Illustration by A. Babar and Sydney Romano
Illustration by A. Babar and Sydney Romano

As part of the debate over intervention in Syria, the question of whether the U.S. is an exceptional country has once again bubbled up. Yes, says President Barack Obama, who invoked U.S. exceptionalism in his Sept. 10 speech on the need to respond to chemical weapons attacks in Syria. No, responds Russian President Vladimir Putin, arguing last week in a New York Times op-ed that the U.S. should refrain from striking Syria, and that “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Claims of American exceptionalism have a long history. They assume that the U.S. not only is exceptionally powerful but also has distinctive values.

Yet just how exceptional are the values of the American people? The World Values Survey helps answer this question, using data from representative national surveys carried out in more than 100 countries containing 90 percent of the world’s population. These surveys measure people’s values concerning religion, politics, and economic and social life, and they let us compare U.S. values with those of other countries.

Measuring Churches

One of the most frequent claims concerning U.S. exceptionalism holds that Americans are remarkably religious. This is true in a limited sense: Data from the World Values Survey demonstrate that Americans place more emphasis on religion than do people in almost any other high-income country. (Only Greece and Singapore are more religious.) But when viewed with a global perspective, this claim becomes much less impressive: People in all Muslim-majority countries and in virtually all Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries are even more religious than Americans. The U.S. ranked 54th in the most recent survey, about the midpoint for the world as a whole.

Potentially even more important is the claim that Americans have a unique commitment to democracy. Of course, strong majorities in every country surveyed now say that democracy is the best form of government for their country, and the U.S. is not particularly distinctive in this respect. But this may be mere lip service. In response to a question about how much freedom of choice and control over their lives they have, the American public ranks relatively high -- 15th out of roughly 100 countries. And in response to a question about whether they have ever signed a petition, the U.S. ranks seventh. Participatory democracy seems to be alive and well in the U.S., but New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Canada, Sweden and France all rank even higher.

The U.S. is also a relatively tolerant society. For example, when it comes to the percentage of those who disagree that men have more right to a job than women, the U.S. ranks 19th. And when it comes to having gay people as neighbors, the U.S. ranks as the 22nd-most tolerant country. Here again, the U.S. makes a respectable showing but is by no means the most tolerant; in this case, that title goes to Sweden.

Another claim concerning American exceptionalism, this one traceable back to Alexis de Tocqueville, is that Americans have an exceptionally strong civil society, which in turn reflects high levels of interpersonal trust. In response to the question “Do you think most people can be trusted?,” the U.S. ranks 24th. Once more, the U.S. ranks well above the midpoint but is far from No. 1.

Middling Country

In global perspective, then, Americans show relatively high levels of political activism, tolerance and trust -- all of which are core components of a democratic political culture. Yet claims of American exceptionalism do not hold up: American values do not differ drastically from those of most other economically developed democracies.

The U.S. does differ from all other countries in one significant respect: Since the 19th century, the U.S. has had the world’s largest economy; since World War II, it has been the world’s top military power; and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been the only superpower. This reality has thrust special responsibilities on the U.S. It does not mean that the American public is particularly nationalistic: Globally, the U.S. ranks 64th when it comes to those who say they are proud of their nationality.

But when combined with the belief that the U.S. is culturally exceptional, its position as the world’s only superpower can lead some to think that the U.S. has the right to intervene unilaterally in other countries to impose what the U.S. views as justice. When China becomes the world’s largest economic power, will this entitle it to intervene in other countries around the world?

In this context, one last finding from the World Values Survey deserves mention. As we’ve seen, the U.S. public ranks 15th in the world in the extent to which it feels that its members enjoy free choice and control of their lives. The Russian public, meanwhile, ranks 95th. It may be ironic that Putin -- who in recent years has become increasingly authoritarian, xenophobic and repressive within his own country -- should call for greater readiness to listen to the views of others. Yet critics who reflexively dismiss his proposal on how to end the threat of chemical warfare in Syria might wish to reconsider. After all, he’s certainly right about the fallacy of American exceptionalism.

(Ronald Inglehart is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and the founding president of the World Values Survey.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ronald Inglehart at rfi@umich.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.