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American exceptionalism is an important term in analyzing American foreign policy. According to many observers, exceptionalism feeling led to a Janus-faced identity for American foreign policy; isolationalist vs. interventionist-internationalist foreign policy traditions. However, Hilde Eliassen Restad thinks that the term “American exceptionalism” is not successful enough in explaining American foreign policy behaviour until today.[1]

American Exceptionalism: The History of the Term

The term “exceptional” was first used for the U.S. by French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville in his work Democracy in America. Visiting USA in 1830s, Tocqueville was impressed by the democratic procedures, meritocracy, social egalitarianism, individualism, commitment to rights and the lack of feudal past in US. Tocqueville noticed that, Protestant sects, by emphasizing individual’s personal relationship to God, also strengthened the spread of these ideals.

Uri Friedman thinks that all countries in the world have some belief and a kind of special nationalism that gives and boosts self-confidence to their nation and ruling elite, but in American case, this is patently universal or even messianic.[2] Strangely, the term was also used by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in a pejorative way. Today, the term is experiencing a resurgence in an age of anxiety about American decline. Some examples of statements about American exceptionalism (in chronological order);

  • “There is but a single specialty with us, only one thing that can be called by the wide name ‘American.’ That is the national devotion to ice-water.… I suppose we do stand alone in having a drink that nobody likes but ourselves.” – Mark Twain (1898)
  • U.S. President Woodrow Wilson infuses Paine’s notion of the United States as a bastion of freedom with missionary zeal, arguing that what makes America unique is its duty to spread liberty abroad. “I want you to take these great engines of force out onto the seas like adventurers enlisted for the elevation of the spirit of the human race,” Wilson tells U.S. Naval Academy graduates. “For that is the only distinction that America has.” (1914)
  • Coining a new term, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin condemns the “heresy of American exceptionalism” while expelling American communist leader Jay Lovestone and his followers from the Communist International for arguing that U.S. capitalism constitutes an exception to Marxism’s universal laws. Within a year, the Communist Party USA has adopted Stalin’s disparaging term. “The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism,” the party declares, gloating about the Great Depression. (1929)
  • Echoing Wilson, magazine publisher Henry Luce urgesthe 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”. (1941)
  • A group of American historians — including Daniel Boorstin, Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and David Potter— argues that the United States forged a “consensus” of liberal values over time that enabled it to sidestep movements such as fascism and socialism. But they question whether this unique national character can be reproduced elsewhere. As Boorstin writes, “nothing could be more un-American than to urge other countries to imitate America”. (1950s)
  • 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 declares: “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”. (1961)
  • In a National Affairs essay, “The End of American Exceptionalism”, sociologist Daniel Bell gives voice to growing skepticism in academia about the concept in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. “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”. (1975)
  • Ronald Reagan counters President Jimmy Carter’s rhetoric about a national “crisis of confidence” with paeans to American greatness during the presidential campaign. “I’ve always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way,” Reagan later explains. (1980)
  • The final days of the Cold War raise the prospect that the American model could become the norm, not the exception. “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 famously proclaims.
  • In a speech justifying 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”. (1996)
  • American exceptionalism becomes a partisan talking point as future George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessan, in a Weekly Standard article, contends 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”. (2000)
  • “Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America.” – George W. Bush (2004)
  • Amid skepticism about America’s global leadership, fueled by a disastrous war in Iraq and the global financial crisis, Democrat Barack Obama runs against Bush’s muscular “Freedom Agenda” in the election to succeed him. “I believe in American exceptionalism”, Obama says, but not one based on “our military prowess or our economic dominance”. Democratic pollster Mark Penn advises Hillary Clinton to target Obama’s “lack of American roots” in the primary by “explicitly own[ing] ‘American’” in her campaign. (2007-2008)
  • As critical scholarship — such as Godfrey Hodgson’s The Myth of American Exceptionalism proliferates, Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to use the phrase “American exceptionalism” publicly. “I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” — a line later much quoted by Republicans eager to prove his disdain for American uniqueness. (2009)
  • 80 percent of Americans believe the United States “has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.” But only 58 percent think Obama agrees. — USA Today/Gallup poll (2010)
  • With the presidential race heating up, the phrase gets reduced to a shorthand for “who loves America more.” After making the “case for American greatness” in his 2010 book No Apology, GOP candidate Mitt Romney claims Obama believes “America’s just another nation with a flag”. The president, for his part, invokes Bill Clinton’s “indispensable nation” in his State of the Union address and later declares, in response to Republican critics, “My entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism” (2011-2012)

