American Exceptionalism: Now found wherever Spam® is sold!

By Russ Davis

For a long time, I’ve wondered why American products–food, computers, movies, etc.–are so popular overseas. If you’ve been following this column over the past couple of weeks, first, thank you; second, you’ll recall last week I mentioned how Coca-Cola tastes better in Belgium. Sometimes, I’ve wondered: Why is there Coca-Cola in Belgium? I mean, I could understand if there was a store or two selling it; or maybe an online store for Belgians who went to the United States, tried Coca-Cola and loved it, and then wanted some at home.

But that’s not the case: Coca-Cola is available in virtually every supermarket, corner store, restaurant, tavern, etc., in Belgium. All but two countries in the world have Coca-Cola available somewhere within their borders. In 2010, it was the best-selling brand in the United Kingdom.

This made me curious as to what other American products are popular overseas. In my search, I was surprised to discover that Spam has international popularity. Yes, the so-called “mystery meat” developed by Minnesota-based Hormel Foods is now heavily marketed in China, according to a 2011 article by Bloomberg Businessweek. Moreover, that same article, written by Matthew Boyle, gives way to the influence of American business: “Burger King restaurants in Tokyo also sell [S]pam burgers.”

Okay, I can guess what you’re thinking: What do Coca-Cola and Spam have to do with American greatness? Well, more than I originally thought.

Recently, with the world watching the Obama administration as they seemed to prepare for a military strike on Syria, the “intervention vs. nonintervention” (among other labels) debate resurfaced in the political blogosphere. Looking through some of the editorials and discussion forums, I was struck by what I read from the pro-intervention side. One comment stuck out to me: Someone wrote, “I’m in favor of asserting American influence around the globe. I’m a total interventionist.”

“American influence” in this case meant American military influence. This isn’t an unpopular view. But it’s misguided.

In fiscal year 2012, military spending made up 4.4 percent of the U.S.’s gross domestic product. While 2012 saw reductions in the military budget, we still spent $668 billion. This money has plenty of purposes. Tragically, one of these purposes has become “nation building”–the incorrect idea that the United States government (or any government for that matter) can build up another country’s society, often using the military as the vehicle to do so.

The U.S. has been attempting nation building in Afghanistan for a full 12 years as of this editorial’s publication. Yet, a December 2010 poll commissioned by several news organizations found that 55 percent of Afghans do not approve of U.S. presence in their country. And while I like to consider myself as decently patriotic, I can’t say I disagree.  Since the U.S. invasion, opium production has increased–fueling the trade of heroin in Eurasia–and thousands of non-combatants have lost their lives. Another war, the 2003-10 War in Iraq, has cost the United States at least $1 trillion, yet Iraq is still marred with civil war and religious sectarian violence.

Yet even in the face of nation building’s failures, many in both major political parties say America has a duty to intervene in world conflicts, so that American values of democracy and freedom of religion can be spread throughout the globe.

I’m in favor of those values both at home and in the larger world. But we can do this without increasing our budget deficit or spending trillions of tax dollars. Foreign trade is how we do that. Our music, movies, television, food, brands, etc., are popular the world over. The fact that we can sell these overseas demonstrates that people overseas want them–and, by extension, that the people buying these products want the kind of things that we Americans enjoy.

The term “American exceptionalism” is often used to describe the idea that America is an exceptional nation with exceptional strengths and values. This is an idea that can be spread throughout the globe without spending a single tax dollar–through cans of Coca-Cola and tins of Spam.