American Exceptionalism

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Throughout centuries, American statesmen and public figures have rhetorically portrayed the United States as the “nation of nations”, “manifest destiny”, and “invincible nation”, not to mention the biblical “City upon a Hill” (Pease, 2011). Despite the abundance of eloquent metaphors associated with American exceptionalism, this concept is very fluid and does not yield itself to precise definition. Essentially, it refers to the notion of the US as being different from other countries, due to its unique history and values. Both the public and the academia are split in their attitude to this concept as being justified or not. However, whether American exceptionalism is grounded on fantasy or reality, it continues to dominate the U.S. mentality and to pervade the country’s foreign policy. Though this conviction has a few benefits, it is mostly harmful to the American image because the country’s being different is often misinterpreted as being superior or even exempt from the rules that apply to other nations.

The idea of American exceptionalism was first articulated in the early 19th century by Alexis de Tocqueville, who considered the United States as being profoundly different from other developed countries because of its birth from revolution, strong national identity, and developed social and economic institutions (Koh, 2003). The author particularly emphasized the unique historical evolution of the United States, with no feudal past, which was inherent to European nations. However, the very term “exceptionalism” was only born in the 1920s after Jay Lovestone, the leader of the American Communist party, claimed the American path to the communist revolution to be exceptional (meaning exceptionally long) because of the firm hold of capitalism (Ceaser, 2012). There are different accounts of this story, and some even claim that the term was coined by Joseph Stalin in his reply to Lovestone. Nevertheless, it is clear that its first usages were imbued with negative connotations and referred to the US as being politically deviant rather than historically unique. It is much later that the term came to be viewed as laudatory.

Scholarly and political definitions of American exceptionalism abound. All of them are based on the notion of uniqueness, which may then be either confirmed or refuted. However, every researcher and politician attributes his/her own reasons to view the US as being distinct from the others. The term may thus encompass different clusters of concepts that are either present in the US identity or absent from it. Particularly, class conflicts, feudal hierarchies, divisive ideology, and trade unionism are often said to be conspicuous by their absence, as compared to other developed nations, while prevalent middle class, upward mobility, laissez-faire, diversity, and welcoming attitude to immigrants are allegedly present in the US to a greater extent than in any other country (Pease, 2011). Another notable interpretative difference lies in the connotations that scholars and politicians attribute to the term “exceptional”. The two core perspectives are to interpret it as “special” or simply “different”. A considerable bulk of research in the descriptive social science has been focused on the difference of the US from European nations in the aspect of social and economic institutions. The works of Tocqueville, Sombart, Hartz, Lipset, and Kingdon intend to demonstrate the non-European character of the US, due to a number of statistically outlying features, such as the size of the government, commitment to freedom, number of associations, and extent of charity exercised by private companies and individuals (Ceaser, 2012).

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Within politics, however, the advocates of American exceptionalism tend to view the US as special and even superior to other countries due to its commitment to liberty, individualism, and equality. This belief passes through the speeches of nearly every American president, from George Bush to Barack Obama, though the exact term may not be used. For example, in his famous farewell speech, Ronald Reagan conveyed his view of the US as “a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace” (as cited in Ceaser, 2012). It is remarkable that in the political discourse, the arguments in favor of American exceptionalism go far beyond measurable economic and social processes to incorporate a sense of moral superiority, virtuousness, and commitment to peace (Koh, 2003). Moreover, being instilled in Americans for centuries, exceptionalism has engendered the controversial belief in the special mission of the United States to promote democracy in the world.

Throughout the U.S. history, exceptionalism has often been a determining factor in the foreign policy of the country. Particularly, it urges the US to consistently intervene in the domestic affairs of the Middle East countries. Also, it can be assumed to underpin the unwillingness of the US to ratify numerous international treaties enacted in the second half of the twentieth century, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and many others. One of the most burning issues is the legitimacy of death penalty in more than a half of the American states: the US is one of the handful of countries that have not placed a moratorium on the death penalty. Likewise, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by all countries, apart from Somalia and the United States. Thus, through the failure to ratify these important treaties, the US alienates itself from most of the developed nations of the world (Koh, 2003). Moreover, it is urged to condone or defend human rights abuses in other countries even if it has previously denounced similar actions.

This situation is often viewed as paradoxical because, from Nuremberg to Kosovo, the US was at the forefront of the human rights promotion and still commits itself to judicial enforcement of human rights in the domestic policy, while also consistently rejecting the application of international legislative standards (Moravcsik, 2005). It is remarkable that the US accepts all the adopted standards as just and adequate (otherwise it would not even sign the documents), but still opposes their ratification, despite a high internal and external pressure. Even when the US ratifies an international treaty, it does so after a long deliberation and with numerous legislative reservations. A notable example is the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the US in 1992 (16 years after the enactment) with so many reservations that it has almost zero domestic impact (Moravcsik, 2005). A widely-accepted explanation behind this paradox is the unique “rights culture” of the US, based on its vast geopolitical power, stable democracy, active conservative minority, and decentralized political institutions. Most modern scholars, however, claim that the reason for this phenomenon lies not in the unique rights culture of the US or its trying to preserve the entirety of its sovereignty, but rather in the pervading principle of double standards as the most notorious facet of the American exceptionalism (Koh, 2003).

Representatives of such international organizations as Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First have straightforwardly claimed that the policy of non-ratification stems from the government’s belief that the US is exempt from the rules that apply to the rest of the world. In one of his recent speeches, President Barack Obama also denounced this policy and claimed that the US had to lead by example rather than by exemption, which can only signify retreat (The White House, 2014).

However, President Obama has also been harshly criticized for the double standards of his foreign policy because of his stance to nuclear weapons, which further exemplifies the effect of exceptionalism ideology on the strategies of American leaders. With the beginning of his presidency, the abolition of nuclear weapons was proclaimed as one of the central goals of the U.S. foreign policy.

