On first glance, America does not seem that exceptional. Like China and Russia, it is a superpower. And, also like those countries, it is huge territorially. It shares many affinities with Europe. And, like China, Japan and Germany, the United States is an economic powerhouse. And yet, it is a nation unlike any in the world.
In general, outside the West, few of the seven billion people alive today enjoy human rights and the protection of property. The rule of law and freedom of expression are taken for granted in Europe and the United States, and residents there enjoy both economic prosperity and physical security. These exceptions to the global norms of repression, autocracy, tribalism, sectarian violence, and fundamentalism are found only either in the West proper, or in a few Westernized nations in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
It may now be politically incorrect to suggest that, compared to countries like Afghanistan and Rwanda, different premises animate the social and political order of Europe, the United States, the English-speaking nations of the former British Commonwealth, and the West’s close allies such as Israel, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. But it is nonetheless true. The yearly migrations to these countries of millions of non-Westerners demonstrate that reality. Immigration is now nearly always a one-way pathway to the West or Westernized countries from the non-West. People vote with their feet in a more honest and concrete fashion than at the ballot box.
Yet the West is not monolithic. It never has been.
From the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, it was violently divided by religious schisms between Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Germany from 1871 to 1945 was never comfortable with its the territorial status quo. Long before the Nazis rose to power, it suffered periodic bouts of ethnic and cultural superciliousness —mythologizing that an ancient and tribal Germania had remained racially pure beyond the Rhine and Danube, and thus immune from Roman colonization and subsequent European assimilation.
The colonization of North America saw the emergence of a new strain of Western civilization. Yet a fault line was marked by the Spanish imperial colonization of parts of Asia and the New World. The Spanish worked on different assumptions than the British, and so their imperialism resulted in more religiously monolithic and autocratic paradigms in South America, the Philippines, and Mexico than in North America, New Zealand, and Australia.
All of that said, the present West is once again bifurcating. Its two poles—Europe and the United States—are roughly equal in population and economic size. Yet because of historical reasons, and given the bloody history of the twentieth century, they are evolving in different directions. True, these bookends of Western Civilization share long-held commitments to consensual government and freedom of the individual. But Europe is increasingly becoming statist, utopian, pacifist, and remains traumatized from two World Wars and its role as the trip wire of the Cold War. The ill-conceived framework of the European Union is far more like the articles of the old Confederacy than the U.S. Constitution.
Europe never had a vast frontier like the United States, or a history of mass immigration. Again, neither its individual nations nor the present European Union embrace anything like the values of the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. The idea of a multiracial America united only by common allegiances to the ideas of freedom and liberty is still foreign to Europe, or at least it was until the last two decades or so. Despite the stain of chattel slavery, America has otherwise had no experience with the long European traditions of monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, colonialism, or indentured peasantry.
In general, Europe is still captive to the ideals of the French Revolution: an equality of result, mandated and often enforced by hereditary elites not fully subject to the ramifications of their own professed egalitarian ideologies. The Enlightenment idea of an all-powerful paternal state is much stronger across the Atlantic. European elites believe that with enough education, investment, and state planning, the very nature of man can be recalibrated to be peaceful, rational, and equal, which in turn explains why the European state is far more intrusive in the lives of its citizens than is even the American federal octopus.
Americans generally lack such idealistic pretensions, other than those who believe the American model should be xeroxed all over the world. The original vision of the Founders—to protect freedom and liberty by limiting the power of government with a system of checks and balances—was quite different than the European ideals of mandated fraternity and egalitarianism.
Due to all these historical and political currents, America remains the exceptional Western nation, whose influence and stature transcend the size of its economy and population, and its vast land mass of rich natural resources. Its cocktail of property rights, unfettered oil and gas development, muscular national defense, gun rights, religiosity, free-market economics, limited government, philanthropy, and great private universities is, again, unlike anything in the West.
Likewise, its excesses that arise from the marriage of free-market affluence and constitutionally protected unfettered expression, in the eyes of the world, appear often as license and indulgence. Certainly, the First and Second Amendments, the National Football League, rap music, the U.S. Marine Corps, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the Ivy League, or 24/7 cable news could not originate elsewhere.
The result is that America exists both as the world’s refuge and its beacon, the sole place where individuals can find a safe harbor. Only in America can the individual remain free and able to live his life under the assumption that the major decisions of his life are his own and not predicated on state approval. Only in the United States does the rags to riches story still exist, given that neither regulation, the deep state, nor an entrenched aristocracy can fully suppress entrepreneurs or aspiring capitalists.
In particular, America serves a variety of crucial roles within the West. It offers a psychological and ideological check on European socialism, in that America’s greater economic robustness and continued military superiority remind Europe that its drift toward statism will only make it less competitive and result in an unhealthy dependency on U.S. arms. The worst thing that the United States could do to Europe would be to emulate Europe’s own protocols, and thereby reinforce Europe’s own worst tendencies while depriving it of a savior in extremis. Certainly, former British colonies such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand ultimately rely on U.S. guarantees of their security, given that they can no longer depend on strength of the United Kingdom.
No other country in the world bucks tradition and defies conventional wisdom whether that means supporting Israel, reducing its carbon imprint by massive new reliance on natural gas production and solar power, or declaring that neither North Korea nor Iran can maintain or obtain a nuclear weapons program.
It is common for nations abroad to criticize the United States as an outlier that is at perennial war with the United Nations, is skeptical of the European Union, often lectures fellow NATO members, moves its embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, and pulls out of the Paris Climate Accord. But the United States’s autonomy and questioning of consensus are precisely why its economic, cultural, political, and military power are preeminent, and why most of the world’s dispossessed wish to emigrate there. Make the United States follow the political, cultural, or military protocols of Europe, Canada, or the UN, and the West itself would lose its dynamism and its leadership.
The world relies on American technological innovation, military and economic strength, research and development, graduate education, political stability, and humanity. Try to change what is often thought as a weird United States, or to make America conform to a typical Western country like France or Germany, and other nations would lose the very power that often keeps them afloat. If the world thinks America is strange, it should remember that such weirdness is precisely why the world can rely on America.