The New American Exceptionalism (Critical American Studies)

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It is a betrayal which has led to tragic consequences for the wider world, especially among Muslim societies. Moreover, exceptionalism has recently become a rhetorical weapon wielded by conservatives and Republican candidates in the political arena. Based on a survey conducted by Gallup, Silk ch. To comprehend how the exceptional ideal shaped the worldviews of the U. In , presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich both employed American exceptionalism as the central theme for their presidential campaigns. The debate among presidential candidates reveals that exceptionalism largely affects the American way of life.

In order to fully understand the meaning of American exceptionalism and how this ideal affects the manner in which the United States engages with the world, Gorski and McMillan ch. The former defines the United States as a blessed nation and seeks to export democratic capitalism to the rest of the world; it considers personal freedom and national sovereignty as important national issues. The latter interprets the United States in terms of the fundamental values and political ideals that the country firmly believes in; thus, social equality and civic inclusion are particularly important in the context of PE.

However, as they argue, both CE and PE are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition — more millennial and apocalyptic in the case of CE, and more prophetic and ethical in the case of PE.


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Overall, the various authors in this book provide insightful explanations of American exceptionalism which contribute to the knowledge of this subject. What makes this book worth reading is that it provides a critical lens through which readers can examine contemporary U. Thus, to fully understand American exceptionalism and how Americans view the world, the national myths of the United States are worthy of discussion, both historically and culturally. His research interests are critical terrorism studies, critical discourse analysis, constructivist approaches to IR, the War on Terror and U.

His PhD dissertation is elaborat ing the continuity and discursive origins of the U. Albright, M. Bush, G. Before you download your free e-book, please consider donating to support open access publishing. E-IR is an independent non-profit publisher run by an all volunteer team. Your donations allow us to invest in new open access titles and pay our bandwidth bills to ensure we keep our existing titles free to view.

Any amount, in any currency, is appreciated. In contrast to a merely descriptive list of occurrences confined to particular instances, our exceptionalist ideal types both speak to each other and invite their application to more cases than the ones considered in this article. All exceptionalist states understand themselves as fundamentally different from other states. However, exceptionalist foreign policy discourses are not only about difference from otherwise comparable states but also about superiority in moral terms see also Holsti , As we will illustrate below, articulations of exceptionalism regarded the United States as different from, and morally superior to, feudal Europe; China as different from and superior to its neighbors and the West; and both India and Turkey as different and superior to the Western great powers.

Superiority in each case can take a slightly different connotation; but all forms of superiority involve a moral or spiritual element. This latter element only becomes relevant to foreign policy due to the belief in its universal validity beyond a respective nation's borders. Yet, as our examples show, exceptionalist discourses have surfaced and prevailed even in states relatively inferior in terms of economic progress, welfare, or technological advancement.

American exceptionalism

The universal becomes visible only through the lens of that one particular political history or spiritual or civilizational heritage. Beyond this common thread of superiority due to a unique insight into a universal morality, exceptionalism may take different forms along two dimensions. First, exceptionalist states may understand their superiority in moral terms as a call for an either missionary or exemplary foreign policy. By contrast, a self-understanding as exemplary may entail the same degree of moral superiority without the desire to convert others. Again, in practice reasoning behind this varies from essentially moral arguments against the praxis of conversion, skepticism with regard to the success of missionary engagements, to a general disinterest in the wider uncivilized world.

In the Chinese case, throughout history we see variations of and between the exemplary and missionary character. For instance, contemporary China explicitly distances itself from having a missionary aim toward the outside world and claims to be essentially different from the West in this regard Zhang , Second, exceptionalism may go along with either exemptionalism or nonexemptionalism in global politics.

Nonexemptionalism emphasizes engagement and dialogue over confrontation, and multilateralism over unilateralism, as will be demonstrated by the cases of pre Turkish discourses and of India under Nehru. In both cases, adherence to international law, international cooperation amongst equals, and a conflict-mediating role in international politics were traits attributed to the exceptional character of each country. However, exceptionalism may also result in exemptionalism in dealing with international law and institutions, as defended by US neoconservatives of the s.