American Exceptionalism: Two Meanings

The term “American exceptionalism” is often used in two different contexts. First, in order to describe distinctiveness of American political and economic institutions. Second, in order to explain normative position of American state against European states avoiding class conflicts, revolutionary upheavals and authoritarian governments with its commitment to liberalism. The U.S., in this case, was a little bit better than its European cousins. The term exceptionalism, in that sense, also brings the notion of superiority. In the 19th century, some claimed that American exceptionalism was a “manifest destiny”, a God-given right for expansion and ruling.

Today, American exceptionalism in the sense of having a different political and economic system is a bit non-sense. Because all nations and countries are somehow different from each other. Thus, exceptionalism is often used to describe the superiority of American political system over the rest of the world. This reflects also a belief and an ideology in the superiority of American values. According to Hilde Eliassen Restad, American exceptionalism has always been an integral part of American national identity. Although national identities and its values can change over time rapidly, exceptionalism has always been around for U.S. national identity and history. This has some effects over American foreign policy as well.

Effects on American Foreign Policy

American foreign policy and American exceptionalism are interconnected. However, here we have a dichotomy concerning the effect of exceptionalism over the foreign policy; “exemplary exceptionalism” vs. “missionary exceptionalism”. Exemplary exceptionalism is based on the idea that as a country away from the rest of the world -as the New World-, the U.S. should provide an example to the rest of the world without directly engaging in their matters. Missionary exceptionalism on the other hand, suggests that the U.S. should actively encourage and promote and even export its values of democracy and capitalism to the rest of the world. This dichotomy is the basis of different American foreign policy preferences. The exemplary model leads to isolationism (John Winthrop’s ‘City upon a Hill’ speech), whereas the missionary model often leads to internationalism and interventionism (Wilson Principles).

Some authors portray this relationship as cyclical, like a pendulum going towards one side to the other in time. However, it is a fact that until Pearl Harbor attacks, the US foreign policy was mostly isolationist, and after Pearl Harbor, it has been more interventionist and internationalist (unilateral internationalism). Exemplary identity was strengthened by Puritan settlers, although USA was not a promised land in the Biblical sense. Puritans, after their difficult exodus over seas, created an ideal of American Israel or American promised land in the new continent. Puritans were often pointed out responsible for American isolationism in the early years because they wanted to isolate U.S. from Europe. Being away from Europe also created this feeling of isolationism to American settlers. However, earlier settlers saw themselves as the pioneers of English civilization as well. So, they were spreading English civilization, not escaping from it.

Missionary identity on the other hand, was developed in time with the coming of millions of different settlers in addition to Britons to USA. This created a diversity and a chance for a new national identity to emerge. American nationalism was developed after American Revolution and Declaration of Independence and created its own myths different from British identity. By creating a nation on the basis of Enlightenment principles, American nationalism became universalistic over time. Its nationalism was civic, not ethnic and was inclusive, not exclusive. In Daniel Bell’s words, “America was an exempt nation that had been freed from the shackles of history”. The reason for this was that USA was born as modern, as a new nation in a new land away from the history. Thus, the defining characteristic of an American national identity was not really that it was a “nation of immigrants”, but rather, that it was “exceptional” in its blessings of liberty and republicanism. To become an American, one has also to accept the idea of American exceptionalism in addition to migrating there.

