[Previous] [Main Index] [Next]

Friday, January 16, 2004

AMERICAN POWER PREDOMINANCE: The Series on US Exceptionalism Resumes

With this article, the buggy professor resumes a lengthy series on American Exceptionalism that stretches back in time to November of last year . . . even though, late at night when insomnia afflicts the buggy mind and it strains to focus blurry eyes on the computer monitor in front, the series seems to stretch back much farther than that, maybe to the start of the US civil war or possibly the War of 1812. Am I kidding? Not entirely. Time's always relative, no? To know that, you don't have to be Proust or Joyce probing a stream of consciousness . . . a turbulent onrush of memories, fantasies, longings, and fears, all jumbled and going bump, bump, bump as they collide against one another, your brain spinning away in confusion. Viewed from the whirligig of our mind at 3:00 in the morning, What's real, What's not? For that matter, amid one tipping self-illusion after another, are we much better at discerning the differences at 3:00 the next afternoon?

That fount of wisdom, Baghdad Bob, put it more simply: "In saying that, you're now too far from reality."

What Do We Mean By American Exceptionalism?

Essentially, this: how and why the US differs from other advanced industrial democracies on key indicators, especially the EU, political, cultural, and economic . . . for good or bad. In the first couple of articles in the series, to be more concrete, six traits that single out the US as noticeably different from the EU countries --- or for that matter, to an extent even from the other English-speaking federal countries, Canada and Australia --- were set out as our comparative guides. Given all the intervening buggy articles, they are trotted out for view in this article again, mainly to pick up the thread of the overall analysis. Several more articles will follow before the series reaches the home stretch and spots the final post ahead, never mind galloping past it once and for all.

Believe it or not, we are still spelling out the implications of the first trait --- a general mistrust of concentrated political power --- that has no equivalent elsewhere, for good or bad . . . and it isn't always for the good.

What, Still The First Trait In Play?

Yes, no help for it . . . or so it seems. Connoisseurs might remember why. As it turned out, the first two articles that spelled out the US's exceptional traits, then started to probe first one --- noticeable differences in political institutions : a strong federalism without parallel, a separation of powers at the center, judicial oversight of Executive and Congressional actions --- prompted several lengthy exchanges with buggy visitors, both Americans and non-Americans. A separate article was devoted to each of those exchanges, some in line with buggy views, others not: if you want to look at them, they are catalogued in the buggy archives on the side-bar to the left (click on American Politics and Economics, then scroll down to November and December 2003.)

Another thing then intervened in early and mid-December. Specifically, a long three-part series on the New Anti-Semitism in the EU was uncoiled . . . followed by a couple of articles (really, a response to a professor abroad unhappy with some earlier buggy views) on social constructivism as both an ideology and a social science methodology for making sense of human societies. Those two articles can be found in the philosophy section of the archives. As you can see by letting your gaze drift downward on this buggy home page, there have also been some articles on American foreign policy in the Bush era.

What Follows

The series now resumes, not that it won't likely be interrupted again by other articles . . . all depending on what's going on in the world, or what the buggy prof hears from others who visit our site . . . usually, as it happens, in direct email communication, or what swirls up out of the colliding thoughts and whirling confusion of the buggy mind at 3:00 in the morning. What follows first are some general stats about the US compared with the EU, China, and Japan . . . the potential power-rivals to the sole super-power status that the country now enjoys. Lots of other stats will figure in future articles, such as the relatively low governmental spending on social programs in the US . . . or for that matter, low spending of any sorts save on defense and education, two areas where the US turns out to be the high-roller among countries.


The following table brings out what is startling --- no other word for it --- about the American power lead over all other countries in the world, especially those that might figure one day as peer-rivals . . . whether friendly or not. When Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister at the time, wrote a book back in the late 1990s with Dominique Moisi, a Harvard-Ph.D. in IR, on France and global power, they referred to the US as a hyper-puissance: a hyper super-power. Strained as the term is, it does capture something unique about the global distribution of power: not since the Roman Empire dominated Europe, the Mediterrranean, North Africa, and the Middle East --- essentially, all it wanted to rule --- has there been a country that has achieved, for good or bad, the position of pre-eminence that the US enjoys.

