Wonder and Worry in an Age of Distraction: Notes on American Exceptionalism for My Young Friends


My younger friends worry a lot. Since I am a historian, they often ask me if they are right to worry.

This is a hard question to answer. From the view of the long sweep of history, we live in extraordinary times. Global poverty has fallen dramatically in the last few decades, as have interstate wars. Even in times of relative peace, not long ago, the world was insecure. In the last 25 years of the 19th century, for example, between 30 and 60 million people in Brazil, China, and India perished from the famine and disease caused by the toxic combination of imperialism and El Nino. Today, we are more literate, healthy, and educated. By most any measure and by quite a margin, the world has never been more prosperous or safe.

While many forces have made this possible, the United States has played a central role since the end of World War II and even more so since the end of the Cold War in underwriting this good fortune. It has also benefitted enormously from global peace and stability. There are, no doubt, many problems — history provides few examples of dramatic change that benefits and is shared equally or embraced by everyone. More to the point, American foreign and military policy in the Middle East since 2001 has been, even under the most generous description, a failure. The 2007 to 2009 financial crisis and uneven recovery exposed worrying socio-economic cleavages. Like all nations, the United States has made many mistakes.

Step back a bit, however, and the picture is largely positive. The American economy is growing, crime is at a historic low, and U.S. military capabilities are the envy of all. Again, judging from macro trends, the United States possesses exceptional and deep long-term advantages: technological innovation, crown-jewel higher education institutions, demographic diversity and dynamism, political flexibility, and relative mobility. Even the constant hand-wringing and political fighting has advantages: Americans, arguably more than say the French or Chinese, love to criticize themselves and their fellow citizens. They have always worried they are messing up, a paranoia that often fuels self-correction, competition, and adaptation. Look at the numbers and ask yourself if there a country in the world, be it Brazil, Japan, Germany, or even China, whose long-term future America would rather possess than its own. Russia, the foe of the day, is literally dying. In a few decades, it is on target to have a population less than Egypt and the Philippines and equal to Tanzania and Vietnam.

Perhaps, my friends respond, but aren’t the trends moving against us? And even if they are not, doesn’t our polarized politics — and recent presidential election — endanger this world? Even without commenting on the ideology and positions of President Donald Trump (and my views on this are obvious to anyone who knows me), even his most ardent supporters must confess his early months call into question whether he possesses the temperament and wisdom — to say nothing of the competence — needed to prevent the ship of state from crashing.

There are worrying political trends, both in the United States and abroad, that give pause. Growing inequality, both within and between states, is a worry. Popular dissatisfaction against globalization and/or the conventional political order has emerged in places as far afield as South Korea, Great Britain, and Brazil. Even here, however, we may overestimate the problem. The United States, for example, is far less globalized, in terms of trade or immigration, than most people understand. Similar outbursts abroad, only 30 years ago, to say nothing of a century ago, may have led to revolutions, counter-revolutions, riots, and violence. As Stephen Kotkin lays out in his magisterial biography of Stalin, over 16,000 Tsarist officials were assassinated in Russia between 1905 and 1911 by forces on the extreme left and right — years before war and revolution brought true political chaos. Russian secret police returned the favor, killing and exiling thousands more.

Looking at the recent past, it is striking how tame, how non-violent recent dissent has been (the important exception being, of course, the violent crackdowns on the Arab Spring). The same holds for international politics. While global tensions have no doubt increased, the odds of great power world war — the phenomenon that plagued humanity throughout modern history, culminating in the bloodbath that was the first half of the 20th century — are remarkably low. Few in the world want to see this world order replaced. One suspects even a rising China, which has benefitted perhaps more than anyone from post Cold War peace and stability, is actually not eager to see it go.

This is not to suggest we should be calm or unconcerned. History cautions against easy optimism or naïve expectations of linear progress. Things can get worse — much worse — in sudden and unexpected ways, in very short periods of time. That is the very reason why we must put things in perspective, to not judge every Presidential outrage or MSNBC tirade as the end of the world. We need to be much better about trying to separate the signal from the noise, to understand what matters most in the long run, and what is simply fodder for irrelevant arguments on social media.

What Matters?

How do we do this? In other words, how, in real-time, do we determine what matters? I reflect on this question a lot, especially when I am asked to put the 6-month-old Trump presidency in historical perspective. It is not obvious or easy.

