By Senator Mike Johanns
America was born out of a once-radical notion that people can govern themselves. What followed was a culture of individualism, liberty, tolerance and a reinvented push for civil rights. These ideas were certainly the exception around the world in the days of our Founding Fathers, and continue to be in some places today.
We saw proof of that just last week when in the midst of delicate diplomatic negotiations, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in The New York Times that, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.”
He was trying to twist the meaning of American exceptionalism, but his definition could not have been farther from the truth.
Our own founding documents state that all men are created equal. It is that belief that makes our country unique. It is not one single person, but all of us together who make America exceptional.
We enjoy vast freedoms that allow for diverse principles, practices, customs and traditions. Our ability to live peacefully next door to someone who might be so different that the only common trait we share is our nationality is remarkable. Our opportunity to debate, choose, change and critique our national leaders free from violence or coercion is certainly not without merit.
Our nation’s ongoing and ever-growing commitment to human respect and dignity, regardless of background or belief is the foundation for the stability we have long enjoyed. And throughout our history, it has spawned an unmatched reputation for humanitarianism around the world.
Through efforts big and small, our nation is alive with examples of our efforts to lend a hand. Take for example the 2010 earthquake that devastated much of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Within days, 13,000 American troops and a small fleet of U.S. Navy vessels arrived to provide needed aid. One of the ships was the USNS Comfort, a massive floating hospital with a mission of providing acute medical care and humanitarian relief. But it wasn’t just our military. Individuals and churches sent money, supplies and volunteers to help strangers on a tiny island hundreds of miles away.
Instances of American good will are not only witnessed on an international scale. In our own state, when wildfires scorched more than 300,000 acres, volunteer firefighters traveled hundreds of miles to help battle the blazes. Other stories abound of families like the Mitch and Betty Nisly of Beaver Crossing, Neb., who’ve made it their life’s mission to provide a safe and loving home for special needs children.
Here’s the catch, not one of these people believes they are better than anyone else. American exceptionalism is not about superiority. It is about harnessing the freedom and ability we Americans have been blessed with to make the world a little better, at home and abroad. We believe Americans have the responsibility to do more. And that certainly is exceptional.