I’d like to broaden John Holbo’s CT discussion of the US as a center-right nation to consider the broader idea that the US is, in some sense, exceptional. As Barack Obama correctly pointed out not so long ago, every nation is exceptional in its own way, which tends to undermine the idea that any nation is specially exceptional.
Still, compared to the developed world in general, it seems obvious that the US is different in lots of ways: an outlier in terms of nationalism, military power, religiosity, working hours and inequality of outcomes and (in the opposite direction) in terms of government intervention, health outcomes and other measures typically associated with welfare states. Among these the outstanding differences arise from the fact that the US aspires, with some success, to be globally hegemonic in military terms and (with rather less success) in economic terms as well.
But, when you think about it, there is nothing exceptional here.
Almost every state of any significance in history has aspired to dominate its known world. In the last century, Britain, Germany, Russia and even France aspired to this role, and right now Russia and China are keen to try. Religiosity, militarism, inequality, and governments that do little for their subjects are the norm rather than the exception. Long hours of hard work have been the lot of humankind at least since the arrival of agriculture.
The real exception to all of this is Europe. The largest economic aggregate in world history, it has enough military power to repel any invader, but is deeply uninterested in using this power to any more glorious end. It grows by a process of reluctant accretion, controlled by ever more onerous admission requirements. In all of history, it would be hard to find anything comparable in terms of pacifism, godlessness, equality, leisure for the masses or public provision of services.
Then the EU itself. There aren’t many historical parallels and those that I can think of (the US under the Articles of Confederation and the Commonwealth of Independent States, for example) were rapidly abandoned. It’s ungainly, unloved and bureaucratic, and yet it has persisted for 50+ years (nearly 60 if you count the ESC). The Great Powers of the 19th are now, with marginal exceptions, parts of this post-sovereign collective.
It’s for these reasons that American views of Europe resemble de Tocqueville in reverse. Something so unprecedented, and against the laws of nature, they think, cannot possibly survive, let alone prosper. And yet it does.
fn1. As pointed out in comments, the bloody failure of these attempts between 1914 and 1945 helped cure most European countries of belief in national greatness. But Russia, which suffered more than anywhere else, has seemingly gone the other way.
fn2. That’s not to deny, of course, that there are lots of differences within Europe. Nevertheless, on the criteria described above, almost any European state appears as an outlier in historical terms.
fn3. The other developed countries (Japan and the wealthier bits of East Asia, Aust/NZ, Canada and, to the extent it can be regarded as outside Europe, the UK, sit somewhere in between.