I’ve written on this subject before, but I think it bears restating. Many Americans today think we have somehow replaced the Children of Israel as God’s chosen people and occupy a special place in the human community. This is called "the Myth of American Exceptionalism." But when viewed historically our privileged place in the world is the obvious result of natural conditions, causes and events, not providential favor.
For over 150 years the American colonies were an eight- to twelve-weeks perilous sailing voyage removed from Europe’s ongoing strife and wars. They were thus pretty much free to develop their own economies and governments with little outside interference. And when they won their independence, self-government was already in place and working. Ours was a political, not a social revolution.
By good fortune the new American citizens became heirs to a vast continent of unsurpassed natural resources including vast forests, rich soil, abundant rainfall, a moderate climate with long growing seasons, and more and varied mineral wealth than any other nation in history. And by more good fortune this rich territory was held by native people who had little concept of ownership and were largely unable to defend it. For the next century or more after the American Revolution, our remoteness continued allowing us to grow and develop on our own with little outside interference.
Our relative isolation from European strife continued until World War I, after which we emerged as the world’s foremost economic power. But history is replete with civilizations and cultures that have enjoyed hegemonic status for extended periods, then inevitably fell. The Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Spanish, French and British Empires all eventually collapsed. Was there a common factor or cause attributing to their decline? Many observers feel they forgot the real reasons for their ascendency and succumbed to the seductive myth of providential favor. They had become, so they thought, invincible and invulnerable. Going all the way back to Old Testament times, philosophers and prophets have given humankind adequate warnings of the dangers of overconfidence, but they have mostly fallen on deaf ears. And they all eventually failed.
America emerged from World War II the only nation with its industrial base, infrastructure and economy still intact, even enhanced. And everybody owed us to boot. As before, this was more the product of geographical realities than benevolent providence. And today our delusions include the surety that we have a civilizing mission to the world to establish democracy, free-market capitalism and a globalized economy whether it is wanted or not. Also included is the assumed role of world preacher and policeman.
This delusory thinking has gotten us into a world of trouble already, particularly in the Middle East. No wise, mature world power would have ever become so inextricably involved in that quagmire of religious, cultural and political dysfunction. When Britain and France controlled this region they wisely never committed their own ground forces in appreciable numbers. Instead they strategically deployed naval and air power and manipulated the local and regional balance of power to their own advantage. But we have apparently learned nothing from them.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.