In the past few years especially, since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the theme of American exceptionalism, first introduced to the cultural consciousness by Alexis de Tocqueville, has cropped up continuously. It has mostly been used by the leaders of the GOP as a justification for selfish and United States-centric foreign policy decisions, such as President George W. Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol and his decision to invade Iraq and "bring democracy" to the people living under Saddam Hussein. It has become a theme again in the past year as conservative pundits attempt to criticize and discredit the policies of the Obama administration.
If the idea that the United States of America occupies a particular niche above any other country—even those that existed before us—holds any weight, it could be argued that, as a nation, we have the right of complete self-determination without consideration for the needs of any other state. This is a completely untenable concept, however, because it suggests that as one of the historically most powerful countries in the world, we have fewer and less serious obligations than other states.
This is particularly relevant when considering the current climate crisis: there is ample evidence at this point from reputable scientists around the world not only to reject adamant denials of the reality of climate change, but to actively insist upon the urgency of the situation and the need for real policy change. It was discouraging, then, to hear President George W. Bush joke about the United States' status as the world's biggest polluter following a climate summit in 2008. The country has more responsibility, not less, to alter the course of climate change, and Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol was a complete denial of this fact. Some conservative observers lauded Bush as a protector of personal choice and liberty by refusing to limit the resources we could consume, but I call it purely irresponsible.
The fact that the United States is one of the most important democracies in the world is not, I'm sure, lost on President Barack Obama. But he, unlike his predecessor, sees the necessity of behaving like an equal member of the global community on the foreign policy stage. This past year, Obama deemed the agreement drafted at the United Nations Climate Change in Copenhagen "meaningful," while insisting upon further, more drastic measures. Because the United States has the highest emission rate of carbon dioxide in the world, it must make the most drastic changes when considering what needs to be done to preserve the health of our planet.
Before we are American citizens, above anything else, we are human. Individual liberty implies individual responsibility, and that means acting in the best interests not only of our country and our society, but also of the world as a whole. We are intimately connected, arguably artificially separated groups of human beings, and ignoring this fact only serves to further isolate ourselves. For the continued health of our society and our planet, we must make decisions with others in mind, which does not mean we have to disregard the best interests of the United States.
A belief in the ultimate superiority of the United States is dangerous to a certain extent as well, because it discourages identifying the problems that do exist. For example, this country does not have the best health care system in the world; the medical insurance crisis must be solved, no matter what one's political and ideological affiliations are, and insisting upon the automatic advantage of this arrangement only helps to exacerbate the problem by preventing progress.
That's not to say the United States isn't a great nation; clearly it is. We are the oldest surviving federation in the world and are afforded some of the most bountiful opportunities and gifts on Earth. Being a citizen of this country means a lot, certainly.
However, as one of the most politically and militarily powerful nations in the world, it makes sense that we would have greater obligation, not less. American exceptionalism, then, is a rather meaningless turn of phrase. Patriotism is one thing, but an insistence on America's continued superiority is another entirely.