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“”American exceptionalism as a non-sarcastic idea is dead. Whatever our argument used to be for being a hegemonic superpower with the authority to meddle in the affairs of every other country, it's no longer valid. We're officially earth's most embarrassing people. The rest of the world is laughing at us [...] when it's not busy being terrified by our ignorance, racism and incompetence. They see a rich country that is spiritually bankrupt, consumed by neurotic aggression and incapable of forgiveness.
|—Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone|
American exceptionalism is a belief that the United States is unique or exceptional when compared with the historical development of other countries. It would be easy to pigeon-hole as nationalism, but it is more expansive and more concentrated than that. It is a popular ideal held by many American conservatives, though the temptation is not entirely limited to the right. Several liberal historians and politicians have embraced certain aspects of American exceptionalism, in particular in the "vital center" and "end of ideology" views popular among American liberals in the mid-20th century. American exceptionalism is also a core belief within neoconservatism.
One major characteristic of American exceptionalism from a historiographical viewpoint is its tendency to gloss over what it would consider "bad" history, such as slavery, treatment of Native Americans, segregation, and the Jim Crow South, and emphasize or mythologize the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and George Washington, the "Wild West," or even controversial aspects of American involvement in the world wars.
American exceptionalism may view the United States through the lens of a special historical determinism for the United States, separate from broad historical trends in the rest of the world. It may, for a variety of reasons, view the U.S. as a nation that is immune (or should be immune) from things like terrorism and dictatorship — "It can't happen here." The U.S. in turn is supposed to assume an activist role around the world in promoting "freedom" or being a "shining example" to the world (the "City on a Hill"). This sort of presumptive moral superiority
isn't always is virtually never welcomed by other nations, and is often almost always resented, particularly when the U.S. has a long history of engaging in gunboat diplomacy itself. If an American wants to understand how the concept of American Exceptionalism sounds to almost anyone in the world who is not an American, take any speech or screed effusing the wonders of American exceptionalism, and re-read it substituting the word "white" for every instance of "American" — you'll see how bigoted and overbearing American Exceptionalism really sounds.
The belief by Americans in American exceptionalism is one of the reasons for worldwide resentment or dislike of the USA.[note 1] To the rest of the world it sounds less like "America is Exceptional" and more like "Exceptions should be made for America". It's effectively a form of special pleading.
Impact on American foreign policy
From colonial days, the English-speaking, European-descended residents of what would become the United States viewed their colonial societies and (more or less) shared culture as unique or at least virtuous. Calvinist preachers in New England developed a theme of American uniqueness which worked itself into the foreign policy of the newly independent republic. Rather than military alliances with the European powers as part of that continent's balance of power diplomacy, political elites in the new United States sought to trade with Europe and to establish regional hegemony over its own sphere of influence (Latin America). The focus was not on the entangling alliances with which Europeans tormented themselves, but on ensuring Europeans did not interfere with what was perceived as an American sphere of influence. This had dual effects, such as protecting Latin America from undue European interference, but also insured America kept itself out of the struggles to assert a "balance of power" in Europe. It is often said that the US was sympathetic to Britain diplomatically, but played little part in the great game of European diplomacy.
Another way in which the United States saw itself as fundamentally different from the European powers was in its eschewing imperial ambitions. That said, there were important tensions between American rhetoric about the evils of empire and actual political practice. The doctrine of "manifest destiny" was a blatantly imperial program that involved exercising power over, or simply eliminating, other peoples. Also, the U.S. exercised sovereignty over a number of overseas territories, including Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba. Paradoxically, Americans' belief in their exceptional nature helped to inform the acquisition of such colonies, as Americans believed they were uniquely suited to ruling foreign peoples benignly. (Compare France's mission civilisatrice and the "heaven-born" British in the Raj.)
Even when not under direct U.S. rule, many Latin American states felt the weight of US influence in the formation of their political institutions. Simply put, American exceptionalism ensured that Castro, Allende, Pinochet, and Chávez got into power. (Yes, Virginia - US governments did found other things as well as Daesh.)
American exceptionalism also led the US to employ idealistic and democratic rhetoric, even when getting involved in brazen "sphere-of-interest" or geopolitical engagements, like the various coups in Latin America.
To this day, the US still tends to be exceptionalist in its justifications for interventions. In the 90s in particular, there were many interventions that didn't have much basis in national interest (including Somalia and Yugoslavia). Many scholars, like the entire realist school of international relations, themselves sometimes given to American exceptionalism, have a hard time understanding this part of US foreign policy. Today, it rests on the assumption that the US military is naturally a global force for good[note 2] (think of the neoconservative hawks of the Bush administration) and that any country they get involved in would recognize this fact. The ethnic Albanians living in Yugoslavia no doubt welcomed American assistance to end Milošević's genocide attempt, especially as the rest of Europe put on blinders and refused to act, so it's not as if the US never does anything right. However, an Iraqi villager watching his mosque being destroyed by an American bomb may have a differing opinion on this. Ditto for the Pakistani child whose parents were killed by a drone. The over-confidence in "American values" and ignorance to the contradictions involved has an enormous impact on the rest of the world, as where the US military goes, many other militaries (sometimes not entirely willingly) follow.
Neuro-linguistic programming propaganda slogans
- "My country, right or wrong." From the Vietnam era, as a reaction to the working-class kids who were protesting the war
- "If right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” - U.S. Senator Carl Schurz, expressing a more enlightened view of this slogan.
- "Put your heart in your country or get your ass out." - Similar slogan from Vietnam era
- "Support the troops." - From the Gulf War and beyond, almost always in service of arguments for putting those troops in harm's way.
|—Fox News anchor Andrea Tantaros explaining the Senate report on CIA torture |
- Is America exceptional? Liberals, conservatives agree -- and disagree: Essay by UC San Diego political science professor David A. Lake
- Michael Bailey on American Exceptionalism
- See the Monroe Doctrine.
- See George Washington's famous Farewell Address in 1796.
- Andrea Tantaros Loses Her Mind Over Torture Report’s Release