<i>Canadian</i> Exceptionalism Starts To Come Into Focus As America Begins To Falter

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An eminent American industrialist who is an old friend, a proud veteran of the U.S. Navy, a patriotic but very reasonable and moderate citizen and a respecter of all other serious nationalities (including Canada), visited me last week and volunteered that he is in a state of despair about his country.

He referred to a recent debate at the Aspen Institute, which he attended, between historian Niall Ferguson and former presidential aide David Gergen over the now almost faddish subject of American “decline.” Ferguson, who is virtually an itinerant industry of opinion and scholarly advocacy unto himself, spoke of an imminent and very steep dip in America’s fortunes.

David Gergen, who makes no claim to as broad an academic background, but was a close adviser to the last U.S. presidents who could be described as successful (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), made the case that the United States is still by some margin the most powerful country. Both men are both substantially correct, and were not really debating the same issue at all, just soliloquizing on related subjects.


My visitor lamented that “We don’t have a president. We have a resident in the president’s house.” I am afraid he underestimates the capacities of the incumbent to continue to squander his country’s position in the world. Of course, these are themes that have been much bandied about, including in this space, but the Syrian shambles, the naïve handling of relations with Iran and the acute contentiousness over Obamacare’s formal launch have all brought the discussion to a new and more hoary head.

This administration has the seriously annoying habit of trying to generate a celebration of the end, or impending end, of inherited crises that are in fact far from over, so they can masquerade as authors of solutions to problems created by predecessors. Worst of all was the unbelievable effort to pretend that the murder of the American ambassador in Benghazi was not a premeditated terrorist act but a spontaneous Libyan popular reaction to an anti-Islamist video by an American kook, as explained by the then-secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to the world’s Muslims, whose bewilderment at the message may only be imagined.

In the last few weeks, the usual beaters and criers for the Obama regime in the press, led by the New York Times, foretold a new dawn in relations with a moderate and co-operative Iran miraculously returned to its senses, another fable that dissolved with the new Iranian president’s failure even to shake hands with the President of the United States. Old-timers will remember the impact of the refusal of John Foster Dulles — Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration — to shake hands with Chou En-lai at Geneva in 1954. Chou was still fuming about this when Richard Nixon visited him in 1972.


The evidence of the collapse of American prestige is everywhere, in the failures of its diplomacy, the retrenchment of its military, in its unending mountainous budgetary deficits, and in the anecdotal indications of how absurd and insane daily life is becoming, with frequent random massacres of people and a completely divided political culture reduced to the most sterile and intemperate repetitions of irreconcilable differences.

Admittedly, George W. Bush certainly had taken the country a good way down the slippery slope to being a financially incontinent laughing stock, flailing about in hopeless nation-building at the ends of the earth as the American economy melted down, not so much from private greed, as the political class chanted in unison, as from the public policy errors of both parties.

But, with all that said, David Gergen is right: The United States remains the most important country in the world. The Globe & Mail’s Margaret Wente was correct when she recently pointed out that — contrary to habitual conversation in the sherry-drinking, leather-elbowed zones of real and aspirant Rosedale — the United States is the greatest force for good in the world in modern times (even if, as I need not emphasize, the U.S. government was hardly a positive force in my own affairs, and I would not now qualify as a pro-American commentator).


As I said to my distraught friend, there will be another resident in the White House in 2016. With him or her will come a great opportunity. Such a fundamentally strong country does not go to pieces as quickly as the antics of the Bush-Obama era would indicate is now happening. Almost nothing has been lost that cannot be replaced, and little is wrong with America that intelligent leadership of the kind it always has found before when it needed it would not put right.

What has gone for good is the unspeakably pompous myth of American exceptionalism, which was tolerable so long as it merely consisted of Americans celebrating the idea that they were a land of meritocratic opportunity, where optimism was justified and self-regenerating, and where people came to flee feudalism, despotism, and ethnic conflict. It became rather less tolerable when it glossed over the evil and hypocrisy of racial problems, exulted in the vulgarity of what was, at least culturally, an excessively pecuniary society, and the vulgarity of an inordinate amount of popular culture.

And American exceptionalism was reduced to nauseating claptrap when it asserted that, in its superiority, the United States had absolutely nothing to learn from any other country. All that is exceptional today about the United States in a positive sense is its scale; it still operates at a level that the world has not seen before or elsewhere, and is magnificent in its way.

The United States rose to the heights required to lead the free world to victory against the Nazis; and then, relatively bloodlessly, and without a shot being exchanged between the superpowers, against Soviet Communism. And then, at the moment of its greatest triumph, it suddenly became a purposeless and progressively more silly country. This latter development is aberrant and will not continue.

But those of us accustomed to sheltering in the shadow of America, while carping almost inaudibly about its relatively insignificant shortcomings, are going to have to do better. The United States delivered the world from evil. Others, certainly including this country, have done our part, but as the geopolitical cards are reshuffled and national ambitions and aptitudes evolve, we will have to raise our game.

There are limits to what a country of 35-million can do, but it wouldn’t kill Canadians to develop their own brand of exceptionalism. Canada is exceptionally racially tolerant, has been exceptionally careful never to engage in an unjust or unsuccessful war. It has been exceptionally successful at joining forces between the private and public sectors, and should do so again in the field of medical care, and in ownership of the automobile industry and the aerospace industry (so we can finally recover from the disaster of the Avro Arrow cancellation in 1959).

More broadly, Canada is exceptional as the only trans-continental, officially bicultural, parliamentary confederation in history. Canada has also been an exceptionally successful liberal state, and we should build on this to abolish prison for (all but a few) non-violent people; to legalize drugs but require treatment for hard drug users; to honor the treaties with the native peoples fully; to use the tax system to reduce poverty by incentivizing poverty reduction schemes as a way of reducing a wealth surcharge; and to lead the reform of international institutions.

The Canadian answer to the problems in the United States must not be sniggering; it must be to do better here.

From the National Post


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