American Exceptionalism

American “exceptionalism” has been a deeply rooted belief in American society due to previous successes and accomplishments of the United States in the political, economic, social, and cultural arenas. These successes and accomplishments have fed the perception of America being an “exceptional” superpower. The perception of America as an exceptional power is also “nurtured by an equally deep-seated parochialism within the American political system that – perhaps paradoxically – is a byproduct of and reinforced by America’s economic success, cultural influence, and military dominance.”[1]

For those who are responsible for crafting American foreign policy, the idea of “American exceptionalism” has become a frame of mind within which all have operated. There is a kind of ecology embedded within the scheme of American foreign policymaking for it is the policymakers who perpetuate the idea of “American exceptionalism,” and in turn the idea itself serves as an indoctrinating force for all policymakers. To perceive the United States as anything other than exceptional would equate to dismissing all that it has accomplished in the international realm and to miscalculate the predominant position it holds in the international community through its global military presence.

America – like most other nations and countries – holds a “redeeming idea” in the words of the late Edward Said that feeds into the perception of America being exceptional. The main objective of American foreign policy has been for “American exceptionalism” to overcome what can be broadly described as “anti-Americanism,” for sustaining “American exceptionalism” is a way of subverting any kind of external threat to America’s self-image and by virtue providing an ideological safeguard for American military power and prestige. The idea of “American exceptionalism” is the primary reason behind antagonistic rhetoric toward America’s competitors and adversaries, found in many policy proclamations in the present and the past such as NSC-68, which are fueled by the desire of sustaining “American exceptionalism” and therefore cannot be seen as merely “rhetorical flourish.”

The world is also wrought with challenges to America’s position as a global hegemon, an “exceptional” superpower imposing its preponderance over everyone else. An umbrella label has been assigned to these challenges: “anti-Americanism.” Some observers have described the label as a lame mechanism used to characterize the adversarial position that America’s challengers have taken around the world. For example, Professor Max Paul Friedman has said that “anti-Americanism” is nothing but “a distorting lens and political weapon, a dismissal of both the criticism and the critic, and it is an obstacle to understanding what is going on in the world.”[2] Anti-Americanism can be expressed in many shapes and forms, and regardless of how it is expressed, it essentially challenges America’s position in the international order and aims at undermining the concept of “American exceptionalism” that lies beneath the American psyche. Those who are vested with the responsibility of crafting American foreign policy would perceive the demands of “anti-Americanism” as being absurd and self-oriented, and would view those as espousing anti-American views as seeking only to undermine the position America has attained in the international system through its overwhelming military and police force.

The main strategy for the United States when waging the Cold War was simple: challenge the spread of communism in places where it could pose a serious threat to American interests. Soviet communism posed a direct and explicit threat to American exceptionalism “because it put itself forward as an alternative modernity; a way poor and downtrodden peoples could challenge their conditions without replicating the American model.”[3] Soviet communism was anti-American in the sense that it stood as a weltanschauung that differed from the American approach of living life. As Jean-Paul Sartre said: “Everything is settled, except for the question of how to live.”

For the world to adopt an alternative to the American model of life would be an outright repudiation of “American exceptionalism.” How is the American way of life “exceptional” if the world chose not to emulate an American lifestyle and instead opted for a way of life that was fundamentally different to the American way of doing things? The threat of Soviet communism rested in its design to render America and what it stood for as something “unexceptional,” and this explains the perception of the Soviet Union as being a sort of “anti-American” threat. By dropping the atomic bomb, the United States demonstrated that it would not and could not be deterred in its quest for global hegemony, and the bomb would undergird America’s efforts in shaping a world that reflected both American domination of the world as well as the American way of life:

“The bomb, as potential or actual weapon, did not alter the [Truman] administration’s conception of an ideal world, but possession of the weapon did strengthen the belief of policy makers in their capacity to move toward establishing their goal: an “open door” world with the Soviets acceding to American demands. This ideal world included free elections, an open economic door, and the reduction of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe.”[4]

As the grip of European colonialism receded in the Third World due to the demise of Britain and France after World War II, the United States felt the need to fill the vacuum and assert its dominance over the international order. Influential figures in America’s national security apparatus like John Foster Dulles proposed the idea that “American exceptionalism” was the main factor that would enable the United States to shield the Third World from Soviet influence. Dulles also made it a priority to salvage Western Europe and to prevent European countries from falling into the grip of the Soviet Union. In his writings, Dulles stressed that the global situation after World War II