Based on the above we discern four ideal types of exceptionalist foreign policy discourses see Table 1. Imperialist Exceptionalism is characterized by a missionary foreign policy discourse and exemptionalism in questions of global politics. Imperialist exceptionalism comes with a proselytizing aim to convert and liberate others in the pursuit of an allegedly universal common good that the exceptionalist state stands for and has a particular access to.

This exceptional duty in principle justifies transgressing international law and conventions binding the unexceptional rest. Civilizational Exceptionalism stands for an exemplary foreign policy discourse combined with exemptionalism in questions of global politics. Civilizational exceptionalism, a self-understanding as the world's center and most advanced civilization, comes with a general disregard for the barbaric, underdeveloped or otherwise inferior others.

The aim is to stay out of entanglements with the unexceptional rest while pursuing the perfection of one's own society. Thus, civilizational exceptionalism comprises an isolationist foreign policy. Internationalist Exceptionalism fuses an exemplary foreign policy discourse with a nonexemptionalist approach to international rules and a general appreciation of egalitarian multilateralism as a modus operandi of world politics. The exemplary character is based on specific geographical, historical, or cultural circumstances that make the respective society an example for those situated at a lower level of political development.

Globalist Exceptionalism reflects a missionary foreign policy discourse with nonexemptionalism in questions of global politics and multilateralism. Here, the missionary aspect, however, is not intrusive or interventionist but goes hand in hand with respect for binding international norms.

Globalist exceptionalism is characterized by moralizing in international fora and narcissism at home. Due to this type's missionary zeal, the unexceptional rest is the object of tutoring and paternalism. On the other hand, this type of exceptionalism proactively defends equal principles for all states and considers a diverse yet unified world society as a long-term goal to strive for. The prominence that exceptionalism enjoyed—and continues to enjoy—in US discourses both academic and in policy practice may suggest that exceptionalism is essentially a phenomenon exclusive to states with outstanding global power.

In this reading, exceptionalism is only a symptom of de facto superiority in material and nonmaterial power resources: from British colonialists in the late nineteenth century to US American neoconservatives, the exercise of power politics was disguised—and legitimated—in the garb of exceptionalism.

We argue that in spite of obvious interrelations with power resources and potentials, exceptionalism is not necessarily a great or super power phenomenon per se. On the other hand, exceptionalist foreign policy discourses have been absent in several other regionally important powers. Germany's foreign policy since reunification, for a number of reasons including historical and strategic ones, refuses to occupy any exceptional role.

As will be illustrated below, a comparative view suggests that ambition to power and influence, not actual capacity, is a necessary, but not a sufficient, characteristic for exceptionalist foreign policy discourses as we conceptualize them. It corresponds to the paradox of exceptionalism: the idea of a particular entitlement to pursue and realize a universal goal.

As will be seen, the variety of exceptionalisms also supports our second critique of the existing US-centric literature, which has focused on the confrontational features supposedly inherent to exceptionalist foreign policy discourses. American exceptionalism is commonly traced back to the colonial period. Alexis de Tocqueville is typically taken to be the first author to use the term American exceptionalism as such in his Democracy in America.

Until today, it refers to the central principles of the Declaration of Independence upheld by the Constitution.

From both strands, McCrisken , 8 discerns three main elements in American exceptionalism: 1 that the United States as a special nation has a special destiny, 2 that it is different from the rest of the world historically, first and foremost from Europe , and 3 that contrary to other great nations the United States will not rise and fall. Scholars on US exceptionalism in general classify it as part of American identity deeply embedded within elite and popular circles McCrisken , 2, 4, 17; Patman , Both the exemplary and missionary strands converge in the view that American political values are universal in their nature McCrisken , 5, 8.

Yet, they also exhibit a tension between universality in terms of its universal, missionary claims and particularity in terms of the United States being exemplary and always different within American exceptionalism. Proponents of the missionary strand, in turn, contend that the United States must actively assist others to become like them McCrisken , Both strands in American foreign policy discourses may include a strong sense of exemptionalism.

