When Vladimir Putin addressed the American people, he warned, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
The hypocrisy was apparent long before his invasion of Crimea and sponsorship of subversion in eastern Ukraine. For years, the Kremlin has aggressively promoted a xenophobic brand of Russian nationalism laced with Orthodox Christianity and nostalgia for Soviet power. Yet, separating the messenger from the message, there is no difference between Putin’s rhetoric and the arguments made by American critics of exceptionalism. If anything, Putin’s cynical exploitation of Russian feelings of superiority reinforces the contention that the basic purpose of any sort of exceptionalism is to provide a veneer of principle for selfish or aggressive conduct.
President Obama offered a similarly condescending view in 2009, observing, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He hedged his bets by adding that America has a “core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution” which are exceptional. Not surprisingly, Obama’s convictions evolved after his remarks unleashed a torrent of criticism. Last month, he told the graduating class at West Point, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” Such transparent lip service only reinforces the perception that Obama thinks of American exceptionalism as a simplistic piety to which lesser men cling, much like guns or religion.
That is regrettable, since exceptionalism is a serious and substantive concept that should inform American policy at home and abroad. Exceptional does mean better in important ways, although these exceptional traits long co-existed with shameful ones, such as one century of slavery and another of segregation. Critics often stumble on the complexity of this point, unable to comprehend how the United States can claim unique virtues if it also committed terrible acts of oppression. They fail to understand how the virtues embodied in the Founding ultimately subverted the forces of oppression.
Two centuries ago, being exceptional meant being unique. Today, Freedom House lists eighty-eight countries as “Free” on the basis of their citizens’ political and civil liberties. In many respects, these countries now share in what was once a purely American exceptionalism. Yet while there are eighty-eight free nations, only one is a superpower. Unlike Putin’s chauvinism, American exceptionalism is an inclusive doctrine that has made America the center of a global network of alliances. To dispense with exceptionalism is to dispense with the moral foundation that makes American power much more attractive than threatening.
Understanding American Exceptionalism
“It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one,” remarked the progressive historian Richard Hofstadter. Even other democracies tend to be defined by the ethnicity, nationality, or religion of a dominant group. Yet the United States embodies a set of principles about human liberty. Thus, there is no kind of person incapable of becoming an American.
The origins of American exceptionalism are geographic, demographic, and philosophical. The first European settlers included heavy contingents of religious dissidents and entrepreneurs. They left behind the aristocracies and established churches of Europe and encountered an inexhaustible supply of land, at least for those prepared to wrest it from the natives. The settlers also brought many of the ideas generated by the European age of Enlightenment. In that unique setting, there emerged a culture of radical egalitarianism (among whites) that gave rise to a constitutional republic.
With respect to its origins, American exceptionalism had almost nothing to do with foreign policy. Well into the 20th century, exceptionalism had greater bearing on other issues, especially the question of why the United States proved so resistant to socialism and class-based politics. In 1929, Josef Stalin denounced “the heresy of American exceptionalism,” by which he meant the belief of certain American Communists that the United States had developed a form of capitalism immune to proletarian revolution.
Exceptionalism and Foreign Policy
There is no question that many of the Founders saw the birth of the United States as an event of world historical significance. Thomas Jefferson expected that constitutional republics would one day cover the entire Western Hemisphere, yet assumed no obligation on America’s part to accelerate the process. In his Independence Day address of 1821, John Quincy Adams described the founding as “the first solemn declaration by a nation of the only legitimate foundation of civil government. It was the corner stone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe.” But Adams explained that the United States would play only a passive role in this transformation.
Even though the American example would serve as “a beacon on the summit of the mountain, to which all the inhabitants of the earth may turn their eyes,” Adams insisted that the young republic had “abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings.” Most famously, he declared, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Many Americans disagreed sharply with Adams, yet the young Republic certainly did not have the sense of global responsibility that characterizes the United States today.
The growth of American power led to a gradual reconsideration of whether the United States had an obligation to defend rights it believed to be universal. It is hard to identify a particular moment when Americans began to presume that their foreign policy ought to reflect their country’s exceptional nature. Theodore Roosevelt spoke often and passionately about the moral imperative for governments to observe the same ethical principles that bind individuals. In his war message of April 1917, Woodrow Wilson called for intervention against Germany because “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Unquestionably, the fusion of power and principle contributed to military interventions in Central America and the Caribbean. The confidence that comes from acting on behalf of universal principles did sometimes conceal baser motives or encourage a lack of restraint. Yet this same fusion of power and principle is what made Wilson a popular hero in Europe, enabling him to win support for a new international order based on collective security.
The aftermath of Wilson’s efforts illustrates again that American exceptionalism is not an invitation to be belligerent. The Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations. This was not an expression of isolationist tendencies, but a reaction to Wilson’s stubborn arrogance. In the decades between the wars, Americans remained utterly convinced of their exceptional nature. Yet once again, they concluded that avoiding foreign commitments was the course most compatible with exceptionalism.
The Exceptional Superpower
The Second World War—and not the threat of Communism—persuaded Americans that their security depended on assuming a global leadership role justified by their commitment to liberty. Before the war, Americans generally thought of Wilson as a failed statesman who sacrificed 100,000 American lives for a hollow victory at Versailles. After Pearl Harbor, Americans penitently revised their estimation of Wilson, recasting him as a prophet whom they had ignored at their peril. There was near-universal support for establishing a successor to the League of Nations that would pursue the same goal of collective security.
