By Harlan Ullman
“Fore” is a loudly shouted warning in golf, alerting other players and spectators to an errant shot that could do serious injury. After all, however small, a golf ball is quite hard. Traveling at speeds in excess of 70 or 80 miles an hour, it can hurt any onlooker it strikes.
American exceptionalism is the view of the uniqueness of America that has made it the greatest power in history. In both political parties, exceptionalism has achieved cult status. To disavow American exceptionalism risks political excommunication and exile and branding as a self-hating citizen. After all, who dares to say America is simply not the best or the greatest even if it is the lone superpower or in more laidback moments, merely the world’s “indispensable” power!
Tonight’s presidential debate will reaffirm the power of American exceptionalism as the two candidates vie to win the ultimate political prize of the keys to the White House promising to keep America great and to make it greater. Surprisingly, the warning of “fore” and American exceptionalism are linked. This past weekend’s Ryder Cup competition provides that nexus.
For those who do not follow golf, the Ryder Cup is that sport’s most cherished prize. Started in 1926 by English seed magnate Samuel Ryder, the competition was originally between the United States and Britain pitting the best golfers on both sides of the Atlantic against each other. In 1979, because of American dominance, golfing great Jack Nicklaus argued that the competition should be expanded to include all of Europe to even the matches. Since then, Europe has emerged as the dominant force.
This year’s matches were held outside Chicago, Illinois at the Medinah Golf Club. Competition is based on 28 games. Eight are “better ball,” called four balls; eight are alternate shots, called foursomes; and twelve are singles, individual one against one matches. Each counts for one point. Fourteen points are needed to retain the cup and fourteen and half to defeat the current holder.
By any measure, this year’s American team was far and away the stronger and the certain victor. After the first two days of play and before the singles competition, the U.S. was leading 10-6—a seemingly insurmountable lead overcome only once before in 1999 at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts when America engineered that upset. But given the overpowering strength of the U.S. team, a European victory would be a major miracle. Nonetheless, Europe amazingly triumphed winning eight of eleven singles matches and halving the twelfth for an outright victory of 14 ½ to 13 ½. That outcome should give America and Americans pause to reconsider our exceptionalism.
Many sectors of America are widely respected abroad as well as deeply resented. The United States truly provides unlimited opportunities for citizens and immigrants alike. Its universities are unmatched. It has often been a force for good. And many of its products and culture are widely celebrated as well as sought.
But what is too often regarded as attitudes that range from arrogance and pomposity to superiority and indifference, the global image of America is in desperate need of repair. That we embarked on two strategically derelict and costly interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq has not been embellished by a war on terror irrespective of name and a policy of assassination and killing of the “enemy” by drone and special forces wherever we can find them. And the failure of the U.S. government to deal with its lurking fiscal and economic calamities has not reflected well on our “exceptionalism.”
It is not that we have failed to try. President George W. Bush entered office promising a “more humble foreign policy” vowing to change the tone in Washington. Candidate Barack Obama made similar pledges. And Candidate Mitt Romney assures voters that he too will change the way Washington works.
All of this, sadly, is nonsense. It could take decades perhaps for the United States to emerge from a government broken by the extreme wings of its two political parties and a political process in which winning election has long superseded providing effective or even partially effective governance.
As Americans should have learned and will not from the Ryder Cup, discounting or demeaning friends and allies is not wise. In a world that is instantly linked by global communications and media and in which interdependence is a reality and not simply a slogan, the cult of American exceptionalism is a huge obstacle to American interests.
Yes, we are the world’s richest power. We have the strongest military by a large factor as well. But so what? Are we any safer physically, more secure financially and happier today? Answering these questions should be part of the political debate. It is not. Hence, when someone pronounces American exceptionalism, please yell “fore!”
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.