Trevor Brookins

*Everyone likes to think that what they are involved in is of great importance. And as far as you are concerned, getting a business degree instead of going to culinary school was very significant – for your life.

But in the grand scheme of things one more accountant as opposed to one more chef in the world isn’t even a drop in the ocean.

In fact there is a great tradition in American history of mistaking American exceptionalism for the exceptionalism of American individuals or individual American events.

The American Revolution was a truly exceptional moment in the history of Western Civilization. It marked the end of the age of monarchies, and a re-emergence of democracy. But the industrial revolution in America, which took place from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries, was not at all unique. American industrialization came after English industrialization. And many of the titans of American industrialization we celebrate (Andrew Carnegie) were simply copying what they saw elsewhere (Bessemer process).

As the country has gotten more involved in international affairs, this issue of overestimating importance got exported around the world.

World War II was very important. Nazi Germany had the clear goal of conquering the world. American involvement was necessary and important to the outcome. The same cannot be said of American intervention in Cuba during the 1960s, Chile during the 1970s, or Grenada during the 1980s. To say that these were critical points in international affairs is an over estimation designed to make American military actions seem more necessary and less like imperialism.

The current conflict in Libya will be the latest test. The United States can overstate the importance of the Libyan civil war even though Gaddafi is not running a theocratic country, so religious differences are not an issue; Libyan oil production is not so much that the world cannot do without it, so economics are not an issue; Gaddafi is not highly regarded as a statesman, so political considerations are not an issue.

The United States is the best country in the world, but we do not have unlimited resources. Some things are simply not that serious and do not deserve our attention. Libyans should have our vocal support in ousting a “brother leader” who uses jet fighters to fire upon protesting crowds. But that’s all they should have.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  You can reach him at [email protected]