Today also the effects of American exceptionalism over the American domestic politics and American foreign policy is seen during the Presidential campaigns. It should be noted that all candidates are positioned somewhere between isolationism and interventionism and there is no pure approach. For instance, Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton can be considered as a hawkish compared to some Republican Presidents in the past. However, traditionally Republicans are known as interventionist and Democrats are as more pro-peace. Two parties’ methods of intervention are also different from each other. Republican Presidents (like the father Bush and his son) prefer land-based military operations whereas Democrat Presidents like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama use often limited military forces and organize bombings or operations to reach a goal. This could turn into disaster as in the case of Operation Eagle Claw during Jimmy Carter Presidency or a great success like Bin Laden operation during Obama term.

US Foreign Policy: An Assessment

It is also a fact that since the country (USA) is itself a very young state, foreign policy preferences can change easily in time. Walter Russell Mead claims that U.S. diplomacy has been very successful in the early phases.[3] USA was the most advantageous state after the Napoleonic Wars as well as the First World War. European states were losing their power while the US was strengthening. The result of Second World War was also somehow the same. The US entered the war later, lost less blood in fighting and made greater gains than anybody else after the war. Soviet Russia began to control impoverished Eastern Europe but the US began to exert influence over the rich, intellectually most advanced and technologically more developed Western Europe. USA won the Cold War but also it diffused its language, culture and products worldwide. The US dollar became the international medium of finance. Thus, Europe should learn more from the US unlike the claims of some intellectuals claiming that the US should learn from Europe. With possible exceptions for Switzerland, Sweden and Vatican, the US has done better than anybody else in the 20th century.

The US foreign policy is unique in many ways. Others might have difficulty in understanding it because of its complex and dynamic structure. Some even say, “God has a special providence for drunks, fools and the USA”. During the Cold War, the American state created Cold War myths; a mixture of facts, interpretations and fiction, intended to meet the needs of the nation at this specific point in history. There were two elements in Cold War myths; one part about them, one part about USA. The part about them was that communism was a united global force engaged in imposing its vicious ideology in every point. This was not totally correct but it was needed to make American public ready for interventionist foreign policy. It was also useful for aligning with European states and pro-Western states close to Russia (e.g. Turkey). The myth about USA on the other hand was more accurate. It was about American intention to change largely isolationist foreign policy into an interventionist one. Until that time, American public did not know too much about the rest of the world. Isolated from the old continents, they had strange ideas about how foreign affairs work. The US was like a rich and beautiful girl educated in a strict convent, said the Cold Warriors, its past experience was of very little use in dealing with its new surroundings and situation. American people largely believed -in Kissinger’s words- that constant peace is normal condition and possible. However, if US wanted omelets, it has to break eggs. The mythmakers of the Cold War were successful because they buried isolationism.

Many valuable people served as American diplomats and Presidents in history. All achieved to tie the success of American foreign policy to the prosperity and happiness of the average American family. There have been some fundamental traditional concerns in US foreign policy:

  1. Freedom of the seas: From the early years, the US has considered the right of its citizens, goods and ships to travel freely in international waterways in times of peace and war to be vital national interest.
  2. Open Door: The second traditional concern was “open door”. It was and it is essential for USA and its firms to find markets and customers around the world in order to keep economic growth.
  3. Global Orientation: There is no ocean from which American commerce is willing to be excluded. US foreign policy was globally oriented.

Pro-democratic expansion helped USA a lot and increased the popularity of the US governments. However, this never meant US governments did not follow national interests. US Presidents and governments led to many wars, military operations and supported different groups against each other for national interests or international reasons.


[1] See; Hilde Eliassen Restad (2011), “The Past in Political Science: American Exceptionalism and U.S. Foreign Policy”, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), A paper presented to the ECPR conference, Reykjavik, Iceland, August 2011,

[2] See; Uri Friedman (2012), “American Exceptionalism: A Short History”, Foreign Policy

[3] See; Walter Russell Mead (1994), “The American Foreign Policy Tradition”, World Policy Journal, Winter 1994/1995, Vol. 11, No: 4, pp. 1-17.

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