“compelled the United States to serve as the ‘group authority’ for the symbolically named ‘Free World’, making the rules, insisting that they be followed, and guarding against all trespassers by exercising its power, its spiritual, ideological, economic, and most important, military power.”[5]

Indeed, it was military power that made the United States an “exceptional” power, and American policymakers have been cognizant of this for it “enabled them to achieve a world political and economic order amenable to their wishes.”[6] Economic and military power went hand-in-hand to safeguard America’s interests from external threats, and it enabled America to deal with them accordingly. After all, economic power translates into military power, according to Paul Kennedy. Moreover, given America’s “exceptional” status among world powers, the idea of “American exceptionalism” triggered a sense of responsibility and obligation amongst American policymakers to uphold a world order bestowed upon them by virtue of the collapse of Britain and Europe. As a result of this burden of responsibility, the United States had to become more vigilant to protect itself as well as the “Free World” which it inherited, and this vigilance is reflected in many of the policy statements emerging out of the Cold War as well as the post-Cold War era.

Thus, the United States began confronting challenges to the “Free World” it dominated through the course of the Cold War, with one particular case being Iran in 1953. Mossadegh, who was Iran’s prime minister at the time, nationalized Iran’s oil industry in 1951, to the dismay of the British who had long controlled Iran’s oil. Mossadegh decided to nationalize Iran’s oil industry without having much domestic expertise and technical capabilities to run it, and what resulted was a shortfall in oil production which had negative ramifications throughout the entire oil-consuming world. Mossadegh’s stand on nationalization and what the Americans and British perceived as “bizarre oriental behavior” were considered by the Americans and British as being antithetical to Western norms. Eventually, the British convinced the United States that Mossadegh could not be tolerated and had to be removed. The United States believed that “it wasn’t their fault there was no oil agreement; the fault lay with the Iranians, whose way of thinking was so different from the Anglo-American one that no settlement was possible.”[7]

Anti-Americanism can be manifested in many forms, and in Mossadegh’s case his “oriental” behavior and personality was one particular form of anti-Americanism. Mossadegh’s case, when added to Soviet communism and other ideologies around the world, indicates the breadth of “anti-Americanism” that exists in the world, in addition to the various ways in which anti-Americanism posed as a challenge to America’s position as an enforcer of a “world order” based on an American weltanschauung that consisted of capitalism, individualism, elections, and “reason” over passion. The breadth of world views and cultures around the world that differed from the American way of life demonstrated that the United States was compelled to confront each challenge with seriousness as well as with a sense of urgency, validating rhetoric through action.

Following Iran, the United States continued attending to “problems” around the world. While it took a significant toll on American resources, it was “American exceptionalism” that sustained the United States through its battles with the forces of “anti-Americanism.” In Cuba, Fidel Castro drove Cuba to the brink of nuclear war with the United States and was directly challenging U.S. control over the Western Hemisphere and Latin America. The “Cuban Missile Crisis” emerged at a time when

“[The] Cold War dominated international politics, and as Cuban-American relations steadily deteriorated, Cuban-Soviet relations gradually improved. Not only did Americans come to believe that a once-loyal ally had jilted them for the tawdry embrace of the Soviets; they also grew alarmed that Castro sneered at the Monroe Doctrine by inviting the Soviet military to the island.”[8]

Eventually, the United States would settle the Cuban issue through dialogue with the Soviet Union, and the United States would gradually institute heavy economic sanctions on Cuba, thereby weakening and isolating Cuba from within the international community. Again, the United States tried to demonstrate its seriousness in dealing with an anti-American threat. But the greatest challenge to U.S. resolve in the 20th century would be Vietnam. The complexity of the situation in Vietnam was extraordinary, for it combined:

  1. A threat to America’s credibility in dealing with physical and ideological threats to Americanism, and
  2. the threat to the economic viability of the American-led international system through communism’s endangerment of an economically important region in Southeast Asia.

Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist-socialist movement proved too cumbersome for the French to deal with, and thus the burden of dealing with it had been placed on the United States.