Note: if anything, the following table understates the power gap. It doesn't set out the enormous intrusion, day-in, day-out --- welcome or unwelcome --- of American culture into the lives of all other peoples around the world.

Population Millions GDP
$ Trillions
Per Capita
Income $
Per Capita As % of US Military
$ Billions
Nuclear Power
USA 280 11.3 37,800 100.00 390.0 yes
EU 15 380 10.1 25,000 67.0 120.0 no
China 1300  6.4 5,500 15.0 70.0 yes
Japan 120 3.7 28,100 71.0 46.0 no
Germany 80  2.1 26,200 69.0 24.0 no
France 60  1.6 26,300 69.0 35.0 yes
Britain 60 1.6 26,000 69.0 37.0 yes
Italy 60 1.4 25,200 67.0 21.0 no

GDP and Per Capita Income are all converted to purchasing power parity and involve
estimates through the end of 2003.
Sources: EU, OECD, CIA WorldFactbook, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and World Bank

An Alternative Way To Compare US Power-Dominance:

The following tables, which the admirable British weekly, The Economist, published June 27, 2002 --- itself an up-date and adaptation of the work of a US IR-scholar, William Wohlforth of Dartmouth --- bring out the overwhelming US lead in a different manner: the leads of the dominant state over other great powers, or potential ones, on two categories . . . defense spending and GDP, viewed in percentage terms. [Note: all references to this these tables should be to the Economist link]


A few things to remember here, all dealt with earlier in the series:

(i.) The comparisons being unveiled in this and other article are with the current EU countries, 15 in number, all democratic like the US and most of them rich too:

If you want exact figures, look back over the table. As you'll see, American per capita income is about $38,000 toward the end of 2003, the EU average is around 65% or about $25,000 . . . with Germany, France, and Britain slightly higher . . . around 69%. For what it's worth, those are essentially the percentages that prevailed at the end of the 1960s. Meaning? Meaning that over the last 3.5 decades, there has been no convergence in the standards of living of the EU countries, taken as a whole, with the US . . . the lead-country in per capita income for about 125 years now. Some countries have changed their rank in the EU: Ireland, once of the two or three poorest, is now the richest, along with Denmark. Britain was once about 20% lower in per capita income than Germany or France. It is now at their level, possibly by the end of 2003 slightly higher.

Not surprisingly, European pride --- especially in Germany and France --- have been hurt by these trends. There's no reason to expect them to change much in the near future, though certain smaller EU countries --- two or three Scandinavians, Ireland, maybe Holland, more likely Britain as the only large one --- will likely continue to improve their relative performance: vis-a-vis the rest of the EU as well as the US itself.

(ii.) The value of comparisons --- economic, cultural, or political --- all hinge on the choice of countries.

If we were comparing the US or the EU with, say, China or the Arab countries, almost all the differences that constitute American exceptionalism would tend to fade quickly and disappear into the murky reaches of the world --- mental constructs without much solidity; more precisely, measured against the Chinese or Arabs, Americans and West Europeans would turn out to share far more in common than this buggy series argues. So don't forget. Only by confining our concerns with the EU members --- and once in a while Canada and Australia --- does American exceptionalism emerge as something solid and important . . . for that matter, something behind the growing strains in Transatlantic relations these days, especially at a time when the European publics and the American people differ considerably in the ways we understanding the security threats we face and above all how to handle them.

(iii.) These strains that are driving the two sides of the Atlantic apart on the mass level can't be ignored, far from it: they've already influenced US-European cooperation in the war on terrorism in marked, high-coiled ways.

Still, the gap and strains shouldn't be exaggerated. Most of the bad feelings exist on the elite levels in the EU and in its media, showing up at times in mass public opinion as well.