The answer to the question “what matters” obviously depends on the who, when, and why of the asking, and is simultaneously the most individual and idiosyncratic of queries, and the most general and universal. For a historian of foreign policy and international security at a time when America’s role in the world is more uncertain than at any time in recent memory — it is an especially vexing question. Assessing the broad expanses of time that make up our past, historians are quick to recognize that things that seem to matter quite a bit in “real-time,” fade as the years pass, whereas forces and factors that were more hidden and subtle often play far larger roles in shaping the world we live in. Understanding today what will matter in an unknowable future is difficult.

Examples from the past abound. In July 1914, the headlines in the major newspapers in Paris were dominated by the details of the trial of Henriette Caillaux, the second wife of the French Ministry of Finance, who had shot and killed the editor of Le Figaro for publishing her husband’s private correspondences. The story had everything — sex, politics, intrigue, and seemed to matter quite a bit. The story of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia, issued after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was relegated to a distant second place. By August 1914, the Caillaux affair mattered not at all, and as the weeks and months passed, disappeared from public consciousness, replaced by a sickening wonder at how a dispute in the Balkans led to the murderous collapse of four empires and the end of European dominance in world affairs. When the Caillaux affair is mentioned, it is simply placed as a sobering reminder of how hard it is to know, in real-time, what matters.

Closer to home, reflect upon the situation the United States found itself in the 1970s. Focusing on deliberations in Washington during that tumultuous decade, you would have found few defenders of the idea that the United States was in any way exceptional or that its future was bright. The United States had lost a tragic and geopolitically inconsequential war that had killed tens of thousands of American soldiers and maimed hundreds of thousands more while exposing deep, seemingly permanent political and socio-cultural rifts in the country. The Soviet Union appeared to be pulling ahead in the superpower struggle as the United States seemed to retreat from the world. America’s cities were in ruins (hip San Francisco was referred to as “America’s Belfast”), experiencing epidemics of drugs and crime, facing bankruptcy and depopulation, all while the nation’s culture was coarsening and the economy mired in declining growth, high unemployment, and inflation. Political leadership ranged from corrupt to incompetent and citizens had lost faith in governing institutions. America was doomed.

Or so many believed.

Not far outside of America’s Belfast, the American dream was being remade. Silicon Valley launched a technological revolution, the wines of Napa Valley bested those of France in blind taste tests, efficient container ships streamed from the port of Long Beach to around the world, and the release of Star Wars beckoned Hollywood’s renewed cultural dominance. Other California trends, from the mega-churches of Orange County to the porn industry of San Fernando Valley to the rise of gay rights in San Francisco to the invention of modern comedy in L.A. standup clubs signaled a remaking of how Americans lived, worked, and saw themselves and the world around them. Little of this emerged directly from the White House situation room or the deliberations of the House Ways and Means committee. Yet all of it mattered.

Might we be in a similar situation today? Are the things that matter deeper, tectonic forces, ranging from demographics to technology to culture, shaping the world far more than the latest Trump tweet?

To be clear, I am not suggesting policy does not matter or that we should watch the collapse of America’s ability to carry out self-interested and coherent diplomacy without alarm or be fine with an administration that may or may not have a coherent grand strategy (and it is unclear which would be worse). I study issues of war and peace, which emerge from the decisions made by leaders of powerful, well-armed states. Geopolitics, even in quiet times, shapes domestic policy, economic realities, and socio-cultural trends in powerful ways. History reveals, time and again, that foolish policies, arrogance, and misunderstanding by state decision-makers can have catastrophic consequences. All of this is magnified by the presence of nuclear weapons, ideological extremism, and new threats to the commons and climate. In the short-term, a crisis in the Baltics or South China Sea could trigger a global conflagration. In the medium-term, a fraying of alliances, the rise of adversaries, the re-emergence of protectionism, and the deepening rifts within and between societies is alarming. Lurking out there is a global crisis no one has thought of or imagined yet. In the past, the same forces that gave the world prosperity and peace also, in time, created catastrophe when not handled deftly. We desperately need better, more historically informed policy to confront these challenges. To say I lack confidence in our current commander in chief and his associates to navigate these complexities is an understatement. We should be worried.