Much was at stake in Vietnam not just for the United States, but for the entire “Free World” system that the United States sought to create. In Section 2 of “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” it is stated that the “United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.”[9] Why was that so? There appears to be a couple of reasons. First was that Southeast Asia was interconnected with the economic well-being of U.S. allies such as Europe and Japan, which in turn benefitted the United States. It had been concluded that “Southeast Asia… could serve a dual purpose: providing markets and materials to Japan and helping fix the dollar gap for Europeans.”[10] It would thus provide purchasing power for America’s allies to buy American goods and commodities. The second issue was American credibility and the “exceptionalism” which Americans sought to exude throughout the world.

These two factors – economic prosperity and American prestige – could not be compromised in Vietnam. America could not lose in Vietnam, for it would totally undermine the idea that Americans were an exceptional superpower capable of standing for its goals and objectives, and thus “it was American credibility that was at stake in Southeast Asia, American prestige that needed to be upheld there.”[11] America was able to sustain a war in Vietnam, but would eventually abandon its efforts there, and Vietnam would fall to Ho Chi Minh’s forces in 1975.

While Vietnam took a huge toll on American resources and aura of invincibility, the United States would remain atop of the “free world,” would continue to prove that no small defeat would overcome American “exceptionalism,” and would continue being committed to isolating and defeating its adversaries. Vietnam was devastated by its confrontation with the U.S., and has yet to fully recover. And in the 1970’s, détente was aimed at opening the vulnerabilities of the anti-American Soviet system to intense U.S. penetration and ultimately dependence on the United States:

“Over time, trade and investment may leaven the autarkic tendencies of the Soviet system, invite gradual association of the Soviet economy with the world economy, and foster a degree of interdependence that adds an element of stability to the political relationship.”[12]

Soon enough, Mikhail Gorbachev would open the Soviet Union to the United States and let down the anti-American guard the Soviets long held. It was Gorbachev who through his actions vindicated American “exceptionalism” and enforced the idea that there was a propensity on the part of America’s adversaries to falling at the feet of American power. Gorbachev

“appeared to have concluded that the Soviet Union could continue to be a great power in world affairs only through the introduction of something approximating a market economy, democratic political institutions, official accountability, and respect for the rule of law at home. And that, in turn, suggested an even more remarkable conclusion: that the very survival of the ideology Lenin had imposed on Russia in 1917 now required infiltration – perhaps even subversion – by precisely the ideology the great revolutionary had sworn to overthrow.”[13]

Thus, the antagonistic rhetoric used in policy statements by the United States as well as American actions abroad are intended to show that as an “exceptional” superpower, the United States seeks to look after not only itself, but also allies who subscribe to an American way of life. Defeating enemies that do not subscribe to the American weltanschauung and way of life is a means of ensuring the preservation of this very peculiar way of life that is sustained by the redeeming idea of American “exceptionalism” which in turn is enforced by America’s military power. Those who threaten America’s sense of exceptionalism often face severe consequences.


[1] Jussi M. Hanhimӓki, “Global Visions and Parochial Politics: The Persistent Dilemma of the ‘American Century’”, Pg. 437

[2] Max Paul Friedman, “Anti-Americanism and U.S. Foreign Relations”, Pg. 505

[3] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, Pg. 17

[4] Barton J. Bernstein, “Secrets and Threats: Atomic Diplomacy and Soviet-American Antagonism”, In Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Pg. 303

[5] Richard H. Immerman, Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz, Pg 178.

[6] Carolyn Eisenberg, “The New Cold War”, Pg. 425

[7] Mary Ann Heiss, “Culture Clash: Gender, Oil, and Iranian Nationalism”, In Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Pg. 345

[8] Thomas G. Paterson, “Spinning Out of Control: Kennedy’s War Against Cuba and the Missile Crisis”, in Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Pg. 399

[9] “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution Authorizes the President to Use Force, 1964”, In Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Pg. 419

[10] Robert Buzzanco, “International Capitalism and Communism Collide with Vietnamese Nationalism”, In Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Pg. 429

[11] Fredrik Logevall, “Lyndon Johnson and His Advisors Pursue Personal Credibility and War”, In Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Pg. 442

[12] “Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger Defines Détente, 1974”, In Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Pg. 458

[13] John Lewis Gaddis, “President Ronald Reagan’s Successful Strategy of Negotiating From Strength”, In Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Pg. 480

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s