I’ve read quite a few people imply or outright say that without the United States, no concerted global effort to mitigate climate change will work. Someone described the “It Could Happen Here” podcast as speculating that a second American civil war would “drag the rest of western civilization down with it.” And, of course, we know how much food and money goes in and out of this country.
Given these factors, and any other that you can think of, is America the most important country in the world, the lynchpin of modern global civilization, where its actions and stability pretty much determine where the human race will go? If so, how the heck did that happen? If America’s influence wanes (and if it is the most important country in the world, that can only go downhill), what does that mean, exactly, for America and its standard of living?
Well, it’s worth distinguishing between importance and exceptionalism.
The US is still arguably the most important country in many senses: while it’s not the weathiest (especially median income) it’s a populous and wealthy country, which means it has a huge economic impact. Plus the fact the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency.
It has by far the biggest military, and still disproportionate cultural influence. And many of the world’s best universities.
However, exceptionalism was largely a product of the post WWII landscape, where the US was dominant on a scale where it could economically crush the rest of the developed world combined.
That was only ever going to be a temporary thing, and is long passed now.
There’s no more reason now to consider the US as an exception as for China, India, the EU, Russia etc.
Nowadays ISTM exceptionalism is used more often as an excuse. Whenever some way the US is failing is pointed out, some people retreat to reaffirming that the US is still #1, or, suggest that because the US is “exceptional” it’s, like, really hard, to implement that thing.
IMO you’ve badly mixed several different ideas here. “Exceptional” and “important” are two very different, borderline orthogonal, concepts. Let me list a few and maybe we can parse something out of them. Understand I’m not stating that these things are all necessarily true; simply that they are ideas out there that some (many?) people subscribe to.
The USA is economically and militarily powerful; therefore whatever it does in the world makes large waves, for good or for ill.
The USA is economically and militarily powerful; therefore whatever it does attracts smaller countries as followers, for good or for ill.
The USA is large / powerful enough that if it doesn’t participate in a cooperative global thing (e.g. climate change mitigation, WHO) that thing will fail in its mission from lack of USA participation.
Of the powerful countries, the (pre-2016) USA is about the only one not ruled by Evil.
The USA is inherently better than other countries, and always will be; it’s the inevitable destiny of the country.
The USA people are inherently better than others, and always will be; it’s the birthright of those people.
The white Christian USA people are inherently better than others, and always will be; it’s the birthright of those people. Any other USAians are at best pretenders and at worst a disposable obstacle to that glorious destiny.
The USA’s actions are inherently Good; it can do no Evil.
The USA has total freedom of action; everybody else just has to put up with what the USA does.
The USA is free to ignore the interests and preferences of the rest of the world. They have no influence on the USA. Nor should they.
Items 1-4 speak to importance. And IMO were mostly true in 2016 albeit some factors are on the wane. Notice also that they are at least partially a self-reinforcing circle. e.g. 3 is true because 1 is true because 3 is true …
items 5+ are what most Americans think of as “exceptionalism”. It’s not about power, it’s about the inherent right to power, and the inherent purity of American motives.
On one hand it’s true that the United States is one of the largest polluters on the planet. It was the largest for decades until China’s industrial capacity caught up with ours, but we’re 1/4 - 1/5 China’s size in terms of population. We’re much worse on a per capita basis. So it’s absolutely true that if the US doesn’t commit to fighting climate change, the rest of the world would be left to pull our gargantuan weight in terms of cleaning up our emissions (I write this on the very uncertain assumption of a future technology that can actually remove some concentration of CO2 from the atmosphere).
That being said, if a country with a lot of clout, such as China, or even a group of nations like the EU, can turn fighting climate change into its own 21st Century industry that creates millions an millions of new jobs, then there would be an incentive for other countries, including the United States, to copy that model and do what they’re doing. The most compelling arguments against fighting climate change hasn’t been that climate change doesn’t exist; it’s that doing anything about it would result in economic displacement that would far outweigh the problem itself. We’ve chosen to allow the market to dictate how and when we deal with climate change, which is why China is, in many ways, positioned better to innovate than the so-called American free market. Arguably the greatest existential threat that China faces is its own Malthusian problem and sustainability. It has incentives to deal with climate change before the Western market wakes up to this problem.
America has been the most important country since at least 1945, and this has been because most of the other world powers - Britain, France, and others - had no more money left after two world wars. The USSR was built on a failed economic and political ideology, which resulted in it not having much money either. China was plagued with internal turmoil dating all the way back to the 19th Century, and arguably longer ago than that. In short, America already had money even before WWII, but WWII saw the US take that money and put it to use as an industrial military complex. Other powers waned and the US filled a political and economic power vacuum. How did it happen? A fortuitous turn of world events, mostly.