The United Nations Organization proved to be more enduring than the League, yet no less impotent as a guarantor of the peace. That job fell to NATO. For a country long hostile to permanent alliances, the decision to join NATO was remarkable. From a global perspective, the enduring nature of the alliance has far greater historical significance. In the traditional game of great power politics, alliances were mainly superficial alignments that shifted with the political and military tides. NATO broke the mold. The notion that twelve (later fifteen) nations would stay closely aligned for forty years was once unthinkable. Unquestionably, the pressing nature of the Soviet threat helped. Yet the democratic values that united the founding members created the trust necessary for the United States to maintain several hundred thousand troops and a sprawling network of military bases on allied soil.
In the developing world, American prosecution of the Cold War led to a number of notable excesses, especially support for anti-democratic coups d’etat in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973). To some extent, these were the fruit of a mistaken belief that fighting Communism was tantamount to defending freedom. Yet ironically, the presidents who supported these coups were the ones most inclined to discount the importance of democratic values as a means to ensure American security.
The Liberal Critique
Liberal idealists posit that America must struggle constantly to suppress the dark side of exceptionalism while encouraging its benevolent aspects. This school of thought represents a hybrid between traditional exceptionalism and what might be described as negative exceptionalism, or the belief that the United States has a uniquely destructive culture. This negative view has a long pedigree, expressed in the view of many 19th century visitors from Europe who denounced American culture as exceptionally crude, materialistic, and self-righteous.
The most articulate exponent of the liberal critique is Harold Koh, a Yale Law professor who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the Clinton administration. For Koh, the dark side consists of double standards through which the United States seeks to constrain the behavior of others while exempting itself from international law and norms. In 2003, Koh furiously denounced “the emerging Bush Doctrine” which “makes double standards—the most virulent strain of American exceptionalism—not just the exception but the rule.” Yet in the same article, Koh lashed out at France in terms one might expect from a Bush partisan. “Can you remember the last major human rights campaign led by the French?” Of course not, because the country was “notoriously fraternizing with abusive regimes in such countries as China, Iraq, and Burma.” More broadly, Koh praises the United States for “its exceptional global leadership and activism.” It alone is willing to “commit real resources and make real sacrifices to build, sustain, and drive an international system committed to international law, democracy, and human rights.”
Noticeably absent is the idea that the United States is exceptional because it embodies the liberal democratic principles upon which it was founded. For Koh, exceptionalism does not reflect what the United States is, only what it does. This is the opposite of the position taken by John Quincy Adams in 1821. If exceptionalism is a matter of action, not being, then a refusal to accept the responsibilities of global leadership would render the United States unexceptional.
This conclusion is problematic because it confounds a particular expression of exceptionalism with the phenomenon as a whole. Much of what is exceptional about the United States has little or nothing to do with foreign policy, such as its enthusiasm for religion, its entrepreneurial culture, and its voluntary associations. This distinction matters because domestic support for shouldering global responsibilities rests in part on the idea that American leadership emanates from the principles that have defined the country since its founding. If this connection is severed, then Americans will become like other nations, who very rarely stand up for what is right until someone else stands up first. That may be a recipe for disaster, however, since others expect the United States to stand up first.
The Realist Critique
Whereas the liberal critique seeks to salvage American exceptionalism, the realist critique seeks to destroy it. Double standards do not bother realists, because they expect all great powers to behave hypocritically. Their great fear is the crusader mentality that fails to recognize its own hypocrisy. Stephen Walt of Harvard warns, “When a nation starts to think it enjoys the mandate of heaven and becomes convinced that it cannot fail or be led astray by scoundrels or incompetents, then reality is likely to deliver a swift rebuke.” John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago fumes that the “national-security elites who execute and support [U.S. foreign policy] fervently believe in ‘American exceptionalism.’ They are convinced that the United States is morally superior to every other country on earth…These elites obviously do not look in the mirror. But, if they did, they would understand why people all around the world think hypocrites of the first order run American foreign policy.”
The superficiality of the realist critique should be evident from its simplistic association of American exceptionalism with an unshakeable sense of moral superiority or enjoying “the mandate of heaven.” Unquestionably, one can cite many examples of immoral or amoral actions taken by the United States. On the other hand, the United States is the only great power, with the possible exception of Great Britain, that has pursued a policy that identifies its own interests with that of an international order that promotes security, prosperity and freedom for other nations, not just itself.
The practical cost of rejecting exceptionalism is an inclination to do nothing in times of crisis. Harold Koh writes, “Single-minded critics of American exceptionalism may perversely encourage dangerous passivity in places where the United States presents the only viable solution to a festering global problem.” Although Koh made that point more than ten years ago, he anticipated the realist opposition to taking any meaningful action during the crises of the past twelve months in Ukraine and Syria. While criticizing such passivity, Robert Kagan notes, “this is sometimes called ‘isolationism,’ but that is not the right word. It may be more correctly described as a search for normalcy.” Realists just want America to be normal. Yet a world of normal nations is a world in which no one takes the initiative to deal with festering problems.
Certainly, taking the initiative can be costly. Realists point to the grinding wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or earlier ones in Vietnam and Korea, as the inevitable result of the United States’ abnormal sense of responsibility. They miss the bigger picture. There is a case to be made that each of those four interventions was a tragic mistake. Yet as Kagan notes, “In the half-century following World War II, the United States successfully established, protected, and advanced a liberal world order, carving out a vast ‘free world’ within which an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity could flower.” Before that time, the normal state of affairs was one of hostile powers constantly jostling for better position, with periodic wars breaking out, many of them devastating. What prevents a return to this historical status quo is a superpower that recognizes the exceptional nature of its founding principles and remains determined to apply them in its endeavors abroad.
David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on isolationism, national security strategy, and democracy promotion.