Debating “American Exceptionalism”
When the “baby boomers” were being educated in the U.S. public schools in the 1950’s, we were encouraged to take pride in our country’s dedication to the peace and prosperity of all nations. And there were expenditures and overseas initiatives to back up the image portrayed of a generous, open handed benefactor nation. Following the vital support of the Marshall Plan in helping rebuild Europe post WW II, there was the Food for Peace exports to relieve hunger, federal backing for the Green Revolution’s implementation in countries like India, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America and other regionally focused development aid initiatives. When I hear politicians describe the U.S. today as “exceptional”, the generosity of our foreign aid programs is not mentioned.
In the year 2015, this country dedicated 0.8 % of its federal budget in development aid for poor nations. The UN passed a resolution a few years ago that challenged the industrialized nations to devote a minimum of 0.7 % of the Gross National Income (GNI) to economic development aid. The U.S. development aid has stood at around 0.18 % of GNI in recent years. That puts the world’s leading economy in 22nd place among advanced countries in the percentage of GNI spent on helping poor nations with agricultural development, entrepreneurship, health and education. Economic development aid to Mexico this year was budgeted at $49 million while “security assistance” for the Mexican army and police forces was set at $85.6 million.
The U.S. lags far behind other nations in its commitment to development aid and the ranking is not likely to change any time soon. When the current President ran on a platform of “Make America Great Again!” he did not have in mind that the UK gives nearly four times more in foreign development aid than the U.S. as a percentage of GNI. It was not a surprise that in his first 100 days Trump proposed a series of huge increases in military spending beginning with a pledge of an additional $50 billlion for next year. With a military budget already amounting to more than the defense spending of the next seven nations ranking below us, how much more does the military industrial complex of the U.S. need in order to make the U.S. “great again”?
In recent years visitors returning from Africa to the U.S. and Europe comment on the highly visible presence of the Chinese aid workers in countries across the continent. In the 1960’s the U.S. was considered as the best friend of the new nations of Africa, the friend which would enable countries like the Congo to share in the enormous wealth generated by its natural resources. China has now replaced the U.S. as the leading foreign presence in Congo repairing roads, building a rail road and planning upgrades to the Inga hydroelectric plant originally conceived, with the encouragement of the U.S., to provide power for much of Central Africa.
Those of us who were persuaded in the 1950’s and early 60’s that our nation was great or “exceptional” in its generous sharing of its abundant resources now question whether we as a nation have sacrificed the ethical, moral content of our nation’s self image on an altar of militarism. The Puritan vision of our nation as a “city on the hill” has become a city fortified today by walls, defended by the largest nuclear weapons infrastructure in the world, and paid for with federal expenditures dedicated to “national security” that dwarf the military spending of other nations.
There is little agreement now over what in fact makes the U.S. an “exceptional” or a “great nation”. Little agreement and some confusion it now appears. During his eight years in office President Obama put forward contrasting views on “American exceptionalism”. In a televised speech to the nation in September 2013 the President pronounced bombings of Syrian army positions as what makes the U.S. “exceptional”. He declared,”When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our kids safer over the long run, I believe we should act… That is what makes America different. That is what makes us exceptional.” But in a 2015 speech, in the waning months of his presidency, President Obama declared, “Our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans. There is, you know, this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength.”
There can be little doubt that Trump’s idea of “making America great again” focuses on military buildup and deploying heavier weaponry like the “mother of all bombs” exploded in Afghanistan recently. That’s why the Union of Concerned Scientists moved the doomsday clock closer to midnight, to two and a half minutes to 12, following Trump’s inauguration. But both Democratic and Republican administrations have led in building up the U.S. military and differ only in the degree and the bluster they use to justify increases in “defense” spending.
So is this really what the U.S. population wants? Is the military might of the U.S. what we want to set us apart and make us “exceptional” in the eyes of other nations and our own eyes? I don’t think so but under the current Trump administration another unique characteristic of the U.S., mentioned by Obama in the 2013 reference to the U.S. Muslim population, is under severe challenge. That “exceptional” feature of the U.S. will be lifted up in the next Erasing Borders blog posting.