Examples range from the refusal of treaty and protocol ratifications e. According to Ruggie, and in line with the above cases, exemptionalist resistance is found most forcefully in Congress , 2. Yet, the Donald Trump administration, too, has adopted a pronouncedly exemptionalist line, most prominently displayed by withdrawing the United States from the Transpacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement in American exceptionalism continues to play a central role in US politics Hughes , President G. Exceptionalism and the question whether the then sitting president Barack Obama adhered to it also featured prominently in the presidential election campaign Patman and Southgate , While US foreign policy under G.

Bush according to our typology comes closest to the variant of imperialist exceptionalism , this has not always been the case. In our typology, this latter discourse comes closest to the ideal type of internationalist exceptionalism. This happened for example when advocating policies that were partly unpopular within his own administration, such as intervening in Libya in and Syria in Hughes , ; Jaffe Like US exceptionalism, Chinese exceptionalism should not be taken as a unified body of thought expressed under this very label.

Instead, it has exhibited different characteristics in different time periods. The common denominator of Chinese exceptionalism throughout its history from ancient times to the present is a belief in Chinese supremacy and goodness Ho Meanwhile, China sees itself as sticking to its immutable principles of equality and justice Ho , ; Zhang , According to this narrative, a peaceful and harmonious state China represents an alternative model of development and order in world politics. In essence such claims include not being nor historically having been expansionist, and acting in a status-quo oriented, benevolent, and morally informed way Wang , Peacefulness is understood as differentiation from the West, in particular the United States and the not so peaceful Pax Americana Callahan , Chinese exceptionalism is a potentially important source of foreign policy ideas Zhang , that deeply resonates with the broader public Ho , — Alden and Large , in their case study on China in Africa, point out that here Chinese exceptionalism has been promoted explicitly.

Legitimacy is based on claims to moral or ideological superiority, rather than on actually delivering successful policies Ho , However, Alden and Large also emphasize that exceptionalism is more than mere rhetoric see also Ho , After having served as a door opener to engagement with Africa, China cannot simply drop its rhetoric of exceptionalism. As a result, conflicts between commercial interests and the moral high ground emerge Alden and Large , 23, 29, While these labels originated in outside attributions, a China model is also occasionally promoted by Beijing under this very notion e.

China's deliberate and selective employment of its history of ideas has become particularly visible in the promotion of official readings of Confucian and other ancient sources Noesselt According to Bai , Confucian philosophy not only continues to be deeply engrained in Chinese ways of thinking, it also contributes a number of arguments for defending Chinese exceptionalism in terms of its political system and foreign policy.

A key element is Confucianism's purported defense of hierarchy, both domestically and externally.


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  • Hierarchy domestically—that is inequality in terms of political rights—is typically defended with reference to meritocracy's superiority over liberal democratic systems in terms of efficiency or output legitimacy. He concedes that, like Western states, China throughout its history was imperialist at times.

    Independent from its historical accuracy, this specific reading of history entails a strong sense of hierarchy based on Chinese civilization as a unique model for other peoples. Perdue characterizes the different modes of rule as perpetuation of a universalist ideology in different guises Perdue , 95, Accordingly, in our typology, China is an example that not only shifted between different dominant types of exceptionalism but where they were also present simultaneously.

    Whereas the West was culturally closer to India's elite, socialized both by British colonial practice and academic institutions, it was nonetheless politically and morally discredited. For all three variants, a historical claim—that India possessed a unique source of religion and spirituality—supported a missionary claim that India had the capacity and obligation to provide moral leadership in world affairs. The diversity across South Asia ensured a long intellectual tradition accustomed to integrating elements from diverse sources and explicitly treating the question of how to reconcile the particular—cultural, religious, linguistic, and political—within a universal normative framework.

    Exceptionalist elements in India's foreign policy discourse were particularly visible throughout the early post-independence years from to , during which direct challenges to India's security were more abstract than in the years prior to the Sino-Indian border war of Nayar and Paul , In combining an activist foreign policy with frequent references to moral principles, Nehru translated the notion of moral exceptionalism into his foreign policy conduct.

    The self-understanding of moral superiority was further reinforced by comparisons with both the Western and Eastern camp in the early Cold War period. In Indian eyes, the adoption of ruthless power politics by both camps stood in marked contrast to India's nonalignment policy. Nehruvian critiques of balance of power politics, a key theme of India's foreign policy, have been informed and legitimized at least partly by India's moral exceptionalism in foreign affairs.