History, however, often dances to a different tune than the one playing in our heads and hearts, possesses all kinds of secrets, and likes nothing more than to surprise. Even more importantly, we forget how far we’ve come as a nation in recent years. In a perverse version of prospect theory, we fail to recognize our accomplishments, which in historical terms are extraordinary, while obsessing over what may turn out to be, over time, much ado about nothing.

This leads to the question of American exceptionalism: Who we are as a nation, a people, a culture, a political entity, and what that says about our future. What, if anything, makes the United States different? Limited government, favorable geography, rugged individualism, economic dynamism, family structure, social mobility, a sense of mission — all have played a role since the founding. Something just as important has mattered, however; something that has had a profound influence on how we live and relate to each other, which in our ahistorical, present-mindedness we easily forget.

Are We Looking at the Right Things?

One of my first memories is of an evening in July 1969, when my family hosted a party after my younger brother’s baptism. Two rooms held about 40 people, segregated, voluntarily, along gender lines. Many people were smoking, and judging by how hard I was hugged and my cheeks were pinched, most of the adults were “over-served.” More importantly, my brother was baptized on the same date that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and at a certain point in the evening, all the adults huddled around our Philco color television set, watching Walter Cronkite narrate the momentous event.

It was an extraordinary evening, and even I could sense something big was happening. If my precocious three year-old self had asked the adults what changes would mark the world over the next five decades, how the world might change as I reached their age, my guess is that most would have talked about the future of travel: We’d colonize the moon, then Mars, and get around on jet-packs, flying cars, and supersonic planes.

Ironically, how we travel — by car, plane, and train — has hardly changed at all (and may have gotten worse). We still haven’t gone to Mars, never colonized the Moon, and I am still waiting for my jetpack. How we communicate and access information, however, has been transformed in ways no one could have imagined. If I were able to show the tipsy adults in that room an iPhone 7 — with its ability to, among others things, call up virtually any aspect of the sum of human knowledge in a matter of seconds — they would be in awe.

Is that what would have surprised those 1969 guests the most, however, about America and the world? In the geopolitical realm, few would have guessed that the Soviet Union had disappeared, while its impoverished ideological fellow traveler, China, had become by some measures the wealthiest country in the world. My guess, however, is that the social and cultural changes would have been the most unexpected. Imagine they had learned that but a few decades later we elected an African-American president to not one but two terms in office? That marriage between partners of the same sex was legal? That it was fully expected in principle, if not always in practice, that women should have all the same rights and opportunities as men, that they could control the timing and circumstances of their own reproductive cycle, and that while we had three women on the Supreme Court and three female secretaries of state (one of them African-American), there would be a sense of profound embarrassment that we had not yet elected woman to our highest office? The guests would have accused my parents of lacing the already strong Manhattans and Highballs with hallucinogenics peddled by nearby hippies.

These social and cultural changes, and others like them, reflect profound, even revolutionary shifts in how we understand ourselves, and perhaps more importantly, those we share the planet with. Few of my 20 and 30 something year old friends understand how important, how rare, how unusual, these conditions are or recognize the historical forces that made them possible. The notion of a universal, shared humanity is, of course, as old as the major monotheistic religions, if not older. In practice, however, extreme violence, conquest, tribalism and cruel exclusion and exploitation of the “other,” not tolerance and celebration of difference and diversity, have dominated history’s narrative. This tolerance had many historical and global sources, including the humanitarianism we take for granted today, a powerful global force that emerged in the 19th century as a response to the horrors of slavery, industrialization, poverty, sexism, imperialism, bigotry, disease, and war. Yet it is hard to imagine them taking such a deep hold if not driven at least in part by America.

Several months after the moon landing, something reflecting this transformation appeared: The first episode of Sesame Street appeared on American television. Produced by the Children’s Television workshop, the opening montage featured children of every color playing and having fun together while a song we all know by heart played:

Come and play
Everything’s A-OK
Friendly neighbors there
That’s where we meet

Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street?

