Is Scandinavian Exceptionalism Similar to American Exceptionalism?

A canal in Copenhagen in 2011.

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Answer by Sofie Louise Kastrup Marcussen, student at Aalborg University, Denmark:

I’ll base my answer on this definition of American exceptionalism, translated from a Danish definition: “American exceptionalism is the belief that the USA is a chosen nation (even divinely so) with a chosen people whose values are exalted compared to the rest of the world.”

In some ways, there are similar attitudes in Scandinavia. (I’m basing my answer on my own experiences, growing up in Denmark.) In other ways, American exceptionalism is really its very own species.

On being a (divinely) chosen nation and chosen people: This is an attitude I don’t think you’ll see here. The Scandinavian countries are very old with long histories full of both great times and humbling times. Denmark was once part of one of the biggest nations around; now our population is smaller than many American big cities, and we are pathetically insignificant as a military power. I think that this has humbled the Scandinavian countries and made us less likely to think of ourselves as “better just because.” Adding to that high rates of atheism and similar attitudes, there’s not really anyone doing the “chosing” in our eyes, so the attitude doesn’t make a lot of sense.

On having better values than the rest of the world: This you probably will see. I don’t think it’s unique to the U.S. or Scandinavia—most nations most likely think this of their values. (If they didn’t, they’d change their values.) People are contented to sit on their couches watching the news and discussing why all those other people in the world can’t just act right, why they can’t just stop the terror, or why religion is so important. Most often I hear my father (who’s almost 70, something I think is a large part of his attitude) rail against Muslims for not stopping the terror groups on their own, for not having the same values as us, etc. There’s definitely a sense of exceptionalism there. And I do it too: Why don’t Americans just get stricter gun laws? Why don’t they get national health care? Why don’t they change their political system? It’s all so very obvious! Of course, this disregards all the differences between our small nations with long histories and humbling defeats in our past on one side and the U.S. with a much shorter history of rebelling and quickly turning into an economic and military superpower on the other side.

To end on that tangent, I think that’s one of the things that has contributed to a special type of exceptionalism in the U.S. There’s been such a long time of being in charge, without horrible defeats, of being the only real superpower in the world, that of course there’s a feeling that it’s the best. But now that many of the things that have contributed to the U.S. staying in the lead are starting to crumble from under it (capitalism having severe downsides, other superpowers emerging), it might lead to a change in this idea of exceptionalism. It sure seems that many of the younger generations are already skeptical of their country’s values and whether these are actually realistic; perhaps a little curiosity toward other values and critiques of the system will make for some of the humility that the Scandinavian nations feel.

Of course, our nations have pretty much been riding on the coattails of the military power of the U.S. Maybe a changing world picture and global challenges will teach us all some humility and make us less prone to exceptionalist thinking. One can only hope.

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