Exceptional? America’s belief in its uniqueness and what it means for world affairs

Apr 12, 2011 by

Exceptional?  America’s belief in its uniqueness and what it means for world affairs

Americans have arrived. Loud, unruly, besieging the hotel like a citadel. It’s a common holiday story. Americans’ conviction, expressed out loud whenever the occasion arrives (or they arrive) that they are better than others, is well-known around the world. In philosophy it is connected to the ‘belief in America’s exceptionalism’, in political science to ‘patriotism’, in psychology  to‘arrogance’, in international relations to ‘imperialism’, in history to ‘Bush’…  What’s the connection between those terms? And where does this belief come from and lead to…?

Let’s look around. Most people in most countries believe that they are is in some way exceptional, meaning different and better. Born into a particular culture, we cannot but be biased towards it, because we know it best. What we understand from inside out (lingistically, emotionally and on any other level), we feel partial to. There are two things, however, that are exceptional about America’s belief in their exceptionalism.

Firstly, Americans profess this belief out loud while most other nations (at least in Europe) are more subtle about their patriotism. And secondly, Americans’ belief has practical implications for the international order: their belief in exceptionalism can easily turn into imperialism.

The first point is connected to American character and rhetorics. Unlike Europeans, Americans are direct and explicit about their motives. In some ways, they are like children, unconstrained by conventions,  both painfully and refreshingly direct. This tendency can be seen as a curse when paired with ignorance (who hasn’t seen the geography tests on American streets, can trust me, they score poorly) or as a blessing when paired with wisdom and experience.

I’ve  just got back from a talk by Harold Hongju Koh, a former Dean in Yale’s Law School and currently a legal adviser to the State Department and Obama’s administration. Of Korean descent, he seemed more American to me than most Americans: he not only spoke about the belief in America’s exceptionalism, but was a prime and living example of this belief. Grateful to a country which granted asylum to his father, and that gave him opportunities that no other country would have, Harold is a patriot who serves his country as best he can, and he speaks openly about it.

The belief in America’s exceptionalism is connected to the fact that the US, unlike other nations, grew out of ideas, principles and values. Nowadays, values are often seen as a cover for hard-core politics (and most often rightly so) but I do not think this is quite correct. Already Toqueville, the most astute observer of American political life, noted that this country is a unique mix of idealism and pragmatism, of religion and democracy, and other terms that we often view as irreconciliable. Today, Harold Hongju Koh was introduced as „idealist without illusions” – a term which somehow makes sense in this country, and which made sense to me after I heard him speak. The questions he posed were both idealistic and pragmatic, driven by deep-seated belief in America’s unique role in the world and in the awareness of the limitations that other nations can put on it: “Is there an American approach we believe in and others may accept?” he asked referring to international law.

An awareness is spreading across this campus that America needs to temper its rhetorics and lower the number of its troops’ engagement in different parts of the world. There is a growing appreciation of multilateralism, soft power, negotiation and other values, traditionally viewed as European. But the core of it all, the belief in America’s uniqueness, is not in any way affected by these new policy directions. On the contrary, the attempts to redefine America’s role in the world, from the gendarme to the empowering supporter, stems from the very same belief in America’s expetionalism. No matter if it’s right or wrong, this belief is a reality in itself, and drives the reality here.

An interesting thing is that politicians and academics who cherish and profess such deep-seated beliefs in their country’s mission in the world are at the same time modest individuals with a sense of humour and distance to themselves. It is as if they did not feel they were in any way exceptional. apart from representing an exceptional nation ( a bit of a contradiction there but this place is full of them, so my blog can be too;) . In Russia, the opposite is true – successful people and high state officials are arrogant and the value of the country falls behind dark shades of their black  limousines. But this is the story for another post…

1 Comment

  1. CChen

    Interesting perspective. I would like to point out, however, that just because other countries are not as outspoken as you say Americans are with regards to being exceptional, that does not mean that exceptionalistic thinking does not exist in other countries. And, it is true that America does offer unique opportunities to foreigners. Most countries (particularly Western Europe) are not happy to offer this. I would think that the exceptionalistic thinking of other countries that leads them to be attached to their own homogenous culture and people is what prevents them from truly integrating people of different origins within their workforce. This is why there is still a high level of prejudice and discrimination in many parts of the world, with relatively less in the United States.

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