.
Japan also felt exceptional once, until its defeat in World War II. It arguably still does, for instance in the intellectual tradition of Nihonjinron, which is based on Japanese uniqueness. Next door, China’s “middle kingdom” has always felt special and currently calls this “the China Way.” From India’s Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”) to South Africa’s regional superiority complex and Poland’s narrative of being victim and redeemer (a “Christ among nations”), everybody seems to be at it.
The problem is that exceptionalism leads to bad things. The first is hypocrisy. How, for instance, could the U.S. or U.K. ever have claimed to be morally superior when the first English ship carrying African slaves to America arrived in 1619, a year before that other English ship, the Mayflower, brought the Pilgrims to their city upon a hill? And what would either country say if the anti-racism riots of recent weeks — late blowback for that earlier legacy — had taken place in, say, China or Iran? Exceptionalism requires editing a country’s past, and indeed lying.
It also leads to double standards. In the American case, it often becomes “exemptionalism,” when the U.S. doesn’t feel bound by international treaties or courts, even as it criticizes other countries for falling foul of them. Such arrogance provokes resentment and conflict.
In the worst cases, such as Germany’s or Japan’s during the past century, exceptionalism mutates into a brutish ethnocentrism that leads to atrocities, tragedy and ruin. That’s why the word “Sonderweg” has acquired an entirely negative connotation among historians in postwar Germany, as a delusion that culminated in the Holocaust.
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional,” a world leader wrote in the New York Times in 2013, enraged about the sense of special purpose in the foreign policy of Barack Obama, America’s then president. That leader was Putin, the Russian exceptionalist who soon after invaded Crimea and Ukraine. Here it is in a nutshell: If we all claim to be exceptional, there will be trouble.
Nations are more like individuals. In some respects they’re similar, in others different, but never exceptional, and they’re certainly wiser not to pretend to be. Exceptionalism is an infantile and destructive idea. The sooner we drop it, the better.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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