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Choosing exceptionalism

Matt Miklavic | Thursday, September 26, 2013

From Vladimir Putin’s letter in the New York Times to a fervent debate on the equally influential pages of The Observer, words about the existence of American exceptionalism have been flying back and forth.
In an era in which the United States enjoys unprecedented wealth, inordinate power and an unmatched ability to yield both abroad, there seems to be little doubt about whether the United States possesses the capability to be exceptional. Extending beyond quantitative clout, this capability is buoyed by a storied history of democracy’s struggle, tragedy and triumph. It is personified in a long line of heroes forever deified in the lore of America. So then, when we debate the current state of American exceptionalism, the question is not whether we can be an exceptional force for good in our world. Rather, it is whether we have chosen to be. Sadly, it often seems as though we have fallen short of fulfilling our promise.
Following more than a decade of conflict and facing a bloated national debt, many have posited that it is time for the United States to reduce its influence abroad. Pointing to fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have called for the nation to heed the lessons of our recent past and stop attempting to police or greatly affect the world around us.
True enough, we ought to learn from our mistakes. We must learn the costs of mindless intervention and of invading first and asking questions later. We must also, however, be careful not to put any and all interaction abroad in the same category as our misguided venture into Iraq or the mishandling of Afghanistan. With immense capability as a nation comes an incredible opportunity to positively impact the world around us. This ability brings with it not only the potential to help and protect those most vulnerable, but also an obligation.
We fail to be exceptional when we shrink from this responsibility. We fail to be exceptional when we decry genocide in Rwanda and then sit back and do nothing in Sudan. We fail to be exceptional when we set red lines to protect Syrian civilians, then shirk from them once they are crossed, only to be rescued by a deal with Russia. We fail to be exceptional when we deem some tyrants acceptable and others an abomination – when we support protests in Libya, Syria and, belatedly, Egypt – while remaining mum on identical efforts in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
To be clear, this is not a call for conflict. Diplomacy is undoubtedly the cheapest and most effective form of engagement. As the deal with Syria, the thawing of relations with Iran and the renewed peace talks between Palestine and Israel all reflect, United States diplomacy and engagement are the essence of the nation’s influence abroad. They are the truest displays of American exceptionalism.
Ultimately, our position as the preeminent power on Earth may well be a temporary one. Realistically, all powers eventually decline. Should that be the case, what do we wish our legacy to be? Do we wish to be known as a nation that did what it could to right the wrongs it saw and worked toward the betterment of humanity? Or do we wish to be known as one that stood idly by? If we have some finite measure of power, should it not be spent in service of something greater than ourselves?
In his 2005 inaugural address, University President Fr. John Jenkins challenged that we “let no one ever again say that we dreamed too small.” Repeated most recently in the latest iteration of the University football commercial, Fr. Jenkins explicitly challenges us to dare greatly, rather than to settle in the unsatisfying no man’s land of apathy, a place with what Theodore Roosevelt called “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
In a world far too connected to withdraw from, in a nation far too capable to stand by weakly, let us endeavor to venture boldly in doing what we know to be right. In our impermanent, fleeting moments of potential, let us live as a nation as we hope to do as individuals. Let us choose to become exceptional.

Matt Miklavic is a junior studying finance and political science from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He can be reached at mmiklavi@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.