The United States is unique--exceptional, if you will--in a number of ways. Among these arguably the most important is the fundamental reality that it is a totally artificial state. A second unique feature, arguably almost on a par with the first, is that the US is that rare bird, a state which has created a nation.
As a nation and as a polity, We the People, each and every one of us, is part of a purely artificial state. We are defined not by borders per se nor by language. We are not defined by religious confession, pace the large number of Christians who would wish it otherwise.
What defines us as a state and thus as a nation is a set of ideas. That basement truth is what makes us both artificial and exceptional. We are the product of that most ineffable and powerful entity--the intellect. Founded on ideas, the ideas became our foundation. Over time the memes by which Americans see and understand themselves have both remained fixed and highly mutable, evolving with changes in our size, our complexity, the shifting sands of science and technology, the alterations of our demographics, the creative destruction of our economy while staying unaltered in all the essentials, the cornerstones of thinking so often expressed in simple, almost buzzword terms: democracy, transparency, rule of law, separation of church and state, equality of opportunity, free enterprise, and so on.
The fact that we are citizens of a set of ideas made manifest in human structures and institutions usually flies below our personal and political radar. Having been born and raised in this crowd sourced set of ideas, we are as unaware of its central and crucial nature as is the fish of the water in which it swims. It takes the perspective of either the immigrant or of having returned to the US after a long absence abroad to awaken the consciousness, to become aware of just how faint and fragile the foundations of our collective enterprise actually are--and how powerful a force they effect upon us.
The existence, let alone the flourishing of the US has been termed "improbable" as far back as the end of the Nineteenth Century as the US emerged on the global stage for the first time. Foreign observers, men of rank, power and learning saw the reality of the American experience with a clarity which eluded most Americans. They saw the artificial nature of the US as both a great strength and an awesome source of potential weakness.
The strengths were self-evident. The artificial nature of the US, its foundations being ideas, provided a haven for all, a safe harbor for all those ideas and individuals seen as too dangerous to be tolerated in the states of Europe founded on language, customs, borders, the verdicts of ancient wars. The US was by its nature imbued with a degree of flexibility, a willingness to experiment, to take a chance far beyond any European country. As the US and its people were defined by ideas and not by the accidents of precedent or ancestry there were more rewards for trying something new, for striking out in a new direction, for doing things differently. At the same time the citizens of this artificial state and nation held onto the basics, the foundational principles with a rigor and a zeal almost beyond European comprehension.
The weaknesses were not so apparent, but were equally real. One very important weakness which arose directly from our foundation as an intellectual artifact was uncertainty as to what it took to be a "real" American.
The US was caught in a never ending crisis of identity. Being founded on ideas and having a population representing virtually every nation on Earth, We the People always wondered "who are we?" At the core, what did it mean to be an American? The endemic identity crisis peaked in epidemic outbreaks from time to time over the course of our history. Recurrent waves of anti-immigrant sentiment represented a manifestation of this. So also did the episodic outbreaks of religious frenzy. Hyper-patriotism thrived periodically as we sought to reassure ourselves regarding our identity.
Another, closely related weakness was our uncertainty as to how and when we should have relations with other countries. It had always been a given that the US would seek cordial commercial relations with all other states. In this orientation we Americans showed ourselves to be the citizens of a maritime power, a state which sought the broadest possible networks of trade. Beyond that one element there has never been a long lasting consensus on the role of the US in the world. Isolationist or interventionist represent just two poles in the America foreign policy dilemma. Idealism or realism are the verbal flags marking two other extremes in the foreign relations conundrum which grows from the artificial nature of the US.
The never ending swings between idealism and realism in our foreign policy as well as the equally drastic swings between withdrawal and engagement with the world both come from the unique, artificial nature of the US. In a real sense our history shows that the US lacks permanent friends and enemies. In this way we are not exceptional. But, our history also shows that the US does not have many permanent interests. Indeed, beyond free trade there is no present day national interest which can be traced back much beyond the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.
Lasting interests are the necessary products of states which do not have identity crises. Lasting interests are defined as are the states which have them--by experience, usually that of ancient wars. A sharp reminder of this dynamic and its difference from the forces at work in the US can be seen in the opposing ways in which many Mexicans and the majority of Americans see the war between their two countries. To the Americans the affray of more than a century and a half ago is a null referent. To the Mexicans it was a defining experience, a national humiliation the stain of which lingers on to the present moment. The demand by so many Mexican apologists for a more "liberal" immigration policy on the part of the US is really an attempt to rewrite the verdict of a war most Americans are unaware of having taken place.
Because we are a state and a nation defined by ideas, ideas which are both unchanging and ever mutating we Americans fail to see just how long and complex the task of "nation-building" actually is. We can blithely assume that since our defining ideas and the institutions which grow from them are and have been so successful, other people in other countries will want to adopt them wholesale just as soon as they are informed. It was this simple assumption that propelled George W. Bush and his fellow neocons into the misguided and wrongheaded effort to transform Afghanistan and remake Iraq, not some perverse and evil impulse. It might be noted that most of We the People thought the same until enough time and American corpses showed the error of the underlying assumption.
When the interventionary impulse leads to failure as it so often has, the reaction is withdrawal. The American isolationist sentiment is predicated just as is our interventionary equivalent upon the defining ideas of the US. Both are expressions of moral sentiments which reside deeply in our collective understanding of both our past and our present nature. Moral sentiments ranging from being the shining city on the hill to its opposite, the cavalry riding to the rescue of the innocents threatened by external, violent evil are part, a central part, of our self-understanding, our collective self-definition. We are doomed to continue to repeat the cycle of engage and disengage as we are that of being "realistic" only to turn "idealistic."
But our greatest weakness as an artifact of the minds of men is the potential to lose faith in our collective self, our shared institutions and structures, our capacity to shape our future. The American identity is subject to seismic shocks. Should one or a combination of those shocks result in a loss of faith in ourselves and our collective capacities, the result would be fatal to the American experiment.
The blame-America-first crowd along with those who celebrate cultural relativism threaten the American faith. The constant refrain chanted by the tireless throats of these two groups which has pervaded so much of our collective consciousness for the past three decades is like water dripping on rock, slowly eroding, gradually corroding the solid and indestructible boulder to a handful of sand and mud. Taken in the present context of war weariness, frustration with an implacable enemy addicted to terror, and the fear provoked by economic catastrophe looming, the soul sapping effects of the naysayers in our midst represent a very real challenge to the nature of the US and We the People.
We often give credit to ideas, particularly the ideas on which we are founded; we call them "powerful" and "eternal." And so they can be. It is also true that there is nothing more fragile and quick to flee than an idea. Or a state and a nation founded simply and solely on ideas.