The term “American Exceptionalism” has quite a complex history. It is unclear who first coined the phrase or what its original intention was, but it has at times been used to insult or to inflate the reputation of the country. The 19th-Century French political scientist, historian, and aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville did use “exceptional” and “America” in the same sentence, but not as pleasantly as common knowledge would lead you to believe. It was actually used in a wider context in saying that democracy is good even if America doesn’t present a pleasant picture of a cultured democracy.1 Granted, this was in the 19th Century and America’s culture has developed since then, but the point is de Tocqueville wasn’t complimenting America by calling it “exceptional.” Nor was Josef Stalin when he said America was “exceptional” because Americans didn’t seem interested in a Communist revolution;2 he was calling Americans unenthusiastic and ignorant, though we likely didn’t see it the same way.
It was only until relatively recently, in the second half of the last century, that American exceptionalism was taken (largely by American politicians) to mean America is exceptional for being the greatest, or at least among the greatest, of all countries in history. Ronald Reagan, for example, said he always thought of America as “promised land” in the “divine scheme of things.”3 Still, the phrase has been levied sarcastically and critically by commentators around the world, including Vladimir Putin.4
There is also no consensus in today’s America on what makes us exceptional, yet most Americans, including myself, believe we are. The fact is, it’s hard to nail down exactly why we feel our country is so exceptional. Some might say it’s because we are revolutionary and pushed to become a democracy before other countries, but is being the first to throw out the British enough to make us exceptional when so many other countries have done the same to their own colonizers? Maybe it’s because America stands for freedom, but that argument surely must suffer when you realize that slavery was legal for more than one-third of our nation’s history and the personal freedoms so many of us cherish were denied to some extent to many people for the majority of our history. Maybe the exceptionalism relates to the extents of those personal freedoms, including my ability to question why America is so exceptional, but then again many countries have similar freedoms. Perhaps instead, our exceptionalism comes from our position of leadership in the international community, but again, I take issue. We are undoubtedly a leader in the world, but so often we have ended up tripping over ourselves to gain distance from other nations and prove our exceptionalism, thereby forfeiting leadership opportunities.
One of the most prominent examples from history comes in the form of the League of Nations. Regardless of how you feel about neoliberal institutionalism and the fundamental nature of states in competition and cooperative arrangements, the fact remains that the President of the United States proposed a venue where the nations of the world could come together to decide on the direction the arc of history would bend, but America’s Congress essentially opted to walk away from the table rather than take a seat at what would’ve likely been a leading chair. Granted, this institution didn’t last long, but America learned enough from its self-exclusion to take a powerful chair in the League’s successor, the UN. So maybe now the US’s exceptional leadership theory holds true.
Maybe. If the US worked with other nations at its full capacity, that would make us exceptional in that we could use the full power of our economy and our military and our outstanding academic and research facilities to accomplish goals in the service of the international community, and use that position to serve the community in the ways we want. Sure, right now we get deferential treatment in international politics because we are powerful in basically every meaningful aspect in the traditional sense, but we seem to keep bucking opportunities to be different from other powerful states - to be an exceptional leader as it were. We are right now theoretically exceptional because we could be that great example to the rest of the world most of our leaders claim to be, but we keep getting in our way.
The latest example of America getting in its own way of being exceptional unfortunately comes from the high levels of government office again. This time around, the President’s comments undermine our relationships with our closest neighbors and alternatively flatter or antagonize our distant rivals. He pulls us from agreements organized with agonizing deliberation with other nations and stands in an institution that embodies multi-national democratic ideals to advocate extreme nationalism. He bullies and swears at foreign leaders never thinking the transcripts will be leaked to the public but then seems to relish playing the tough-talking, take no prisoners, king of the playground who would rather take his toys home than share them in the sandbox. You cannot claim to be an exceptional leader in the international community and simultaneously have someone at the helm who will alienate the pillars of that community. America can be exceptional, but it needs to get out of its own way.
This blog series will look at America’s role in the world, how we strive to be a leader, but also how we trip over ourselves as we try to prove we are an exception in the global community. We will be critical of our country and our leaders at times, but trust that our critiques come from a love of America and the understanding that we can be better than we are now. The blogs will from time to time look at domestic policies, but will mainly focus on the international arena and the role America plays on the global stage.
de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. (1840) Translation by Henry Reeve. Penn State Electronic Classics Series Publication. p. 518 http://seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/LojkoMiklos/Alexis-de-Tocqueville-Democracy-in-America.pdf
McCoy, Terrence. “How Joseph Stalin Invented 'American Exceptionalism'.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 15 Mar. 2012. www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/how-joseph-stalin-invented-american-exceptionalism/254534/
Brooks, David. “Reagan's Promised Land.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 June 2004. www.nytimes.com/2004/06/08/opinion/reagan-s-promised-land.html?mcubz=3.
Putin, Vladimir V. “A Plea for Caution From Russia.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Sept. 2013 www.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/opinion/putin-plea-for-caution-from-russia-on-syria.html?pagewanted=all