It’s a magic carpet ride
Every door will open wide
To Happy people like you–

We take this for granted, but in 1969 this was a radical vision, rarely realized and politically threatening (I had an uncle, a Philadelphia cop, who described it as a communist conspiracy). All children — black, white, brown, boy, girl, other — were entitled to happiness and joy, not separately but together. New York City, the home to Sesame Street, was wracked by spiraling crime, a drug epidemic, racial polarization, strikes, and near financial collapse. The same autumn that Sesame Street appeared New York City also suffered a wave of domestic terror bombings. Today, while we live in politically turbulent time, we’ve also come very far, farther than we often recognize and acknowledge. This vision of tolerance may often seem more aspirational than realized, and it no doubt has and will continued to be threatened. It is, however, a powerful beacon that shapes our reality. We live in a world made by Bert and Ernie, not the Weathermen or George Wallace, an outcome few could have imagined in 1969.

Is This Time Different?

It is the conceit of every age for its members to believe they live in the most important, consequential time and place in human history. Where are we today?

Sometimes, world historical change is both obvious and transformative. I graduated from the University of Chicago in 1988 with a degree in political science, studying under some of the most impressive international relations scholars in the world. By 1989, most of what I had learned appeared outdated, of little use to explain the turbulent world transforming around me. I do not blame my teachers for being wrong: All of our assumptions about what drove world politics were upended in what seemed to be lightning speed (I do hold them accountable for a lack of modesty ever since, as humility, which fuels curiosity, is the sine qua non of true scholarship).

Though surprising, in some ways the great political transformation of 1989 to 1991 made analysis easier, like studying the France of 1789, the July 1914 crisis, or the early years of the Cold War. It was obvious to everyone that the world was different, that everything had changed. There was a clear line that marked the shift, similar in clarity to the change from black and white to color film in The Wizard of Oz.

Other historical shifts are less clear. In the decade of the 1860s, the Meiji restoration, the wars of German reunification, the freeing of the serfs in Russia, and the Union victory over the Confederacy in the U.S. civil war provided the star actors for the geopolitical dramas that would dominate most of the 20th century. Few people in London knew that their economic, cultural, and geopolitical power was at its apex, beginning a decline, slow and unnoticeable at first, much rapid later. The 20th century was made in the 1860s, though few at the time realized it.

It is difficult to know where we are today and where we are going. Separating the signal from the noise is always a challenge, though the surprising election results, and the tumult that has followed, has made the task even harder. My sense, however, that we are unlikely to find out by refreshing Politico, Breibart, Townhall, The Hill, or The Washington Post websites every hour. My move to Washington right after the election has confirmed this sense: The nation’s capital is a one industry town not known to reward deep reflection or historical perspectives, and time horizons are measured in minutes and hours, not years or decades.

This is not to argue that Donald Trump does not matter or that the daily grind of politics and policy is not consequential. It is only to suggest that we might want to deploy some of our intellectual efforts to identifying and better understanding other powerful historical forces, which may play a larger role in shaping future outcomes that matter most. Important if unnoticed changes in socioeconomics and demography — the composition of the population and how, where, how, and with whom people choose to live and work — and technological change in areas ranging from energy to manufacturing to health care to transportation, will likely shape our future in profoundly important ways. One senses that many of our institutions, created to respond to the challenges of an industrial America that is rapidly disappearing, will also transition in the years and decades to come. The clues to this uncertain but consequential future will not be found in the president’s tweets.

One victim of the recent political tumult has been the notion of American exceptionalism. Always controversial, often dismissed, the concept is in particularly low repute amongst my younger friends. Barack Obama’s defense of the idea as president appeared less than enthusiastic, and Trump at several points explicitly rejected the claim that America is exceptional. Recent political events offer little evidence of America’s special providence. It turns out the term itself is problematic, made popular by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin of all people. Even the influence of Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon has been debunked.

Doom and gloom about the United States is not new, as thinkers in every decade since the founding have predicted the decline of the United States. In some ways, as a nation that combines deep millenarian instincts with rugged pragmatism, occasional doom and gloom, alternating with outsized optimism, is a key ingredient to America’s exceptionalism. Self-flagellation, if not taken too far, can be good for the soul. In the first half of the Republic’s life, America survived everything from nativism to corruption to massive industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, to say nothing of a bloody civil war. The second half witnessed two global wars, a thermonuclear standoff, and massive changes in who made up the nation and where and how they lived. We should put our current worries in perspective.

