All countries have their own brand of chest-thumping nationalism, but almost none is as patently universal — even messianic — as this belief in America’s special character and role in the world. While the mission may be centuries old, the phrase only recently entered the political lexicon, it was first uttered when Joseph Stalin used it in a derogatory statement to explain the “Great Depression”. Today the term is experiencing a resurgence in an age of anxiety about American decline.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
American exceptionalism can be traced to Colonial American. The Puritans believed God had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to provide a model for the other nations of the Earth. Puritan leader, John Winthrop, expressed this idea as a “City upon a Hill”— alluding to a phrase from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Winthrop promoted the idea that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model community for the rest of the world, as the “eyes of all people are upon us.”
In 1776, revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” describes America as a beacon of liberty for the world. “Freedom hath been hunted round the globe,” he explains. “Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart.”
Seymour Martin Lipset a leading theorist of democracy and American exceptionalism believed that American exceptionalism grew out of the American Revolution, becoming “the first new nation” and developing the uniquely American ideology of “Americanism”, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy, and laissez-faire economics. This ideology itself is often referred to as “American exceptionalism.”
In his 1835, literary work Democracy in America French writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the “position of the Americans” is “quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”
In the late 19th century the US used American Exceptionalism as an excuse to enter the Imperialist race for Global hegemony when the Spanish-American War turned into an invasion and conquering of the Philippines. The Filipinos fight for independence and their resistance to U.S. rule prompted President McKinley to portray the American cause as humanitarian, expressing his sorrow that certain “foolish” Filipinos had failed to recognize the benefits of American generosity.
President McKinley would, in his 1899 speech to congress, exposed his version of American Exceptional when he proclaimed that a reason to occupy the Philippines was to take them and educate them, uplift them, civilize them and Christianize them.
One hundred years ago progressive President Woodrow Wilson, in his declaration of war, on Germany, revealed a US Foreign Policy that remains in place today. Arguing that America has a unique duty to spread liberty and democracy abroad “We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy.”
In June 1927 Jay Lovestone, a leader of the Communist Party in America, described America’s economic and social uniqueness. He noted the increasing strength of American capitalism, and the country’s “tremendous reserve power”; strength and power prevented a Communist revolution in the US. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, would publicly disagree with Lovestone’s assessment calling it “the heresy of American exceptionalism”. In his exchange with Lovestone, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was the first to coin the term “American exceptionalism”.
In 1941 magazine publisher Henry Luce urges the United States to enter World War II and exchange isolationism for an “American century” in which it acts as the “powerhouse” of those ideals that are “especially American.”
The 1950s brought together a group of American historians — including Daniel Boorstin, Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and David Potter — that argued that if the United States forged a “consensus” of liberal values over time it would enabled it to sidestep movements such as fascism and socialism.
In 1961 President John F. Kennedy suggests that America’s distinctiveness stems from its determination to exemplify and defend freedom all over the world. He invokes Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” and declared: “More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free.”
The 1970’s challenged the concept of American Exceptionalism. In the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal Daniel Bell a sociologist voiced a growing skepticism in his 1975 National Affairs essay, The End of American Exceptionalism, “Today,” he writes, “the belief in American exceptionalism has vanished with the end of empire, the weakening of power, the loss of faith in the nation’s future.” President Jimmy Carter spoke of a national “crisis of confidence” to the paeans of American greatness.
The 1980 presidential election brought Ronald Reagan’s bluster brought American exceptionalism back into vogue. “I’ve always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way,” Describing America as “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”
By 1990 as the final days of the Cold War passed the American model was proclaimed the winner and changed American exceptionalism from an option to a requirement. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War” but the “end of history as such, that is … the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed.
The end of the cold war marked an expansion of US policy based upon American Exceptionalism. In a 1996 speech, to justify NATO’s intervention in Bosnia, President Bill Clinton declares that “America remains the indispensable nation” and that “there are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression.”
The post-Cold War visions of American exceptionalism became a partisan talking point as future George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessan, in a Weekly Standard article, contended that there are two competing visions of internationalism in the 21st century: the “‘global multilateralism’ of the Clinton-Gore Democrats” vs. the “‘American exceptionalism’ of the Reagan-Bush Republicans.”
“You’re either with us, or against us”
George W. Bush proclaimed “Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America.” His dreams of American freedom culminated with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush’s “Wars Against Terrorism” turned into two failed projects in nation building. His dreams of democracy by force cost the American people over 3 trillion dollars and about 8,000 dead military personnel.
Amid skepticism about America’s global leadership and a disastrous war in Iraq and the global financial crisis, Democrat Barack Obama ran against Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in the election to succeed him. The term American exceptional was used in his campaign when he stated that. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” Obama says, but not one based on “our military prowess or our economic dominance.”
The Obama rhetoric made him appear to be a peace candidate his, “I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” made him the first sitting U.S. president to use the phrase “American exceptionalism” publicly. However, his quote was twisted to become an accusation of believing that “America’s just another nation with a flag.”
In response to his critics Obama has invoked Bill Clinton’s “indispensable nation” in his State of the Union address and later declared that, “My entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism.” How has any questioning of American exceptionalism become proof of a disdain for American uniqueness?
Recent Polls have indicated that 80 percent of Americans believe the United States “has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.” American exceptionalism has evolved into a litmus test for patriotism.
