The Problem with American Exceptionalism

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In April 2009, Obama responded to a question concerning American exceptionalism with the statement “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism”. This response may have been sufficient enough to brush the issue of American exceptionalism under the carpet, but it shines little light on the problem. Whilst exceptionalism is deeply embedded in the culture of institutions including the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, and even in high profile news organisations and political figures such as FOX News and Sarah Palin, most worringly, the ideology cuts deep into the core of international relations. More than simple arrogance, exceptionalism implies national superiority and, for the neo-conservative faction in US politics in particular who quote the phrase America is “like a city shining on a hill”, this notion even extends to biblical superiority.

Christopher DeMuth, President of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (a conservative think-tank) emphasises that Americans are more individualistic, self-reliant, anti-big state and pro-immigration than people in many other countries, adding that they also work harder and even participate more in civic activities. Quite simply, however, this fails to take many factors into account; America has a crippling national debt, a high unemployment rate, hugely unequal distribution of wealth and the highest prison population in the world, not to mention extensive racial tensions. Are DeMuth’s sweeping observations simply embedded in the culture of exceptionalism?

Historically, American exceptionalism was born from the view that America was not just an extension of Europe but a new nation of unlimited potential and opportunity. Such vision stems from the political vision of the founding fathers, from frontier spirit, from the confidence and self-reliance of immigrants, from the belief in chosen-ness and the universality of American ideology. This latter belief chosen-ness has worryingly led to the belief that America has the divine providence to expand its ideological borders and spread its democratic and ‘liberal’ ideas to the rest of the world.

This ‘divine sanction’ is used to justify the intervention in the affairs of sovereign states and international affairs and plays an instrumental role in the justification of military expansion, allowing the US to deploy troops across the world. There are numerous occasions of how such rhetoric of ‘divine sanction’ are used to defend acts of aggression and American historian Howard Zinn offers us endless examples of how this thread of religious destiny in American patriotism has advocated aggressive foreign policy: the move westward and attempted genocide of the Native Americas, the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico, war against the Philippines, U.S involvement in coups in Latin America and military pursuits across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The belief in exceptionalism also justifies the United States violation the UN charter – ‘all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations’ (Article II (4)) – as well as the Nuremburg Principles and allows it to be exempt from countless international laws, agreements, strategies and numerous international environmental laws. Furthermore, whilst America has been the notorious purveyor of international criminal justice, it is one of the few developed countries not to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and, despite their dedication to justice and accountability, an American leader cannot be charged with War Crimes on US soil. Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, encapsulated all this beautifully with the words ‘if possible we will act multilaterally, if necessary we will act unilaterally’. How can America be held accountable for such hawkish and aggressive policies?

Like many things, it all whittles down to public education and more specifically, the biased teaching of history throughout the country. It is argued with some validity that America’s blindness to its own history has bread a national complacency and disastrous foreign policy that has isolated and alienated America from the global community. As a history student I can’t help but agree that this belief in American exceptionalism is evidence of the infinite capacity that the mind has for self-deception – something that can only be undermined with a decent education.

Perhaps if American students learned of United States expansionalism, the massacres and the invasions, they might be more critical of how the government justifies their foreign policy. Perhaps if American students read a chapter on McCarthyism, they might be able to draw some connections between anti-communist hysteria and the current ‘war against terror’, not to mention reduced social freedoms and the re-emergence of the far right.

Perhaps if Americans read a brief history of the Declaration of Independence they would realise that the words ‘all men are created equal’ is neither relevant nor appropriate as a justification for intervening in international affairs which have little effect on them.

The closest that Abraham Lincoln came to saying that the Americans were exceptional was his use of the phrase ‘the almost chosen people’. Whilst this modest observation recognises the dangers of declaring that a nation is the product of divine providence, it is also evidence of the arrogance and emotional autonomy of American ideology.

Article by Sarah Murphy Young. Edited by Sam Neagus.