Between myth and history

US-American exceptionalism

by Patrick Lawrence


ScheerPost. Patrick Lawrence delivered the following remarks, based on his book “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”, before the Committee for the Republic in Washington on 15 December. The Committee is a nonpartisan group founded in 2003 that advocates a restoration of the US Constitution, notably the War Powers Act, which assigns Congress, and not the Executive, the power to declare war.   

It is a fine thing to live and work in a village of 1,600 souls in rural Connecticut, and the telephone rings one morning. The man at the other end has taken the trouble to read your columns, and then taken the trouble to purchase your most recent book, and then taken the trouble to telephone you and invite you to speak to the Committee for the Republic. 
    I am grateful to John Henry, your co-founding chairman, for the invitation that brings me before you, and it is a pleasure to be with you this evening, as I have admired the Committee’s work for some time, if at some distance. 
    Since I address you as a hack of a certain age, I’ll begin as I was trained to begin long ago – with the pyramid method: You put the most important thing you have to say at the top, and all else follows in descending order so your editors can cut, as they inevitably do, from the bottom up, and if nothing is left but one sentence, you’ve got your point across. 

We need the failure and the defeat

Here’s my lead this evening:
How sweet it will be for our Republic when the day arrives on which we admit we have failed. What splendid vistas will lie before us when we at last accept that our idea of who we are and what we are meant to do in the world has been defeated.
In short, we are a nation desperately in need of failure and defeat. We need these things precisely so that we can realize ourselves and our great, underserved potential in new ways and as fully as we can – this for our own sake but also for the world’s.  
    When I write this kind of thing in a column or a commentary, I feel compelled to remind readers not to miss the optimism beneath the apparent pessimism. The impression I have of the Committee for the Republic is that no such guidance is necessary, so I won’t belabor the point. I assume we share an understanding that to get anywhere in a given endeavor you must begin with a clear-eyed acceptance of where you are, your starting point. 
    “Where are we?” is the obvious question. 
    “What is the endeavor?” is the follow-on line of inquiry.  

The myth of the chosen people

Americans, always with dissenters who also count as part of the American story, have lived a long, long time with the idea that we are an exceptional people, a Providentially chosen people, with special things to do on earth. This is the essence of the mythology at the root of our national consciousness. Taking my date from Winthrop’s “eyes of the world” sermon (1630), we’re eight years away from marking four centuries of such mythologically generated assumptions. 
    Later came the “Manifest Destiny” editorial in 1845. 
    Then Wilson and his universalism. 
    Then Henry Luce’s “American Century.”  
    Then our obnoxious post-Cold War triumphalism and Fukuyama’s “End of history” thesis: Can something be obnoxious and supercilious at the same time?
    Always a renewal of the ideology, more or less intact. For my money, every president since Wilson has been a Wilsonian, or a neo-Wilsonian, or a closet Wilsonian, or what have you. The think tanks in these parts are full of Wilsonians. It seems to be in the district’s water. 
   Then came 11 September 2001, and all changed, changed utterly to quote the William Butler Yeats1 poem, and for now I’ll leave out the line about a terrible beauty a-borning. We will have to wait for that.  

The end of the “American Century”

I take September 11th as the uncannily abrupt date when the orthodox American narrative finally failed. It was on that morning that what we had long told ourselves about ourselves, and ourselves among others – the story of our exceptionalism – proved illusory. 
    We can all remember the television newscasts endlessly looping footage of the collapsing twin towers in Lower Manhattan. It seemed to me the wreckage we obsessively watched was an objective co-relative, to borrow the literary term: The blows of greatest magnitude were to our hearts and minds. We had lived for centuries on the assumption that history, as Toynbee wonderfully put it, was something that happened to other people. We considered ourselves immune from it – from the depredations and uncertainties of time itself. 
    All of a sudden it landed on us that we weren’t. 
    The issue instantly before us was whether we could accept this. In an equally powerful jolt to our collective psyches, and a closely related matter, the “American Century” as Luce proclaimed it in his LIFE editorial of February 1941, also ended that day. 
    So I have long argued. 
    There are many ways to understand this, but, drawing from Luce’s text, no longer could Americans “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”

The choice

As I saw it, the events of 2001 confronted us with a choice. 
    We could have accepted that our national narrative had failed at that moment and that we had entered a new time and faced new circumstances. This would require of us imagination, our native wisdom, and a necessary measure of courage. We Americans are not short of these things, after all. They would have guided us well as we walked on unfamiliar soil and found our way across a new, unmapped landscape. Since when are Americans afraid of unexplored territory?
    Or we could resist our new century, a post-American century we can call it, and enter a state of denial that would lead us into all manner of destructive conduct.      
    I gave us 25 years to make this choice, counting from 2001. As it has turned out, those who purport to lead America needed far less to choose wrongly. 