In the 2016, Presidential election both candidates campaign mottos were connected to the “American exceptionalism” theme. There is no difference between “Make America Great Again” and “America Is Already Great”? Both are premised on the same line of reasoning: America, due to its providential founding, cannot be and is not a normal country: it is exceptional, a “shining city on a hill.”
On the Left, many believe that America should intervene all over the world on a values crusade. Leftist journalist has endeavored to excuse the social justice warriors’ impulse for political violence. The Right neo-conservatism believe that intervention is an American mission to spread democracy throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Nationalism is the real problem and it is troubling. The Nationalist with their American exceptionalism cover claim that the spread of Democracy and the American way, “must be a focus of American policy for decades to come.” The United States must enforce a “global democratic revolution.” But is the answer a crusade to impose as neocon Max Boot expounded, “the rule of law, property rights and other guarantees, at gunpoint if need be?”
The hubristic nature of American Exceptionalism ideology feeds delusions of innocence, which prevents a more critical analysis of America’s adventures abroad. The mainstream media has a tendency promote U.S. policy makers’ motives as noble and in good faith. Never are reporters allowed to ascribe sinister motives to U.S. officials—this is only permissible when covering America’s enemies.”
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. military to conduct a devastating aerial assault on Baghdad, known as “shock and awe.” The New York Times published article that whitewashed the motives behind the decision by George W. Bush House to invade Iraq. “The Times portrayed the new Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East.
The illegal American intervention in the Syrian war was portrayed as “self-defense” when U.S. forces shot down a Syrian fighter jet over Raqqa in June. “The Syrian regime and others in the regime need to understand,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer, “that we will retain the right of self-defense, of coalition forces aligned against ISIS.”
Over the past few months we learned that that nearly 1,000 US troops are on the ground in Niger, a massive force for the tiny country but the media reports more on Trumps call to the widow of a victim or the apparently, unpreparedness and under-equipped soldiers and not the fact that Niger is now the “hub” for US military operations in Western Africa and most of the 100 US Senator were unaware of US Special forces deployed in Niger.
Murtaza Hussain, a journalist for The Intercept pointed out that the United States has the largest and most powerful empire in the world. Through a network of nearly 800 military bases located in 70 countries around the globe, and an array of trade deals and alliances, American leaders have by using a mixture of force and suasion to sustain the systems that keep its hegemony intact. (Hussain’s work focuses on national security, foreign policy and human rights. His work has previously been featured in the New York Times, The Guardian and Al Jazeera English.)
In Yemen, U.S. special-operations have been conducting raids on this impoverished, violent, and bitterly divided country. US bombs and operations have kill innocent civilians. Yemen is a country that the United States periodically bombs in accordance with the “War on Terrorism” we support the two-and-a-half-year-old war that Saudi Arabia has been waging against the Yemeni people. Their war efforts, include the bombing of innocent civilians and a blockade of its ports in an attempted to deny food, potable water and medical supplies as Yemeni citizens are dying by the thousands from a cholera epidemic and malnutrition.
Few Americans pay much attention to these events. Africans, Middle Easterners, Arabs and Asians are being killed and maimed by U.S. ordnance falling from the skies. Why does the media not give these stories the airtime that they give to Harvey Weinstein or Civil War statues or those “unpatriotic” NFL players that kneel for the National Anthem? Could it be that they feel that these “primitives” are just not our guys?
I Wasn’t Taught This in School
From the genocide of Native Americans to the US military’s boots on the ground in about 70% of the nation across the world American exceptionalism has served to disguise the US governmental effort for a larger footprint across the World. The problem that persists with believing the myth of American exceptionalism is the presumption that the rest of the world buys into this myth. The American people continually have a willful misunderstanding of the past that blinds us to available alternatives, such as realism.
In the end, the ideology of American Exceptionalism feeds delusions of American Innocence and prepares the ground for military intervention the world over. American exceptionalism is not a valid reason to sanction, intervene, invade, occupy and remake nations into a “democratic” paradise.
“American exceptionalism” is authoritarian and since the Spanish-American War the US’s foreign policy has justified intervention as being on the “humane and moral side”. The abusive action of intervention is immoral and distorts free choice and sovereignty through threats of power and force. “American exceptionalism” when stripped naked is totalitarian.
The US government, and most of the liberal West, believe that freedom has been granted to us by the highest of authority. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson explains that the citizen’s rights have been; “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Under closer scrutiny, a logical conclusion would be that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was not just intended for Americans, he was writing for all people. Intervention and occupation usurps the powers “endowed by their Creator”. It is immoral to intervene and occupy because the occupier controls the people’s rights, among those are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. American exceptionalism should not become a surrogate for the Creator. That would-be blasphemy.
The Anti-Imperialists League was formed in the late 1800’s during the Spanish-American War. It would behoove us to revisit the philosophy of the Anti-Imperialists. Republican George F. Hoar, an anti-Imperialist Senator from Massachusetts, called for principles over national self-interests.
Senator Hoar pointed out the difference between a republic and an empire, between liberty and slavery, between the Declaration of Independence and Imperialism. He emphasized that by standing on its traditional principles, the United States had become “the strongest, freest, richest nation on the face of the earth.” He asserted that all people must be treated as people desiring independence, and not treat people as “primitives to be subdued so that their land might be used as a stepping-stone…”
Our attempts to export American Exceptionalism, democracy, freedom and our “War on Terrorism” have only produced broken countries in our wake. As we continue to repeat “we meant well” the blowback has produced more enemies and more terrorist around the globe. Our crusades to slay monsters abroad must stop before the political and economic burdens of a perpetual War State will destroys us.