Will Globalization End American Exceptionalism: Ecological Perspective

Posted: December 4, 2013 at 12:27 pm, Last Updated: December 4, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Throughout most of its history, the United States enjoyed the rare position of being a global player by choice. Until a generation or so ago, the U.S. could wish the world away. Then when it finally welcomed “connectivity,” engagement was on its terms.

The young republic enjoyed three conditions unique in the history of state development:

First, it evolved almost entirely in response to local challenges. One benefit of its geographic isolation and size was that its geopolitical landscape was “flat.” With few external interdependencies to contemplate, it had an uninterrupted view of the distant horizon and the luxury of weighing and selecting optimal governance and institutional solutions without concern of how neighbors sharing its ecology would respond. Its “global” peak was local.

Even the Civil War did not expose the country to foreign intervention. Great Britain sided with the Confederacy but provided no official military assistance. Contrast this with France’s intermittent march to democracy: civic disorder in favor of democracy there almost always led to intervention from the rest of Europe’s hereditary elites, who feared the spread of liberty, fraternity, and equality.

Second, America could grow quickly because the young republic had no entrenched ideologies to overcome. It could enjoy the ethos of the European Enlightenment as the basis around which to build its cultural identity, and was unencumbered by a legacy of feudal or religious doctrine that promulgated inequality.

Finally, the foundation of American exceptionalism was functionalist. The young republic was a federation; its unity depended upon electoral democracy. A constitution that determined elections and limited the power of office-holders guaranteed that no state would dominate the others. Assurances of power rotation persuaded the states to stay in the union and not to declare themselves separate nations.

These three factors that converged to give the US a reason to believe that the spread of democracy is its mission and the holding its spread back was knowledge and the freedom of the population to decide.

Yet even as policymakers and administration officials insist on using the old rulebook of international politics and economics, the promotion of the global primacy of American values is increasingly no longer an option.

Powerful forces—coevolutionary by nature, as they react and adapt—are competing with America’s global influence and vision for world order. The U.S. cannot protect itself from these pressures; it shares the landscape and coevolves in response to the world around it.

America is finding it harder to maintain the advantage of discretionary participation in global affairs in the current global ecology that its own aggressive globalizing policies created. Globalization has increased economic interdependency, including interdependence with economies that are fundamentally different in both management and practice; this interdependence results in the U.S. undergoing coevolutonary change processes that impinge upon its values and identity.

Moreover, increased global interconnectedness means the first tier of industrialized countries—those with which the U.S. has traditionally partnered—are no longer the only systemically important countries. In fact, because of the geopolitics of global complexity, the global system grows less responsive to directives from the vanguard of industrialized nations. They in turn cannot escape instability engendered by forces beyond their control and outside of their cultural zones. The responses of emerging nations to their own “fitness challenges” are changing the coupled environments.

The world’s largest economy must adapt to a fitness landscape it shares, making institutional change even in the United States a problem of dynamic complexity. Thus, the new global ecology presents the U.S. with a dancing landscape—one made so complex by the actions of others that its own local landscape shifts and becomes unstable. On a dancing landscape, the coevolution of partners confronting their own local fitness challenges will reshape the coupled landscapes, making optimal choices improbable.

Vladimir Putin, a staunch critic of America’s exceptionalism, should be very glad to hear that on such a landscape no country is exceptional.

Write to aschappe at aschapp1@gmu.edu