THE WISDOM FUND: News & Views
November 2011
Foreign Policy

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

The idea that the United States is uniquely virtuous may be comforting to Americans. Too bad it's not true.

by Stephen M. Walt

Over the last two centuries, prominent Americans have described the United States as an "empire of liberty," a "shining city on a hill," the "last best hope of Earth," the "leader of the free world," and the "indispensable nation." These enduring tropes explain why all presidential candidates feel compelled to offer ritualistic paeans to America's greatness and why President Barack Obama landed in hot water -- most recently, from Mitt Romney -- for saying that while he believed in "American exceptionalism," it was no different from "British exceptionalism," "Greek exceptionalism," or any other country's brand of patriotic chest-thumping.

Most statements of "American exceptionalism" presume that America's values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.

The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America's global role is that it is mostly a myth. Although the United States possesses certain unique qualities -- from high levels of religiosity to a political culture that privileges individual freedom -- the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics. By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.

This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S. dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy, whether the subject is possession of nuclear weapons, conformity with international law, or America's tendency to condemn the conduct of others while ignoring its own failings. Ironically, U.S. foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.

What we need, in short, is a more realistic and critical assessment of America's true character and contributions. In that spirit, I offer here the Top 5 Myths about American Exceptionalism. . . .

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Stephen J. Sniegoski, "Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism," The Wisdom Fund, June 23, 2010

Andrew J. Bacevich, "America: With God on our side: Presidential candidates feel no shame in asserting divine purpose in U.S. policies and actions. In this ubiquitous view of American exceptionalism, the nation is not bound by rules to which others must submit," latimes.com, October 16, 2011

[. . . every nation considers itself exceptional.--David P Goldman, "US exceptionalism a matter of faith," atimes.com, March 12, 2013

Patrick Smith, "American exceptionalism is a dangerous myth," salon.com, May 26, 2013

["It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," Putin wrote--"Vladimir Putin Warns Against U.S. Military Intervention," huffingtonpost.com, September 11, 2013]

[American Exceptionalism should restore individual liberty as the center of the Constitution's universe and transparency the lifeblood of self-government. It should understand that the final end of the state is to make citizens free to develop their faculties and to be morally accountable for their destinies, not to bestride the world like a colossus or to make the people government wards. It should make the rule of law king, accept risk as the oxygen of freedom, and repudiate arrogance in favor of self-doubting.--Bruce Fein, "American Exceptionalism Challenged," huffingtonpost.com, September 18, 2013]

Mort Rosenblum, "As a World Watches . . . the Incredible Shrinking America," mortrosenblum.net, September 30, 2013

Oliver Stone Blasts American Exceptionalism, October 13, 2013

[Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle "If you are not with us, you are against us." To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.--"Address by President of the Russian Federation," kremlin.ru, March 18, 2014]

Tom Engelhardt, "An Exceptional Decline for the Exceptional Country?," truthdig.com, July 14, 2014

[We're #1 in investment in our military and our national security state!--David Bromwich, "American Exceptionalism and Its Discontents," tomdispatch.com, October 23, 2014]

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