Not only will America’s influence wane, it already is waning now. It’s just that it has built up so much power over the preceding decades that it will take time before that our decline is apparent to us and everyone else. We’re probably in the same situation that Britain and France were in during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Still quite powerful, but it’s by now obvious that we have some competition - China, in our case. But competition could come from elsewhere in the years ahead.
In terms of what it means for our standard of living, that’s hard to say. However, lots of countries manage to do fairly well in spite of not being global empires. The British, the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese, the Germans, the Japanese…they’re all doin’ okay despite not being what they once were in terms of military prowess.
One of the political talk shows, I think John Oliver’s show, showed a clip of a school board meeting someplace in the US. A parent made a statement, “I want my kids to come out of school knowing that the worst day in this country is better than the best day in any other.” That’s perhaps an extreme example of American exceptionalism.
That’s exactly what China is doing. They are leading the way on developing renewable technologies as well as new generation nuclear power (which we gave them a good start by having already developed most of the groundwork in the 60’s and then let it fallow).
The problem is that we will not be able to follow in their footsteps mostly due to IP. They will develop technologies that we will need to buy from them.
And, when people point at China as being a massive GHG emitter, they neglect to realize that much of the GHG is being produced there to make goods for us. We try to pretend that we are not responsible for it, but it really is just offloading the GHG that we would be emitting onto them anyway.
We’ll probably steal from China the way they steal from us, and China won’t be the only country that innovates in this regard.
The problem we have is, we’re falling behind. Another problem is, climate change isn’t just an environmental problem; it’s existential economic and political problem that can cause sudden, dramatic changes that can completely disrupt everything from economics to politics.
As I’ve said several times, the current pandemic is practice for when the shit really and truly does hit the fan, and the results are not encouraging. COVID-19 is a ground ball to short with a perhaps a tricky hop, and unfortunately, we’ve bobbled it pretty badly. Climate change is going to be a line drive in the gap. We’re not positioned to field it very well, IMO.
Sometimes the term is used to signify the difference between the U.S. and other countries and not that the Untied States is “superior.” This is mostly academic, however, as the average American probably does think in terms of “we’re the best.”
I’ll second (or third) the necessity of distinguishing between “important” and “exceptional,” especially in terms of representative democracy. The founders were wonderfully creative for their time in history but other developed nations have decisively moved past us in developing forms of government that surpass our own clunky design.
Unfortunately, a large portion of the electorate will never agree with my conclusion until we have fallen into total banana republicanism.
I think that we might need to consider the role of mulitnationals, a number of these have so much economic power that it has also become political power, and really it’s no surprise to me that their needs or requirement and demands are effectively determining international policy across borders.
This would not be a surprise, after all the British East India company had its own military and pretty much was a government in its own right.
Taxation and national legal regimes are drivers for the behaviours of multi-nationals and it seems to me that this is what is driving a lot of internal politics - one suspects that the US healthcare debate is largely driven by commercial interests which fund national political debate toward retaining the current systems in the US.
In the EU we have many companies who try to influence the rules in relation to corporation tax and VAT to their advantage, not least to notionally have their HQ in one EU nation yet undertake the vast majority of their business in other EU states with the final transaction taking place electronicaly in the notional HQ - and this is to avoid various taxes. Ireland has been especially succesful in this regard by attracting quite a number of multi-nationals.
We can look at lots of other multinationals who avoid taxation - the list is long but they are also very interested in lobbying national legislatures for their own advantage - beit tax, legislation, protectionism.
US is heavily driven by multinationals, which often work hand in glove with other mulitnationals that would appear to be Russian and Chinese - especially in the energy market, but its a mistale to believe they are acting as national agents instead of acting in their own interests.
Yeah, it’s interesting to speculate on how bad things can get before people would drop the USA! USA! thing.
It’s already the case that if I had to choose a random country to be born in in the next life, the US would be waaaay down the list. This is given the high chance of being born in a dirt poor family and the American dream being akin to buying a lottery ticket.
At the least, I’d put the US behind any country with UHC.
But many Americans know little about the outside world, and don’t appreciate how objectively bad certain things are.
The US is not exceptional. As for importance, the US is an former world-dominating empire (domination through influence and culture) now winding down. I’d say China is just as important now and will be more important in the future.
I think that 90% of the times that I have heard someone mention “American exceptionalism”, it has been in the context of universal healthcare and gun control (and possibly high speed trains, to a much lesser extent).