    Despite its insistence on autonomy, independent India invested heavily in crafting ties across the postcolonial world. New Delhi provided substantial support in establishing the UN and drafting the Universal Declaration. Nehru refused an American offer for a permanent seat in the UNSC, arguing that China merited the seat, and publicly supported communist China's international recognition as part of his wider agenda of giving voice to the Asian and African countries Khosla , Nehru regularly pushed issues such as decolonization, racial equality, and opposition to white settler regimes in Southern Africa; aid for development; and a restructuring of the UN to give Asia and Africa a greater say onto the international agenda—all issues close to India's own colonial and developmental experience Nayar and Paul , However, missionary elements in his foreign policy discourse were particularly visible in his vocal campaign for nonalignment, both domestically and internationally, which sought to include as many postcolonial states as possible—at the cost of complicating New Delhi's relations with Washington for years Kennedy , For instance, in , India refused to sign the Treaty of Peace with Japan in San Francisco—despite the fact that it had been accepted by Japan itself—on the ground that it did not honor Japan's sovereignty and independence sufficiently.

    The low salience of foreign policy in electoral contests means that there is little incentive for fundamental change. For instance, even though Narendra Modi as prime minister surprised observers with his diplomatic activism, 38 foreign policy played close to no role in his election and his party program offered very few details. Despite the continuities in foreign policy thought, recent developments may have reduced the salience of exceptionalist discourses in India. Indo-US rapprochement since the late s has gradually undermined an orthodox understanding of nonalliance and strategic autonomy.

    For instance, US calls for India to play a greater role alongside the US Navy in maritime security have been met with sympathy by Indian strategic circles Singh Today the Indian Navy exercises with the United States, Japan, and other regional navies fearful of Chinese expansionism. In this regard, great or rising power status—including an apprehension for related responsibilities—seems to limit, rather than foster, exceptionalist notions in Indian strategic thought.

    Represented by, for instance, former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, this third force neither regarded the secular state as an enemy per se nor did it embrace radical Islamism Mardin , A particular reading of history influenced a renewed exceptionalism in Turkish foreign policy under the AKP government, which in turn was fueled by a wide-spread self-understanding as a country in transition from middle to great power Yanik , In his view, the turn of the century marked a crisis of Western civilization rather than Islam.

    Likewise, as the only competitive party system in the former Ottoman lands Angrist , the Turkish polity represented a model to others. The Turkish path toward modernity coupled with recent economic successes provided further elements for the official portrayal of Turkey as an exemplary—and exceptional—state. Indeed, can be regarded as a turning point in Turkish foreign policy discourses. Populist nationalism, it seems, has replaced exceptionalist elements in Turkey's foreign policy discourse. Exceptionalism in foreign policy is and always has been more common than a reading of the most prominent case, US exceptionalism, suggests.

    Based on a comparative view—that is so far missing from the literature—on exceptionalist foreign policy discourses in China, India, Turkey, and the United States, we argue that exceptionalism necessarily entails the conviction of superiority in moral or spiritual terms, taken to be impossible to replicate by other states. Typically, this conviction is conveyed in discourses expressed primarily in a domestic context, not directed toward international audiences. As such, exceptionalist discourses are part of a society's debates around its identity as a nation. The conviction of moral superiority may then feed into several kinds of exceptionalism, which for heuristic purposes we tentatively distinguish as four ideal types inspired by the four cases laid out above.

    The ideal types differ with regard to denoting either an exemplary or a missionary approach to world politics. Moreover, types of exceptionalism differ with regard to being either exemptionalist or nonexemptionalist. The fluidity of domestic foreign policy discourses and their interrelation with reformulations of national identity in a changing international context means that distinct exceptionalist discourses are not static.

    Figure 1 illustrates the changing nature of exceptionalist discourses from our four cases along the two axes developed in our typology. As argued above, distinct exceptionalist foreign policy discourses can be located on two continuums. First, an exceptionalist discourse that is dominant within a specific episode recognizes the binding character of international agreements to a certain degree, that is somewhere between the extremes of nonexemptionalism and absolute exemptionalism vertical axis.

