The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of American Exceptionalism

The ideas of national pride and patriotism seem to be an innate part of human nature. People everywhere have a strong tendency for sentimental attachments to the places that they and born and raised in. Love for one’s home is as natural and widespread as attachment to one’s family and friends. These associations are often so strong that there need not be anything in particular about your home country that you find enjoyable; the fact that it belongs to you is enough to incite stirring and powerful emotions. Individuals also commonly form ideological associations with their regions or countries, supporting them against other nations and identify with their country’s interests. There’s a reason that the Fifa World Cup is so popular, and it isn’t just because of soccer.

These innate human tendencies are neither good nor bad. They are simple facts of the human condition. They exist and can exploited for evil or used for good. Desire to serve one’s nation can result in being led into a destructive war, or used to improve one’s community. In either case, these energies and desires are uniquely moving and can be channeled to great lengths in efforts to build or destroy. Pride is a powerful motivator, and pride for one’s country doubly so.

Examples of both of these extremes are found in the United States of America. There is a specific brand of patriotism that resides in the ol’ US-of-A that can’t be found anywhere in the world. The novelty isn’t found in the intensity, although there isn’t any lack of patriotism to be found, but in the specific formulation and history that it carries. American patriotism is not based around the specifics and features of the country itself, so much as upon an abstract set of ideals associated with it. Specifically, the principles that the country was founded upon almost 250 years ago.

As every school child in the U.S. learns, the country as we know it first came into existence when the thirteen colonies asserted their independence and separation from Great Britain. This took place in the legendary Declaration of Independence. After the war was over, the country was formed under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The collective American consciousness around these documents and events is that they represent a unique moment in history where a group of individuals asserted their own right of autonomy and liberty. The result was a system of government that explicitly recognizes and respects the rights of individuals. It is because of these founding ideals, the creation myth of the country, as it were, that the United States of America is so unique and special in the world.

While oversimplified to a degree, there is a great deal of truth to this story. While the idea of natural rights was not without any precedent to this point, the Declaration represented thoroughly radical views on the rights of individuals to assert their own independence. Most importantly, these ideals did not stay in one place. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries, the ideas of Classical Liberalism as embodied within the Declaration principles influenced more and more countries to turn to the ideas of classical liberalism. The result of these conversions was economic and cultural flourishing that has led us to present day.

In so far as this goes, a sense of national pride among the American people is understandable and perhaps even commendable. However, there exists a more extreme version of this patriotism that runs alongside of it. This is the notion of American Exceptionalism. The core of this radical creed is that the United States is a fully unique country. Not only is it better and greater than every other country in the world, but it is categorically so. The rest of the world wishes they could be us! This exalted status grants the United States with special burdens and responsibilities. It must share its patented values of freedom, liberty, and democracy with the world and do so with whatever means are necessary.

Unfortunately, this creed of American Exceptionalism has been exploited for evil far more than it has been used for good. The U.S. disastrous interventions in the Middle East are a glaring example of this at play. The ostensible justification for the American invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq is a quest to spread the ideas of equality and human rights to these backwards, stone-age, unenlightened nations. Did they ask the U.S. for their assistance in any of these matters? Well, their input in the fate of their own country is of no importance, of course. They should be honored to receive the attention of the greatest country on earth! The very same could be said for U.S. intervention in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, etc.

These wars and interventions are always sold on the same ideological ground that U.S. Patriotism, and specifically American Exceptionalism, is based upon. We must invade Iraq to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East! Bashar al Assad is a brutal dictator who must be overthrown! Of course, such benevolent military actions would be unthinkable if applied to the U.S. itself. If Spain would have invaded the early American colonies to free them from the clutches of the British, the Americans would never have willingly accepted this state of affairs. Just as any other country, they would have viewed their new overlords as being unwelcome guests and wished them to leave. However, such notions are never supposed to apply to the anointed United States.

If this American Exceptionalism was found only in the minds of the general population, that would be cause enough for concern, but this paradigm is seemingly inescapable in the foreign policy experts as well. One particularly influential example is the infamous “Clean Break” report by Richard Pearle and Douglas Feithe. The basic gist of the paper is that overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq would be greatly beneficial to Israeli — and consequently American — interests. This was one of the first major intelligence proposals, written by the usual Neoconservative suspects, to call for war in Iraq. They would get their wish a few years later, but the result was anything but a “clean break”.

To be clear, the “Clean Break” report has no illusions about spreading democracy and freedom to the Iraq or the broader Middle East. Even so, the noxious mindset of American Exceptionalism resides on every page. The feeling one gets while reading it is not that these nations are comprised of real people that suffer real consequences for the actions of others. Instead, these are pieces on a chess board that the foreign policy experts may shift around at the will of the American Superpower. The national sovereignty, desires, and autonomy of others nations are of secondary concern, if they are a concern at all. The U.S. can do what it wills in its own interest. Why? Because of how great and awesome we are, that’s why!

Sadly, the mindset of the “Clean Break” memo is not at all an outlier within the larger foreign policy consensus. Reading a few articles from Foreign Affairs or a couple of reports from the Council on Foreign Relations will provide its own proof. The maintenance of military bases, involvement with NATO even 30 years after the end of the Cold War, and being as confrontational as possible with China seemingly all go without saying among our foreign policy betters. The active interventionist paradigm has its hold on the foreign policy establishment and isn’t letting go without a fight.

As corrupted as it is, American Exceptionalism doesn’t get it all wrong. In a lot of ways, the United States is quite exceptional. The ideals that the country rallied around when it was formed are special and they still matter today. However, America should be exceptional in peace. If the ideas of liberty, equality, and freedom are so great, why do they need to be forced on other people? Rather than pursuing an active foreign policy, fueled by a perverse sense of rabid patriotism, the United States should remain passively exceptional, providing an example to the rest of the world. The successes of the American ideals in practice should be force enough to compel others to imitate them. It is then that the United States will be a country that all lovers of liberty everywhere can be truly proud of.

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