The Challenge
The phrase “American exceptionalism” keeps coming up while I’ve been abroad, and generally it seems to be used in a negative or even a pejorative sense. The phrase was first used by Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America in the 1830s:

“The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”

One recent example is from an article by Australian academic (and former government official) Hugh White. In an essay about China’s economic growth and resulting Australian choices (“Power Shift” in Quarterly Essay), White describes the United States:

“Exceptionalism is fundamental to Americans image of their country — they see it as exceptional, both materially and morally…This is the deepest source of American resistance to sharing power with China.”

White’s argument is that American exceptionalism is detrimental to American foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific because it disallows a sensible, prudent course of action (specifically, accomodating growing Chinese power in the region to craft a “Concert of Asia”). White believes this stumbling block threatens the peace and stability of the region ~ “American exceptionalism” plays the bad guy in this scenario.

Domestically, the concept has become a political issue to those seeking office in the Republican Party, after President Obama made these comments on the issue in France roughly a year ago:

“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

In addition to the world’s largest economy and its mightiest military, Obama said, “we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”


“I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”

President Obama, in this quotation, correctly identified the main pillars of America’s position in the world, and appropriately avoided the hyperbole of the two extreme images that often seem to appear alongside the phrase “American exceptionalism”:

**Note: on the left is a Homer Simpson t-shirt, an image of the way American exceptionalism might appear to a some in the international community; on the right is the way that American exceptionalism might appear to a domestic audience.

An Interpretation

My take: America is not exceptional in and of itself ~ to some degree, every country in the world has inherent uniqueness. Yet, America is exceptional for two reasons: its global position and its values and ideology.

First, America’s global position makes it exceptional. This isn’t much of a debate or a challenge, as Robert Farley has stated that there is “no question that America occupies an exceptional position in the international system.” As President Obama alluded to above, the United States has the world’s largest economy and the mightiest military. The two charts below demonstrate this nicely:

**Note: The chart at left depicts total Gross Domestic Product (not Purchasing Power Parity) for the top economic 10 countries of the world. The United States’ economy is just over $14 trillion, while China is second, around $6 trillion.

**Note: This chart depicts aggregate defense spending as a percentage of world defense spending. The U.S. spends 42.6% of the world’s defense expenditure, while China comes in second at 7.3%.

The last point to be made on America’s global position is that the United States is, as Secretary Madeline Albright famously said, the “indispensable nation.” One quick test of this is that, if a country’s leader wanted to accomplish one international goal, and could be magically granted the appointment of one ally, there would very likely only be one answer: the United States. Simply put, that is because nothing substantial gets done in the world without the support or leadership of the United States. Christopher Hitchens has even said as much, “when the rest of the world wants anything done in a hurry, it applies to American power.”

As a follow on to that point, Secretary Albright was also clear on one point: being indispensable, or exceptional, does not mean that “exceptions are granted” to us or that the U.S. is allowed to flaunt international laws…[this statement is important to make, but likely to engender disagreement, so for now I’ll pass on addressing that challenge].

Second, America’s values and ideology make it exceptional. This one is trickier, and subject to manipulation. Robert Farley identifies this difficulty nicely:

To be fair, however, Walt and Greenwald are invoking a strain of American Exceptionalism that has been present in U.S. political life for a very long time, and dominant in U.S. foreign policy circles since the end of World War II. This vision suggests that the United States has a historic — and possibly divinely inspired — mission to bring peace, freedom and democracy to the world, and that American military power plays a central role in this mission. At its most pithy, the vision can be summed up as follows: “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you: Jesus Christ and the American soldier. One died for your soul, the other for your freedom.”

Appealing to religion, or a sort of messianic quest to spread the gospel of the church (and liberty too) is highly misleading. That would lump the U.S. in with theocracies, a situation that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Even if freedom of religion is supported in the U.S., the federal government also does not specifically support any individual church as a matter of public policy. Thus, bringing faith directly into foreign policy decisions is a non-starter.

The better way to support the idea that America is exceptional due to its values and ideology is to start out with what they are. The late political sociologist, Seymour Martin Lipset, wrote: “The nation’s ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire.” And as far as values, one can generally look to the usual suspects: liberalism, democracy, and capitalism. Yet another way to view exceptionalism is in the relatively high level of patriotism in the United States.

I think the above values and ideology are important, but also, their genesis adds to the story. Again, Christopher Hitchens,

“The United States of America is not just a state or country but a nation — the only such nation, in fact — supposedly founded on a set of principles and ideas. The documents and proclamations preceeded the nation-state. China would be China under any regime, and so would Iceland or Egypt, but the USA is also a concept.”

This is an important point: that the formation of America’s values preceded the establishment of the state. China is an excellent contrast: it was once ruled by empire and feudal warlords and is now Communist in name only. China’s government has flexed according to the times, whereas the original blueprint for the U.S. government has remained largely consistent (Constitution, Bill of Rights). There is a bit of simplification here, but the general thrust of the statement is true. The values and ideology of the United States are exceptional, both in terms of their uniqueness and development.

Concluding Thoughts

1. “American exceptionalism” has become a loaded statement prone to imprecise use. A better way to describe the American position in the world is to use the adjectives “exceptional” (as originally intended by de Tocqueville; meaning “uncommon” or “extraordinary”) or “indispensable” (a la Secretary Albright).

2. The United States is exceptional for its global position and its values and ideology.

3. This is important because, as James Q. Wilson says, “stakes in understanding America could hardly be higher. For better or worse, America is the 800-pound gorilla in every room in the world.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment