King of the world

THE United States has survived without the influence of a government, and will live to threaten default another day. The rest of the world, meanwhile, should prepare to survive without its influence.

The former was the thrust of a very public broadside delivered last week by Xinhua, China's state-run news agency. The piece contains the usual rails against US hypocrisy, selfishness and propensity for international meddling, but also the more strident intimation that this is a "good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanised world".

Like most Xinhua pieces, every "maybe" and "should" feels like it was added after the fact by a cadre of careful lawyers. Like most Xinhua pieces, it calls for a new world order, one without the United States as an economic and cultural locus. Unlike before, however, there are some within the United States who are listening – and discussing the decay of American exceptionalism.

There's a bit of debate over how the phrase came about, but what is interesting is just how much its meaning has changed over the past century.

Originally intended to point out that the United States's brand of capitalism was an exception to other economic laws that dealt with national development, the modern usage of American exceptionalism has been wrangled mostly by Republicans to mean "America is exceptionally great".

This virulently evangelistic sense of national pride was at the heart of Russian president Vladimir Putin's New York Times op-ed last month. He warned against a US campaign in Syria, and delivered a stinging final paragraph that slammed the United States' brand of exceptionalism as "extremely dangerous".

The other country that believed it can and should play a role in shaping the world was the Soviet Union, of course, as is pointed out in a Washington Post critique.

While China and Russia having a go at the United States is hardly noteworthy, some of the reactions are very much so – including that of Zachary Karabell, who says in his Reuters blog that "even a hypocritical adversary can have keen observations".

"The United States may be a powerful country that controls the world's reserve currency and has the world's predominant military, but that does not mean it is the global leader, the world's policeman or anything other than a first among equals at best," he writes.

It is a good point, but I think my 95-year-old grandaunt, who moved to the state of Washington from country Queensland almost seven decades ago, makes it even better: "I don't understand why we keep telling people we are the best country in the world. I'm sure it doesn't make other countries like us very much."

Indeed, the New York Times ran a piece collecting reactions to the United States' internal crises, including the sentiment that reckless political and fiscal behaviour is not limited to the likes of Greece, and that a default "could well hurt weaker countries more than the United States".

Weaker countries. Here, again, the modern definition of exceptionalism is very much in evidence.

The Times piece is full of surprise over the United States's current situation, genuine fears over the ripple effect of a US default standing awkwardly next to descriptions of the United States as the "reigning superpower", and this gem of a question: "How, many ask, did the United States become more like the rest of the world, and less of an obvious leader?"

Post-financial crises, post-Snowden, posturing and pettiness isn't going to help. There is substantial merit to the United States becoming more like the rest of the world, or the rest of the world simply catching up in the areas that count.

Similarly, there is much to be said of the emergence of China and other countries – this isn't a competition. We're dining at the same table, and more for one is less for the rest.

Perhaps it would do the United States good to stop obsessing over arbitrary global rankings and divert those energies to the internal crises that are tearing it apart.

Twice in the past two years, inelegant squabbling over debt has affected its reputation and raised the spectre of what a default would do to the world's financial systems. Early next year there will be another vote on the debt ceiling, and you will get slim odds betting on three for three.

But while there is nothing wrong with schadenfreude, those clamouring and clambering to be at the top of the pile would do well to practice caution.

Since the problems of one country can swiftly metastasise into the problems of many, it would really be rather helpful for the superpowers-that-be to focus less on being on top and more on lifting from the bottom.

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