West Point and American Exceptionalism


Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from the author’s remarks delivered at the West Point Society of New York on the occasion of Founder’s Day. This is the first in a new special series at War on the Rocks on American exceptionalism.


There was a lot of fuss a few years ago when President Obama said he believed in American exceptionalism, just as he was sure “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” But for all the fuss, the president’s remarks were symptomatic of a broader dissonance in our society about America’s role in the world.

Consider American presidential politics today. On the right, we see an impulse among some candidates to close our doors and leave the world to fend for itself. On the left, we see an appeal by some to utopian notions of what America is or should be that will end where all utopian notions end. This has happened before. It is what happens when faith in America and its mission in the world begins to wane.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that millions of Americans support these ideas today. They’ve been treated to the worst recession since the 1930s and the worst recovery on record. Our country faces a multitude of problems, ranging from income inequality and troubled race relations to a dysfunctional criminal justice system and, perhaps most depressing, a seemingly gridlocked political process incapable of tackling these and other pervasive challenges. Moreover, in recent years, we have suffered through a string of foreign policy failures that transcend political party. If this domestic and foreign policy record is indicative of America’s exceptionalism, you can forgive many Americans for not embracing it.

American exceptionalism is the idea that America’s egalitarianism, individualism, democracy, laissez-faire approach to business, and commitment to the idea of a republic make it unique. It is the notion that America has a special responsibility to the world to ensure, as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” But what happens when that promise seems shakier than ever for so many?

The truth is, American exceptionalism reached its high-water mark 25 years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union — at the end of 75 years that firmly demonstrated Samuel Huntington’s observation that American primacy is central “to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.”

This was clearest after World War II. Out of the conviction that the Soviet Union needed to be contained came the Truman Doctrine. Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development played a crucial role in ensuring the survival and spread of free markets. The Marshall Plan pumped $13 billion into Western Europe between 1948 and 1952 to rebuild and to win European support for capitalist democracies. In this period, the United States also made tremendous investments of resources and leadership in Japan.

The end of the 1940s saw the Berlin Airlift and NATO’s creation — crucial demonstrations of Western resolve. In 1953, West Point graduate President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech led to the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In 1958, in response to the Soviet Sputnik launch, came NASA and DARPA, the first of which took us to the moon, the second of which brought us the Internet.

American determination held the line against Communist expansionism in Korea. And although the legacy of Vietnam led to the defeatism of the late 1970s, the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush saw the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a triumph of deterrence, of economic and cultural efforts around the world, and of a network of institutions that bound us to our allies and our allies to us.

But the seeds of potential defeat are always sown in the wake of victory. The 1990s saw the rise of a counterculture that had been born in the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy famously urged us to ask not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country. Today, too few of our leaders talk like Kennedy or Reagan. In place of a determination to tear down walls and spread the virtues of a humane capitalism and free trade, we hear misguided and incoherent rhetoric about putting up walls around both our trade relationships and our borders. This is hard to reconcile with the “shining city upon a hill” invoked by President Reagan, a light to the world that cannot and should not be hidden.

Yes, American exceptionalism is an idea fundamental to the history of our country. But it is also one that is in retreat today, with unhappy consequences for our country and for the world. If we want to avoid those consequences, we must vigorously support American exceptionalism in every way we can. And one of the best ways for us to do that is through our vigorous support of West Point.

West Point’s 215-year tradition of a professional military academy shapes and produces every year a cadre of officers who bring extraordinary talent and skill to our military. They also bring deeply held values to all that they do in and out of uniform, throughout their lives. West Point is crucial to American exceptionalism. It remains one of the most potent weapons we have to guarantee the promise rather than merely the survival of our country.

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While American exceptionalism is in trouble today, there is cause for hope. Even in today’s chaotic and depressing political environment, Americans still want what Americans have always wanted: to make America better than it is today. The fact is, America has a long list of problems — economic, cultural, and even military. But the passion to address those problems, the ability to adapt to a changing world, the resilience in the face of challenges — these have not disappeared from the American scene since Alexis de Tocqueville described them in his great book almost 200 years ago.

For these reasons, I believe our best days are without a doubt still before us. A country with the most powerful military in the world, a growing population, an entrepreneurial culture, a dynamic economy, and a set of interlocking governing institutions that have proven themselves the most effective in the world, can fix its problems. As then-Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson used to say at the height of the financial crisis — sometimes to disbelieving observers — I’d rather be us than any other country in the world.

But to fix these problems, we must stop walking in the wrong direction. We must act with profound humility, but also with deep-seated conviction. If we are to promote equality and pluralism around the world, we must walk towards, rather than away from, our unique success in advancing these values at home while still embracing the idea that America is, and always will be, a work in progress. If we are to lead the world in fighting genocide and in promoting human rights, we must stop walking away from our global mission, even as we confront our own challenges at home. If the country that helped rebuild the West after World War II and create the institutions that sustain it is once again to play a leading role in the global order, we must stop walking away from what really makes America great. And if we are ever to see that the opposite of intervention is not isolation but constructive engagement with the world, we must re-embrace American exceptionalism.

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I have suggested that a nation of over 300 million people is going in the wrong direction. Now I want to make the claim that West Point, an institution that graduates about 1,000 people each year, can play a central role in changing our direction.

This is so for two reasons: leadership and values.

