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American Exceptionalism -- Are We Becoming France?

As news headlines explode in France with the burning question of 'what does it mean to be French?', a debate provoked by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his minister of Immigration, we might wonder why France is engaged in such navel-gazing when issues like the global economy might be considered more timely.

While the debate has a serious undercurrent -- examining how Muslims and immigrants integrate into French society -- the posing of the question smacks of a faded empire struggling to recapture the character that had brought it preeminence long ago.

So it's interesting that President Obama's recent Nobel Prize speech focused on America's historical contributions to the international community at length before commenting on America's continued commitment to its ideals.

We seem consumed by the fact that President Obama dared to accept the Nobel Prize in the first place; that he bowed to the Japanese emperor; and that China is no longer bending to the will of America. America is still a leading world power, but the American people can't seem to adjust to the fact that we are no longer the only leading power.

At the same time, while we are in the midst of fighting two wars abroad while struggling to get job creation moving in the face of a daunting pile of debt, the main focus of the media seems to be on how many mistresses Tiger Woods may have racked up.

One has to wonder if we are so blinded by our own notion of American Exceptionalism that we haven't noticed that the world has moved on and we may be on the way to being better remembered for our fascination with celebrity rather than our enduring power and values -- sort of like the way that France is considered quaint for its fascination with its beloved ailing rock star, Johnny Hallyday.

America has been a beacon of peace, stability and prosperity for the world for decades; earning a unique place in the international system because of its values of inclusiveness, innovation and justice. The American people fundamentally believe that those values and success automatically translate into global preeminence.

However, while we were feeling comfortable with our place in the world, others have emerged on the stage and are not content to stand in the shadows of America's past glories.

President Obama has been working to restore America's leadership in the world, emphasizing that we have a unique contribution to make to continuing peace and prosperity in the global system. He seems to recognize that the days of imposing America's will are over and instead focuses on collaborating with other nations to fix global challenges.

The problem is that restoring America's leadership takes time. Much like Wall Street focuses on short term results, so too do the polls and the attention of the American people.

And the reality is that we cannot pick up where we left off and act as a free agent in the world -- China, India and others are too big and too important to the system to be ignored.

While we may not like it very much, the world does not move on our timeline. We're so used to instant gratification, TV on demand and a twenty-four hour news cycle that we often focus on the short-term or the trivial. We can't understand when China or Europe or Pakistan won't roll over and take direction.

Progress has been made -- we are on the verge of historic health care reform; the economy is very slowly coming back from the brink of the abyss; and China and Russia are working more cooperatively with the U.S. against the threat of a nuclear Iran.

The real concern is whether the American people have the attention span or focus to see these changes through. We may be so caught up in our own storyline that we won't do what it takes to help us get on the right path that will enable America to continue to lead.

In order to do that, we need to truly take to heart the notion of shared sacrifice that made this country great in the midst of World War II. That means taking a long-term view in making decisions and acting for the greater good when we can't necessarily see the immediate gain for ourselves. And it means acting in a new spirit of cooperation in a way Washington has not yet been able to do - Democrats and Republicans, big business and labor, the list goes on and on.

Does it sound Pollyannaish? Probably. But if we don't follow through, we could find ourselves debating what it means to be American on an upcoming episode of MTV's The Real World.

Victoria Esser is a Managing Director of The Glover Park Group.