“We have made a lot of messes since 2001”

We have made a lot of messes since 2001 – we make one in Europe and Ukraine as we speak, and we can hardly wait to make another with China – but we have never since that day been able to do what we want, where we want, as we want – not with any kind of result to our benefit – or anyone else’s for that matter. 
    There is no trace of creativity left in our foreign policies. As a departed friend used to put it, we’ve assumed the role of spoiler, and how infra-dig is this?
    Our unwise course since September 11 leaves us more or less paralyzed in an awful place. We are suspended between myth and history, as I see it – the one failing us at last, the other inducing fear as it beckons us forward.
William Appleman Williams titled his last book, published five years after Saigon rose, as I prefer to put it, and I hope you don’t mind, Empire as a Way of Life. This is where we are – hooked on a faded, collapsing hegemony that cannot be salvaged and in any case is not worth salvaging. 
    Very saliently, the choice those who purport to lead us have made has deprived us of something we greatly need during this passage in our history. 

Plea for the value of defeat
and the dangers of victory

Here I’ll draw from a wonderful book by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the German writer and a good student of America, called The Culture of Defeat. Wolfgang makes an eloquent case for the value of defeat and the perils of victory. 
    A defeated nation must retreat into itself and think again. It must face the reality that it had it wrong. All that it had assumed was enduring and superior in itself had failed. So are the defeated forced to reconsider their very world view, their identities, and all they had assumed to be so.
    In this process, Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues, lies the promise of rejuvenation, of renewal. To acknowledge failure is to open oneself to new ways to do things, to new understandings and identities. In time the vanquished can return to the fray and present themselves to others in a new and imaginative way that answers to the painful discovery of past errors. 
    Victors, by contrast, work on the assumption that they have it right, they have proven out, and all they need to do is keep on as they have. Victors have no great need to think about anything.
    When John Henry invited me to come see you, he remarked on the telephone, “What a pleasure it is to speak to someone else who still thinks.” 
    I took that kindly, of course, but let us consider the subtext. We have made ourselves into a nation that no longer thinks very much. 
    One of Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s studies in “The Culture of Defeat” is the American South. He writes in that chapter, “Victory, like revolution, can devour its children, particularly those who expect more from it than what it actually delivers.”    This is where we are, enraptured by the post-1945 decades of primacy, caught up – especially but not only when we look across the Pacific – in a pitiful, unbecoming nostalgia for the once-was-but-no-longer-is.
    Nostalgia, I have always thought, is a form of depression that seizes people who cannot bear the present. 

From a nation with a destiny …

Maybe it is evident by now that I think our present predicaments two decades into a new century are at bottom psychological questions – or have a pronounced psychological dimension. To advance from our present condition, I would argue, requires first a new consciousness. 
    Let me turn to this briefly.
    In The Promise of American Life – 1909, I think – Herbert Croly asked, more than a century ago, whether America can transform itself from a nation with a destiny into a nation with a purpose. This is one way to describe our project today. 
    Destiny is the stuff of the exceptionalists. It leads us into – or provides alibis for – all our semi-scared “missions.” 
    Purpose gives a people agency – earthly things to do. It makes us, not Providence, responsible for our decisions.
    To me this is the transformation we have to make. The question before us is what we propose to do once we have got this done. What kind of nation do we want to be, with what kind of policies? What will be our purpose? 
    I define the objective as a post-exceptionalist America. Much else, and maybe all else, will flow from this, it seems to me. 
    This means that before we get to doing anything, there is a very great deal we have to stop doing. This means we must cease doing all those things America has long done in the name of exceptionalism and its insidious sibling, universalism. 

… to a nation with a purpose

All that must cease, we must withdraw from it, and in its place begin to contribute to an orderly, multipolar world in which international law reigns and different histories, traditions, cultures, priorities, and perspectives are not merely accommodated but taken as a given and respected, valued, even celebrated. 
I will be forever damned if most Americans, properly informed, would not choose an orderly world over military, material, and ideological dominance. All of us, were we to have leadership with the guts to embark on a new path, would soon discover that our claim to exceptionalism and all the responsibilities it imposes upon us have been an immense burden. 
    And how fine it is to imagine the relief when this burden is lifted – or better put when we lift it from ourselves.
    Imagine a world where a multitude of voices and sensibilities are aroused to address tasks, challenges, crises that are common to us all. 
    What new ways would things open up to us – providing we first have the courage to open our minds and escape our obsession with our own voice as the only one the world needs to hear.  