It’s Another Day of Sun

Close friends know I live with a dark secret: I love romantic comedies. Even better if singing and dancing is involved — I could watch Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance to Gershwin’s An American in Paris for days. This strikes my friends as odd: As a historian, I traffic in irony, tragedy, complexity, and unintended consequences. Historians are crusty and skeptical. I study war and peace, and spend much of my time thinking about nuclear weapons. History, like love, is messy, and often resists our efforts to put complicated events in the straight-jacket of a narrative or a five-act play. There are few happy endings. I confess I didn’t fully understand this perverse indulgence until recently, when reflecting upon the 2016 presidential election and watching “La La Land” on a transcontinental flight.

The movie opens on crowded, hot highway, angry drivers enclosed within their cars, listening to their own music, isolated from the world around them. A young woman hears a song on the radio, and inspired, leaves the car, dancing and singing. She is soon joined by other drivers, of every race, color, style, and creed, singing and dancing, who abandon their cars and celebrate both their individual talents and the beautiful cohesion of the dance number.

The lyrics of their shared song tell the familiar American story of leaving true love and familiar life behind to pursue the dream of riches and stardom in Hollywood: “Without a nickel to my name, hopped a bus, here I came, could be brave or just insane.” This is dream of millions of individuals, past, present, and future, from the immigrant of South Asia and Africa to the small-town girl looking for a broader canvas, to find and fulfill their own dream: “Technicolor world made out of music and machine.” Nothing is promised, success is elusive, and all one can do is to work harder than anyone else: “They say ‘you gotta want it more,’ so I bang on every door…”

And even when you fail — as you will more often than not — you keep trying, and believe in the American dream:

Climb these hills
I’m reaching for the heights
And chasing all the lights that shine
And when they let you down
You’ll get up off the ground
‘Cause morning rolls around
And its another day of sun

I confess that, watching the scene, I may have cried. I’ve read you get less oxygen at 35,000 feet and it affects your ability to reason. The two gin and tonics probably didn’t help. Even cynical, crusty historians know, deep in their soul, that the possibility, however slim, that anyone, regardless of background, gender, ethnicity, tribe or clan, can become a movie star, a high-tech billionaire, the president of the United States, or, heck, even a tenured professor, is world historically unpresidented. Such dreams were unthinkable in most places and in most times until recently, and though its sources and impact of this revolutionary change go far beyond the United States, it is hard to imagine it triumphing as it has without America. This dream survived far greater challenges that we face today, and while we need to vigilantly defend it, I fully expect it to shape our world in the years and decades to come.

We often forget America is as much an idea as a place. I can’t remember where I heard this story, but a famous statesman supposedly once asked the great leader of Singapore, Lew Kuan Yew, whether America had to worry about China’s rise. Would they overtake the United States? “They will come close. They are very smart and have over a billion people. But in the end, America will always win because it has seven billion people.” Not to go all Tom Friedman, but I have yet to meet a taxi/Uber driver anywhere around the world who doesn’t dream of coming to the United States, or failing that, fulfilling the American dream in their own land. This election did not change that at all. America is “La La Land,” not “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It has survived James Buchanan, Warren Harding, the 1960s, the Know-Nothing party, and disco, to say nothing of two world wars, the thermonuclear revolution, and a civil war. God willing, it will survive Donald Trump and his tweets.

This does not mean we should not be worried, or that things can’t get very bad in a hurry; that politics and policy are not of fundamental importance, that the horrors of world war can’t return, or that a Hollywood romantic comedy — even one with singing and dancing — is any kind of savior for the pressing, vexing problems and challenges we face. Nor does it mean that the United States has any monopoly on these ideas and beliefs — far from it. Perhaps our greatest success is that they’ve found fertile soil all around the world, keeping hope alive while we are in one of our occasional periods of backsliding. We forget at our own peril, however, that what makes the United States exceptional is not a political party or leader, or even a specific ideology. America is aspirational; a dream. Most aspirations fall short, and most dreams are not fulfilled. When the dance scene ended, the singers and dancers got back into their cars, leaned on their horns, and returned to their self-contained, solipsistic worlds. Nothing is promised, even if we work as hard as possible. That aspiration, however, that dream, no matter how fleeting, is, to this historian, exceptional.


Francis J. Gavin is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. His writings include Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 1958-1971 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012).  

Image: Kristian Dela Cour, CC