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Many American’s believe that, in the words of Tina Turner, America is ‘Simply the Best’. The notion of American Exceptionalism can be traced to the founding fathers, it evolved through the crucible of WWII into a belief that America’s destiny was to lead the world. A notion that became a propaganda crusade deployed to fight the Nazis, Fascists, Japanese Militarism, Communists in Korean and Russians in the Cold War. In reality it is all about power. With the birth of American Military Exceptionalism grew the need to maximise international outcomes favourable to America, particularly the acquisition of wealth. To do this it needed to see off rivals.

America has sought to control outcomes worldwide in order that its economic advantage will not be lost and new opportunities gained. It secretly sided with the apartheid regime to stop what it saw as the downward thrust of communism into South Africa by socialist government’s in Angola and Mozambique. It sought to protect its trade in gold, diamonds and market for oil.

For the same reasons of trade, it fought for the South in the civil war in Viet Nam and it invaded Iraq for oil. America has sought to preserve its hold over the world’s financial reserves. It has sought to control the movement of capital, which it believes is the unique preserve of the USA. It fights to protect Capitalism. Any diminution in trade and finance is viewed by the US as a loss of power.

The current dispute with China has little to do with the South China Sea and a lot to do with seeing China as an economic rival and competitor. The US, in my opinion, is seeking to contain and intimidate China. It is seeking outcomes through bullying rather than negotiation. American diplomacy since WWII has been conducted through the barrel of a gun. Unfortunately Australia has followed.

There are strands to American exceptionalism, some are idealistic, believing that America with God’s will could create a better world. That view was held within churches but is fading in the face militant right-wing Christianity.

Another is held domestically and broaches no criticism. It is narrow, inward looking and holds that America can achieve whatever it wants, whenever it wants. It is blind and exists in the face of reality. It is a view held on the right of American politics which continues to believe in the superiority of American arms and believes they should be used to maintain American prestige and pre-eminence.

Another is held outside of America and dates back to the visits of European intellectuals and industrialists in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. They were awed by the wealth and power displayed by the furnaces of Pittsburgh, the trans-national railways and skyscrapers of New York; they wrote about America with envy. It was a view held by Thatcher and now by Johnson.

With American exceptionalism finding its apotheosis at the end of WWII, wartime propaganda was refined into promoting all things American by Hollywood and the media from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Life, Newsweek and Time magazines.

The media in Australia, mainly controlled by Murdoch, has been worshipful and sycophantic in its reportage of all things American. American exceptionalism had a strong currency with my generation. It has diminished, hastened by Trump.

The American hold on technology expressed through the automotive, aviation, space industries and Silicon Valley was exceptional but the lead and reputation gained has been whittled away by competitors such as Germany, Japan, South Korea and most recently China – a source of great anxiety to America.

Many churches support exceptionalism, particularly in the south where it co-exists with white supremacy. Educational institutions support the notion along with the armed services where it is linked to patriotism. Success in sport is an extension of the exceptionalism battle ground.       

The ignominious US defeat in the Vietnam war, together with unsuccessful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan has put paid to international perceptions of American exceptionalism. Nonetheless the American defence establishment continues to believe in its own invincibility which is dangerous when set against wounded pride and diminished prestige, not helped by Trump.

There are hundreds of US bases around the world with 200,000 troops deployed. There are four US bases in Australia, with the US also having access to ADF bases and training areas. Since 9/11 the US has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and securing what it regards as its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, even though those rights were never under threat.  The US has fifty bases ringing China with the intention of containment and control; all of this to maintain American supremacy, which is itself based on the notion of exceptionalism.

Australian exceptionalism is shrill, shallow, showy and superficial; it does not stand up under scrutiny.  

Bruce Haigh

Retired Australian Diplomat and political commentator.