The path forward

I address a gathering with some constitutionalists among you. This suggests to me that you are already well aware of the path forward. It lies in our return to the ideals we long ago abandoned and to the rule of law as set out in the Constitution. 
    This will more than do as we seek fundamentally to alter our course. An alternative foreign policy based on respect for international law, instead of this “rules-based order” people bang on about, the dismantling of the military-industrial complex and all of its associated apparatus in the national security state, a rebalanced economy, an end to the official lawlessness that is rampant all around us, a rethink altogether of our place in the world and how we should conduct ourselves among others: All such advances require only that we live by the principles we claim to espouse but have too long ignored.

Enormity of the transformation

I am well aware, as I am sure you are, of the enormity of the transformation I’m trying to describe. So be it, I say. The magnitude of the task does not constitute an excuse for not undertaking it. It is just the opposite, in my view. The magnitude of the task is a precise measure of how urgently we need to address it.
    The French have a wonderful word for otherworldly idealism. They call it angélisme, and when I take up these topics I am sometimes charged with it – or, truer to the point, I accuse myself of indulging in it. I reply – to others or myself – with a mention of Henri Bergson2 and how he understood the coming of great change, so I will end with this passage from his final book. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion [1932] was a brief elaboration on one of his big ones, Creative Evolution [1907], wherein he made his case for what he called our élan vital, a sort of spirit or innate energy that drives us forward. 
    Here is what he said about how fundamental change arrives among us:
    “It is a leap forward, which can take place only if a society has decided to try the experiment; and the experiment will not be tried unless a society has allowed itself to be won over, or at least stirred … It is no use maintaining that this leap forward does not imply a creative effort behind it … That would be to forget that most great reforms appeared at first impracticable, as in fact they were.” •

1William Butler Yeats (1865–1935) was an Irish poet and one of the most important English-language writers of the 20th century. In 1921 he wrote the poem “Easter, 1916”, in which he commented on the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916. In the serious poem, he commemorates the Irish freedom fighters with the words, “All changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born.” (Editor’s note)
2Henri Bergson (1859–1941) was a French philosopher and is considered one of the most important exponents of the philosophy of life. (Editor’s note)

Source: of 20 December 2022; with friendly permission of the author



Patrick Lawrence is a writer, commentator, a longtime newspaper and magazine correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the “International Herald Tribune”. He is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer and writes often on Europe and Asia. Patrick Lawrence has published five books; his most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His Twitter account @thefloutist has been permanently censored without explanation. His web site is Support his work via his Patreon side.

US-American exceptionalism

ef. The term “City upon a Hill” goes back to the English Puritan John Winthrop, who coined the term in his sermon
“A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) in reference to the Sermon on the Mount. Winthrop inculcated in the Puritan colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that their new colony was a “City upon a hill” watched by all the world. In American history, the term “City upon a Hill” often became an expression of American exceptionalism. This is where the later term “Manifest Destiny” took up its content. Put simply, “Manifest Destiny” was the idea that Americans were destined by God to rule the North American continent.
    The concept of “Manifest Destiny” was first formulated by the journalist John Louis O’Sullivan in 1845 in an article dealing with the annexation of Texas. O’Sullivan wrote that it was America’s “Manifest Destiny” and its obvious destiny to spread across the continent. In this way, the USA would become a recognised political and social superpower, the wilderness would disappear and civilisation would take hold. This doctrine was used to justify the settler movement westwards and towards Mexico, as well as the Spanish-American War of 1898. It also included the exclusion and extermination of the Native American peoples.
   In the 20th century, the meaning of the term “Manifest Destiny” was slightly modified. Now it was said that Americans were uniquely destined to spread democracy in the world (“Make the world safe for democracy”). This old-new doctrine was and is still used today as a legitimisation for American interventionist policy and for American wars of expansion. This policy essentially goes back to US President Woodrow Wilson, who led the USA into the First World War.
    Woodrow Wilson’s “Universalism” meant: What applies to Americans must apply to all people. The chosen country will only do itself justice if it reaches out “helpingly” into the world, if it assumes responsibility not only for itself.
   Wilsonianism essentially includes: Promoting the spread of its (the US) idea of democracy worldwide, promoting the spread of the market economy and capitalism, opposition to “isolationist” policies and military intervention in conflicts when “world peace” or its own interests are threatened.

The term “The American Century” was coined in 1941 by the “Time” publisher Henry Luce, who used it as the title of a “Life” magazine editorial. In it, Luce called upon his compatriots to have the courage to take action against the fascist states and thus increasingly determine international politics. The “American Century” refers to that era, especially in the 20th century and up to the present day, in which the USA has assumed a position of global supremacy in political, economic and cultural terms. These include military strength, very high financial power and the global influence of American youth culture and Hollywood films.


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