In his speeches, President has often addressed this issue and called upon the global community to end the proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction. However, these appeals are perceived by many as inconsistent with the fact that the US sponsors the Israeli’s development of extensive nuclear arsenal. Moreover, in the second half of the twentieth century, the US issued numerous nuclear threats in the Middle East. Recently, the US threatened to undertake military measures against Syria for the usage of chemical weapons and Iran for deploying a nuclear enrichment program. These actions can be viewed as attempts to secure the nuclear monopoly of Israeli in alliance with the United States (Everest, 2013). Moreover, they are indicative of the U.S. goal to make other countries accept the American military superiority, while relinquishing their own rights to develop the weapons of mass destruction. Butfoy (2012) has argued that these inconsistencies stem from President Obama’s exceptionalist beliefs that combine idealism and realism. As demonstrated by his speeches, his rendition of American exceptionalism grounds on the idea of the country’s leadership and strategic primacy in the world. Though the need for exemptions for the US is explicitly denied, it naturally follows from this conception, as the US will not be able to retain its dominant position among other countries having equal military capacities.

American exceptionalism has been overtly criticized by foreign political leaders as underpinning the US foreign and domestic policies. In September 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced President Obama’s statement about the right of the United States to launch a military action in Syria because its foreign policy made it exceptional. Particularly, he warned President Obama that it was very dangerous to call one’s nation exceptional, notwithstanding the motivation, and called for diplomatic resolution of conflicts in the Middle East (Everest, 2013). President Obama, however, replied by saying that the US must remain engaged in the world affairs for the sake of its own security. This reply is yet another manifestation of the American exceptionalism because all the countries that suffer from the U.S. interventions would be able to ground their military actions likewise. A few days later, another piece of warning came from Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who drew a parallel between American exceptionalism and the rhetoric of the Nazi before World War II (Mercado, 2013). Thus, American exceptionalism, as manifested in its foreign policy, often raises concerns of other nations and engenders global distrust of the American foreign policy.

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Within the US, the ideology of American exceptionalism is still firmly established in the public conscience, being widely popularized by the conservatives over recent years. According to a 2010 Gallup survey, around 80% of the U.S. population agree that their country is the greatest in the world due to its unique history and Constitution (Ceaser, 2012). Shared by common people and policymakers, this belief has both positive and negative sides. The most considerable benefit of American exceptionalism is the stimulation of patriotic sentiment in the population. Citizens feel proud of their country and thus are more inclined to work for the sake of its prosperity. On the global scale, American exceptionalism drives the US to promote social and political changes in developing countries. Though the U.S. interventions always cause controversial reactions of the public, it cannot be denied that the United States is one of the few world countries that are ready to actually help other nations with ample financial and military resources, as well as to support reforms in the emerging democracies. In this tumultuous time, the US plays an important role in the world system of checks and balances. It has the power and eagerness to resolve conflicts between different ethnic groups and to immediately reply to genocides and crimes against the humanity all across the world. Therefore, President Obama’s (The White House, 2014) claim that the retreat of the US will lead to the formation of leadership vacuum in the world is justified to a large extent. It is the sense of American exceptionalism that drives the U.S. leaders to interfere whenever human rights are massively violated.

However, American exceptionalism also has notable negative implications. The most ostensible disadvantage of this concept, being prevalent in the minds of Americans, is the danger of arrogance towards other nations. If citizens are constantly reminded about the uniqueness of their nation, they are certain to generate the feelings of superiority, which are hardly beneficial for the maintenance of fruitful cooperation between the US and other countries. Moreover, throughout the U.S. history, the concept of American exceptionalism has been often used by the populist political powers to play on the citizens’ patriotic feelings and, which is even more dangerous, to disguise their true intentions. Pease (2011) has observed that elements of American exceptionalism are constantly reconfigured to suit current geopolitical circumstances. Particularly, during the Cold War, it was positioned as a distinguishing feature of the U.S. formation as compared to the Soviet imperialism. It is also remarkable that in the election campaign of 2011, Republican candidates were referring to the idea of American exceptionalism with unprecedented frequency, to divert the public attention from important economic and social issues (McCoy, 2012). Therefore, the intensity of zealotry about this concept is indicative of the extent of real world problems that Americans are facing.

Furthermore, American exceptionalism is counter-productive for the U.S. image in the global political arena. Consistent non-ratification of international treaties creates continuous tension between the US and other members of the United Nations. The fact that the US is mentoring other nations on the promotion of human rights and democracy, while refusing to comply with international standards, contributes to growing distrust of the US on the part of other developed countries and even domestic population.

Moreover, double standards of the U.S. foreign policy are causing straightforward accusations of hypocrisy from powerful political leaders, which may result in the overt conflicts with time. Thus, American exceptionalism might be self-understandable for the U.S. citizens, but it is not a fact that will be taken for granted by other nations. The current political events suggest that the United States should not consider itself exempt from the rules that apply to others and, especially, from the rules it imposes on others.

American exceptionalism has become an inalienable component of the U.S. national identity. Though, in the academic realm, it conveys the notion of the US being merely different from other countries due to its unique geographical, social, and political conditions, in the political discourse, it has received additional connotations of superiority to other countries and even exemption of the US from the global processes. The sense of American exceptionalism is either the primary reason or a contributing factor in many issues in the U.S. foreign policy, such as interventions in the Middle East, non-ratification of international treaties, and striving for monopolization of nuclear weapons possession. Though American exceptionalism fosters the patriotic sentiments of the citizens and underpins the U.S. peacekeeping activities, it also negatively affects the political image of the nation and undermines trust between the countries in multilateral strategies.

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