    The Tangled History of American and Israeli Exceptionalism

    Second, a dominant discourse expresses a missionary or an exemplary understanding of exceptionalism horizontal axis ; again, specific discourses may exhibit both traits to varying degrees. The complexity of exceptionalism as foreign policy discourse is illustrated by two US and three Chinese discourses depicted in Figure 1: Competing variants of exceptionalism may be prevalent at one and the same time here Qing China in different regions ; moreover, the same country may exhibit differing types of exceptionalism at different points in history here the United States and China.

    Future comparative research on exceptionalism should find answers to two sets of questions on two levels of analysis. First and domestically, we should learn more about the sources and precise manifestations of exceptionalist discourses from different and so far unexposed cases beyond the United States.

    Is there a common cause for exceptionalist elements in foreign policy? In how far are distinct types of exceptionalisms linked to distinct distributions of material and social power? Linked to the distribution of material or other sources of power is the question, under what conditions do proponents of exceptionalism select from and employ history as a source and legitimator of foreign policy behavior and what are the prospects of such a choice?

    Regarding the first set of questions, can we discern why some countries adopt exceptionalist discourses and others do not? Although a generalizable answer to that question would call for a comparative treatment of exceptionalist and nonexceptionalist cases, and the purpose of this article lies elsewhere, we may infer three common traits found in all of the four cases. First, our presupposition that only those countries with the ambition to play a major role in international politics are likely to adopt exceptionalist discourses seems convincing.

    India in the early Nehru years exemplifies the mismatch between ambition and material power capacities, as does the United States in its early settlement period. In the Indian case, in fact, Nehru explicitly justified his missionary foreign policy activism with India's destiny as a major power. Second, references to the respective country's unique civilizational heritage, and, indeed, its self-understanding as a civilization rather than a mere nation state, emerged as another trait shared across three of our four cases.

    In Turkey, for instance, references to the Ottoman past typically included a romanticized version of Turkish civilization beyond today's state boundaries. By contrast, civilizational aspects are less prominent in US discourses. This may be a little surprising, as the very genesis of American exceptionalism relied to a considerable degree on America's difference from and superiority over feudal Europe. References to a common civilizational heritage in American exceptionalism tend to be confined to the values of the Enlightenment and, hence, to civic rather than culturalistic arguments as in the Chinese, Indian, and Turkish cases.

    Finally, all four cases exhibit a certain self-centeredness that seems to be characteristic for relatively large countries. China, India, and the United States are the world's three most populous countries; Turkey with its seventy-nine million inhabitants is still among the world's top twenty and by far the most populous country within its immediate neighborhood. Relatively resilient regarding the foreign and domestic activities of other states and preoccupied with domestic developments themselves, political leaders in states such as China or the United States are less inclined to consider foreign intelligence in detail except in times of crisis and tend to interpret international politics in categories derived from their own respective national history.

    Relatively marginal media treatments of foreign countries and relations, in turn, facilitate the universalization of the particular in all four cases. In addition to these common traits, our comparative perspective exposes the variety of sources for exceptionalist discourses—from geography Turkey , to multiethnicity India, Turkey , spiritual heritage India, China, the United States , imperial past China, Turkey , and political history or state formation India, the United States.

    From the above, can we infer anything regarding the factors contributing to one or the other variant of exceptionalism? Again, the cases in this article are merely illustrative and may therefore suggest rather than confirm what factors best explain variation in exceptionalisms. Yet, the prominence explicitly assigned to multiethnicity in Indian and Turkish foreign policy discourses suggests that it supports mediating, nonexemptional forms of exceptionalism.

    Recognizing diversity as an integral aspect of a nation's exceptionalism allows for greater complexity in terms of normative principles, and it shifts the attention toward mediating processes and institutions. Intense debates around the eventual incorporation of legal pluralism within a federal polity in newly independent India's constitution exposed a pronounced sensitivity toward religious, linguistic, and cultural differences. Likewise, in Turkish discourses, a Turkish capacity and responsibility to mediate in Middle Eastern conflicts was derived from an image of the Ottoman Empire as a multicultural and multireligious political entity.