First, and most obviously, America cannot play a leading role in the world — cannot play any role at all — without a powerful military. Our military is far and away the most powerful in the world today. Certainly, we must ensure that it remains capable of deterring those who might threaten America’s interests and, when necessary, intervening decisively against those who do. We must also have a military capable of adapting to an increasingly complex security landscape, in which today’s uniformed leaders must be agile and skilled enough to deal with Afghan tribal leaders, drone-centric warfare, and cybersecurity not only during the course of a career but possibly within one assignment. This is a radically different battlefield than I learned about as a cadet. I’d go as far to say that in no 25-year period since West Point was founded has the scope and complexity of the military’s mission changed so dramatically.

But the key to the primacy of our military, at the risk of stating the obvious — something that was and is drilled into the heads of all cadets since the first day of Beast barracks — is the strength of its leadership. And, forgive my bias, but there is no greater leadership school than West Point. Without West Point — and, indeed, the other service academies — the American military could not be what it is.

Secondly, West Point may be an American military academy, but we of all people know that it does not merely teach American military skills. It teaches American values. Absolute commitment to the mission. Absolute equality of opportunity. Accountability. Ownership. Responsibility. No excuses. Loyalty. Respect. Selflessness. Integrity. Courage. And, of course, the values that undergird all others — duty, honor, and country. These are the values that West Pointers carry with them always, well beyond their military service, and they are what make West Point fundamental to America. And it is these values that can rescue American exceptionalism from the dusty, dishonored, and depressed condition into which it has fallen.

There is a long list of West Pointers past and present that make my case: from Major General George W. Goethals, who built much of the infrastructure we benefit from across the country today, as well as the Panama Canal, to Generals Eisenhower, McArthur, Bradley, and Patton, who led our allies to victory in World War II, to President Eisenhower, who orchestrated many of the post-war institutions and international norms that sustain us today. In our nation’s most vulnerable moments, West Pointers have always risen to the challenge.

Today is no different, whether we are speaking of General David Rodriguez (my former plebe boxing instructor), who is taking the fight to the Islamic State and al Qaeda as the new head of Africa Command, or Senator Jack Reed, who, as the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, is helping transform our military after more than a decade of war, or Alex Gorsky, who is leading one of our nation’s greatest companies as CEO and Chairman of Johnson & Johnson — all at the pinnacle of our nation’s leadership. And it is their burden, just as it is our burden, to create the exceptional America that has been and that can be once again.

Leadership and values. Leadership and values are the reason 1,000 or so graduates a year can make a difference in a nation of 300 million. Good leadership is our country’s greatest “force multiplier.” And what those graduates will do, and what we ourselves will yet do, must continue to emanate from those values we all learned so many years ago.

Certainly this is true for me. Whatever contributions I have made as an Army officer, as a business leader, or while serving in government, West Point will always stand as the crucial formative experience of my life. I’d like to share one story to reinforce that point.

I was brought up Presbyterian, and though I am religious, I was never much of a churchgoer. Yet it was at West Point, as I slogged through that first beast summer, where I found that church could speak to a young man, particularly when Chaplain Camp, aware of the limited calories consumed by plebes during those harrowing days, had the wisdom to serve cookies following each service.

Those cookies meant a lot to every plebe churchgoer, but to get them, you had to sit through the service. And I will never forget a sermon on Psalm 121 one humid summer evening, which has lived with me ever since. The Psalm reads, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

I have to tell you, after that sermon, whenever I walked across the plain between those bronze statues of Eisenhower and MacArthur, surrounded by those rugged mountains that frame the Hudson Valley — particularly on those challenging West Point days when one is prone to second guessing oneself — I thought of that Psalm. I gathered strength from it then, and I gather strength from it still.

Indeed, in difficult times, that Psalm and that perfectly manicured plain and those rugged mountains always come back to me. I remember in early December 2008 when I was working at the Treasury Department in the midst of the financial crisis I had the incredible opportunity to fly to West Point with President George W. Bush for his final address to the Corps of Cadets. These were fearful, chaotic days. I remember vividly as the president’s helicopter landed on the plain in front of the superintendent’s house, among those old granite walls, looking up at those magnificent mountains — and feeling a deep sense of calm and connectivity to the certainty, the consistency, and the timelessness that is West Point.

Those of us who are a part of that long gray line draw inspiration and strength from this shared experience, in good times and in bad, throughout our lives. But with the privilege of linking hands with the giants of West Point’s past comes the duty to extend our hands to support those who will lead us in the future.

For we not only need the West Point of today. We need a West Point of the future that gets better all the time. The caliber of West Point graduates becomes more important as the nature of war and the military’s mission evolves. And when those U.S. Military Academy graduates leave the Army, whether after five, 10, 20 years, or many more, we need them to take the skills they have learned on this complicated new battlefield and use them to bring leadership and inspiration to the faster-moving, more complicated world that we live in today.

If we want the West Point of the future to do its duty to America, we must continue to do our duty to West Point.  If each of us gives back to West Point and the country as much as West Point has given us, then in 25, 50, 75, and 100 years there will be another and another and another generation of battlefield captains and captains of industry — leaders of character — carrying forward the spirit we ourselves carry today.

This, ultimately, is how we as West Pointers must lead and inspire. To borrow from Lincoln once more, “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” By guiding our country toward its better angels, this is how West Point can help restore America to its original — its exceptional — promise.


David McCormick is President of Bridgewater Associates, a global macro investment firm. Previously, he served in senior positions in the Treasury Department, the White House, and the Commerce Department in the administration of George W. Bush. He is a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the First Gulf War. The views reflected in this speech are his alone.