Governments have behaved differently. On that plane, Transatlantic cooperation is more intact --- France, no matter what parties hold power, essentially the odd-man-out. Think back to last spring. Not only Blair's Britain but also Berlusconi's Italy and Aznar's Spain --- plus tiny Denmark and Holland --- energetically supported the coalition of the willing in going to war against Saddamite Iraq last spring; the same was even more evident among the East European governments either in NATO now or joining next year: about 9 in all. Very little has changed here since then. Just today, the
leaders of 17 countries in Central and East Europe --- including Italy and Austria in the EU --- explicitly reaffirmed their belief that firm ties with the US are critical to European security: now and in the future. Right now, moreover --- as the previous buggy article showed --- 18 of the 28 members in NATO, 2004, have troops on the ground to support the transforming efforts in post-Saddamite Iraq. The German government, eager to repair relations with the US, has stepped up its peace-keeping efforts in Afghanistan. And both Germany and France have written off the debts that Saddamite Iraq incurred when they were avidly selling it all sorts of industrial goods, even in the era after 1996 when their sales were supposed to be limited to medical and food supplies.

In theoretical terms, these efforts to restore NATO cohesion after the big fall-out last winter and spring --- when France, Germany, and Russia sought to organize a blocking-coalition directed at the US and the UK over Iraq --- are in line with the more general trends visible all around the globe: a bandwagoning to the US as the sole world super-power.

(iv.) Still, governments are one thing, and public opinion another --- especially in democratic countries. The latter will take its toll as time goes on.

In particular, politicians can't ignore it for very long, particularly when the strife it whips up reaches the levels it did in the EU recently. Take Spain and Italy. Even though the two conservative governments in power there solidly backed Britain and the US in toppling Saddamite Iraq and their leaders are personal friends of Bush, the marked unpopularity of the war among the Italians and Spanish have noticeably limited their leaders' freedom of maneuver in going beyond diplomatic support: at the time of the war, and ever since.



Don't be put off by the schematic nature of what follows. The barebones outline isn't hard to follow, and each and every one of the items will be fleshed out with relevant statistics and other sorts of evidence in the articles to come . . . along with an explanatory argument, our chief concern, of how the US has ended up so different from the EU countries.

1. Mistrust Of Big Government

a. lower spending as a % of GDP, lower taxes too

b. federalism, checks and balances: how differs from the EU, even Germany or Canada or Australia

c. far less bureaucracy in our lives: only British, to an extent, like us here. Hence EU bureaucracy --- constant detailed directives, imposed by remote technocrats --- inconceivable here.

d. historically, again only like the British, no traditional conscription save briefly in WWI and then again in WWII and from 1945 until 1975

e. referenda, recall initiatives as in California recently, open primaries for selecting leaders

II. A Narrow Ideological Spectrum

a. by European standards, the US spectrum essentially left-wing and right-wing variants of European liberalism (quote H.G. Wells, Lipset, clarify)

b. a consensual system, lacking political extremes . . . or even Social Democracy on the left and Paternalistic Conservatism of the British Tory wing of the Conservative Party or Christian Democracy and Gaullism on the Continent.

III. A Limited Welfare State

a. spending social security much lower, even compared to Britain

b. US education: we spend more than the Europeans. Do we get a better return?

c. US preference for one kind of Welfare I (insurance schemes), not II (non-contributory).

--- Welfare itself, when developed in the 1930s and expanded after, turned on the belief that someone in distress needed at most temporary help and had the internalized and family resources to then return quickly to productive economic life. All that changed in the 1970s and 1980s, and with mainly unfortunate consequences: whereas Lyndon Johnson's Great Society of the mid-1960s promised to uplift the discriminated-against minorities in US life, especially African-Americans and to an extent Hispanics and Native-Americans, and make them solid, middle-class citizens, there were --- as it turned out by the 1980s, and despite some noticeable successes --- far more now on long-term welfare, far more leading lives in broken families, far more illegitimacy, far more engaged in crime of various kinds, and far more who became habituated to what became known as an underclass life. The result: the welfare reforms of the Clinton era on a bipartisan basis.

d. Individualism, whose fault is it if life runs into trouble or doesn't work out?

e. Preference for charity: US spending about 10 times the EU average ($640 vs. $55 on a per capita basis.