    Whereas all factors mentioned above contribute to the universalization of the particular, the essence of exceptionalism, they may feed into both missionary and exemplary as well as exemptionalist and nonexemptionalist foreign policy discourses. Similarly, whereas references to India's pride in its ancient, multiethnic civilization fueled a missionary approach to international relations under Nehru, they also helped in portraying India as a defender of equal rights and thus contributed to a nonexemptionalist foreign policy discourse.

    References to the relatively more recent nation state in US and Indian discourses also exhibit ambivalence in terms of their justification of distinctive types of exceptionalism. However, exemptionalism played a much lesser role throughout the Obama years. In India, the establishment of a nation state against all odds and across a widely diverse territory, again, contributed to Nehru's missionary and nonexemptionalist foreign policy activism and discourse.

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    The Problem of American Exceptionalism | Pew Research Center

    On the other hand, Indian foreign policy after Nehru tended to downplay missionary elements in favor of a more exemplary approach—as illustrated in India's characteristically fervent opposition to democracy-promotion abroad. Finally, we maintain that exceptionalism per se is neither a mere product of growing material and social power capabilities, nor is it linked to an absolute threshold of power in world affairs.

    Arguably, the consciousness of enhanced power capabilities in twenty-first century China, the United States under GW Bush, and pre Turkey intensified exceptionalist foreign policy discourses. However, external attributions of status in global politics may also effectively undermine exceptionalist elements in foreign policy discourses.

    In India, a growing understanding of international interdependence on behalf of the foreign-policy-making elite has made exceptionalist elements, such as an orthodox understanding of nonalignment, more difficult to uphold. Adopting a position in global politics that is more in line with India's ambitious aspirations has made New Delhi more susceptible to accepting the unexceptional nature of this position. Thus, exceptionalism draws on a history of discourses with origins in times in which great power status was merely aspirational, rather than real.

    Ostensibly, enhanced material and social power may then work both ways: by intensifying and undermining exceptionalist foreign policy discourses. However, at least when looking at more contemporary developments, a relative superiority in the capacity to project material and social power globally seems to coincide with exemptionalist forms of exceptionalism, in both the missionary and exemplary combination. Wohlforth In contrast, Nehru's nonexemptionalist foreign policy activism may have overestimated the power of diplomacy but was keenly aware of India's limitations in terms of economic development and military capabilities.

    Our findings expose that exceptionalism is neither exclusive to the United States nor is it necessarily confrontational, exemptionalist, or a natural feature of great or rising powers, as suggested by the prevalent IR literature on US and partly Chinese exceptionalism. When compared to states without exceptionalist foreign policy discourses, nonexemptionalist types of exceptionalism are potentially making international negotiations more cumbersome.

    Nevertheless, they are peaceful in character. Nonexemptionalist types of exceptionalism's reference to general moral sentiments, from peace to equality and dialogue, may in fact contribute to greater cooperation in those fields of global governance desperately in need of common solutions. By contrast, imperialist exceptionalism, with its missionary and exemptionalist traits, is the most conflict prone combination—but it seems by no means to be the most prevalent form of exceptionalism. Even exemptionalist types in their exemplary form of civilizational exceptionalism are not necessarily confrontational.

    On the contrary, they may stand for an isolationist foreign policy, which however also inhibits cooperation. In future research, our distinction between imperialist, civilizational, internationalist, and globalist exceptionalism will be instrumental for a more detailed comparative analysis of exceptionalisms in foreign policy than provided in this article. First, different types of exceptionalism may be prevalent in a given country at the same time, and throughout different phases of its history. Our typology will be helpful in categorizing, comparing, and visualizing the varieties of exceptionalisms across time and world regions.

    A closer inspection of exceptionalist discourses must also shed more light on the important question as to under what circumstances what type of exceptionalism possibly emerges. In other words, does exceptionalism—no matter how nonexemptionalist it is at one point in time—necessarily come along with a tendency toward exemptionalism and, thus, the conflict prone characteristics of the imperialist type?

    How resilient are benign forms of exceptionalism? Second, all exceptionalist foreign policy discourses rely on particular readings of national history.

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