10 November 2015

Why American exceptionalism matters


Prior to the release of Spectre, the number one film in America for four of the past five weeks was The Martian, Ridley Scott’s visually stunning adaptation of the bestselling book by Andy Weir. Set in the near future, the film tells the gripping tale of how an American astronaut, named Mark Watney, survives several hundred days on Mars after his crew leave him for dead. What is most interesting about the film is its tremendous optimism, and its belief in how American ingenuity, scientific brilliance and a genuine can-do spirit can save a life while lifting an entire nation. Above all this is a motion picture that celebrates American exceptionalism, projected through the lens of a gifted British director who has made the United States his home. Expect a strong showing at the Oscars next February, in the wake of the success of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 2014, another recent science fiction hit with an optimistic theme.

Americans clearly want to cheer the hopeful message of a film like The Martian, and close to $200 million in box office receipts confirms this. Yet there is a striking contrast between the idealism of Scott’s movie and the relentless negativity of the current political polls. According to the RealClear Politics survey, a mere 27 percent of Americans believe the United States is moving in the “right direction.” In contrast over 63 percent believe their country is on the “wrong track.” Faith in the US Congress is now so low that 78 percent of Americans disapprove of the job it is doing. As for the President of the United States, his approval rating stands at 45 percent.

Survey after survey shows that the American people are disillusioned with their elected officials, believe their country is in decline, and fear that their nation’s best days are behind them. There is also a growing lack of confidence in American leadership abroad, a sense that the world’s superpower is losing its position as the most powerful nation on earth, while its adversaries and competitors are gaining ground at America’s expense. Talk of decline is now everywhere in America, from television talk shows to the  wave of presidential debates.

You have to go back to the days of Richard Nixon to find the same levels of public disenchantment with America’s ruling class. To millions of ordinary voters, Washington appears more and more like an imperial Rome, with an out of touch political elite seemingly oblivious to the decay that is setting in around them, contemptuous of public opinion while continuing to rule with an air of indifference.

At the heart of US decline has been the rise of big government at home combined with a growing isolationism and lack of direction abroad. The United States increasingly resembles the world’s biggest symbol of decline, the European Union. Like the EU as a whole, America is increasingly submerged under mountains of public debt (expected to rise to a staggering $20 trillion by the time President Obama leaves office), drowning under rising taxes and ever increasing government regulation, and facing huge unfunded entitlement liabilities. On both sides of the Atlantic, economic freedom is increasingly being challenged. In the most recent Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom, the United States ranks just 12th in the world, with an economy that is classified as “mostly free.”

Economic decline at home has been matched by growing weakness on the world stage. Much like Europe’s continental big powers, the United States has adopted an approach that the White House itself has dubbed “leading from behind.” The end result has been clear for all to see: a Russian “reset” that has been pushed aside by the Kremlin as though it were a rag doll, a Middle East in flames with the rise of ISIS and the complete lack of a strategy in Syria, a nuclear deal with Tehran that practically guarantees Iran becomes a nuclear weapons power in 10 to 15 years (and probably far sooner), a weakened NATO and frayed alliances with close allies such as Israel, and a diminished American military that has faced a series of devastating cuts. To describe the Obama administration’s foreign and defence policy as disastrous would be an understatement. The next US president will have to begin the process of cleaning up a mess that may take decades to clear.

To reverse decline, the United States will need to rediscover the spirt of American exceptionalism that has made it the most powerful nation on earth. This involves a return to market-based policies that roll back the frontiers of the State and reduce dependency on government while empowering entrepreneurialism and creative energy. The solution is not to grow government but to restrain it, unleashing the power of economic freedom. Instead of mimicking the path taken by the European Union, the United States has to rediscover the principles and ideals that have made this nation for centuries a bastion of individual liberty.

Economic renewal must be matched by a willingness to lead internationally, with a clear-cut strategy to confront America’s adversaries, repair damaged alliances in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, and powerfully project military might where needed. As we have witnessed in the last few years, the world is a far more dangerous place in the absence of US leadership. From Moscow to Tehran, our enemies have become increasingly emboldened. America’s foes should fear US power, while its allies should feel confident that the world’s superpower will stand with them when they are threatened.

For all its imperfections, America remains the world’s indispensable nation. President Obama is wrong – American exceptionalism is not the same as Greek exceptionalism, or that of any other country. As Margaret Thatcher noted in her final book, Statecraft: “America is more than a nation or a state or a superpower; it is an idea – and one which has transformed and continues to transform us all. America is unique – in its power, its wealth, its outlook in the world.”

The world needs a self-confident America that is once again willing to lead and believes in itself. After several years of decline the United States must reclaim its sense of optimism, and reassert itself as a truly exceptional nation. 35 years ago, an American president with an unfailing faith in his country’s greatness showed how it could be done. Only time will tell if America finds another Reagan. But the fact that America has bounced back before shows that this nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and self-determination, has an extraordinary capacity for regeneration and renewal. America’s enemies are betting on US decline. It’s time for the American people to prove them wrong.

Nile Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.