IV. Economic Preference For Free markets, Commercialism,

a. put chart in with economic figures, demographic, government spending

b. Pew poll results

c. who does better in US life economically and in education; conceptions of equality, inequality, and why economic equality matters less to Americans than Europeans

d. American commercialism: indicators, good and bad side. Bad side evident.

V. Nationalism, Patriotism, Preference for Sovereignty, and Super-Power Activism a. to extent share with British, but would never accept something like EU

b. far difference history from the Europeans, again Britain, Scandinavia

c. poll data to be cited

VI. Cultural Values and Preferences That Are More Pronounced Here:

a. individualism, poll data etc

b. religious influence, especially Protestantism historically and more recently Evangelical varieties.

c. equality: opportunity vs. results; but also political equality or populism with no equivalents in the EU: referenda, recall initiatives, open primaries for selecting leaders etc.

d. optimism about change, the future

e. risk-taking, vitality of American life, failure not punished severely

f. populism again: suspicion of elites



These six traits add up to what we have called American Exceptionalism. To them, the buggy series that has been comparing the US with the EU countries --- and that will spin out into the future in several more articles --- will add a seventh category . . . not so much a trait specific to the US as to the Europeans, a set of common misconceptions about the US.

a. elitism in democratic politics and bureaucracy vs. populism

b. violence, crime worse in the EU save for homicide

c. reasons for the death penalty: no EU country ever had a majority favoring its abolition when it was ended in the 1970s and 1980s. In the US, we elect district attorneys and all judges --- either directly or, in the case of federal judges, through Congressional approval.

d. income distribution: African-American two parent families earn the same as white two parent families. Demographic and family changes, especially in the African American and Hispanic communities, explain almost all the gap . . . plus fast growing immigration from Mexico and Central America. Whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics with the same IQ --- confirmed in tests --- earn the same (Thomas Sowell, source)

More to the point, some very good recent econometric work finds that all the growth in income inequality since 1975 is explained by the high influx of immigration into the US . . . some 38 million legal immigrants over the last 30-35 years, plus somewhere between what the US government itself admits now is 8 - 12 million illegal immigrants. That seems a startling result. All the same, in multi-regression equations, factor out immigration from all the other variables that have been said to explain the growth in income inequality --- new technologies that are biased in favor of highly educated workers, growing integration into the global economy, the decline of the labor force in manufacturing owing to trade-competition and the movement of US multinationals abroad, the influx of women into the labor force (female doctors, lawyers, or business professionals marrying men in similar careers at one end of the income spectrum), and demographic factors that have noticeably led to a decrease in two-parent families among African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans --- factor out immigration, and all the inequality disappears.

Later articles will cite these studies and try to throw some light on them.


Replies: 2 comments

I really enjoy your series of articles on this topic. They have been very thought-provoking.

Two concerns:

1) India should be listed as a potential peer-rival for global power. (One billion people, rapidly growing high-tech sector, 5-6% economic growth per year since early 1990s, nuclear weapons, ballistic missile and space launch capabilities).

2) The lack of comparison with the leading East Asian country, Japan. I understand your reluctance to make comparisons between countries/civilizations such as China and the Arabs versus the United States. They are much less developed economically and they have authoritarian or dictatorial political cultures. However, Japan is highly developed economically and has a democratic political system. A three-way comparison between the U.S., Japan, and the EU countries would be very useful.

Best regards, Jim

Posted by James Jones @ 01/19/2004 04:05 PM PST

On the social spending/welfare front, while you touch on a preference for charitable spending here, you don't directly address American volunteerism, which contributes huge economic value, even if not in dollar terms, to social welfare here. And from what I've read, the level of volunteerism here just isn't comparable to any where else (and amazing considering how much Americans work).

Posted by John @ 01/17/2004 09:34 PM PST