American exceptionalism is a funny thing. As historian Walter MacDougall quipped years ago, exceptionalism is “more trouble and probably even more danger than it’s worth: It either means nothing at all or altogether too much.” It is the tic of all great powers to see themselves as uniquely great, or it’s a tendency among powerful countries to think of themselves as divinely blessed. The former makes exceptionalism a historical banality, and the latter a dangerous temptation to hubris. Both lead nowhere good.
This week, as President Biden was making his way across Europe trying to restore what many see as the country’s damaged reputation abroad, I was struck by a third danger inherent in deeply-held exceptionalism: crippling self-doubt born of taking accusations of hypocrisy too seriously.
This week’s column by the New York Times’ Charles M. Blow is a good case study of this third danger at work. Triggered by Vladimir Putin’s acid “whataboutist” trolling in response to being asked by American journalists about repression in Russia, Blow observes: