Last Updated 27 May 2020

The Problem of American Exceptionalism

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The term American Exceptionalism has many definitions to many different people. In general it refers to the idea that the United States of America holds the special title of worldwide peace keeper and bringer of justice and democracy as they are the land of the free. American Conservatives; such as the Tea Party, also pair the phrase up with the idea of superiority; whereas liberals would much more prefer Americans to see their country as ‘ordinary’ and so dislike the term.

To them ordinary means things like American does not always assume its place as the world’s super power but simple acts as an international negotiator in times of need. The terminology was coined in 1831 by Alexis de Tocqueville as to explain a positive outward effect of America’s democracy. In 1929 the phrase was used adversely by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, when opposing the idea of the growth of capitalism in the states. In theory, American Exceptionalism works because of four key principles: divine right, resources, just beliefs and diversity.

Many believe that the United States was chosen by God to lead the world and so they have the divine power to act in such a way over other countries. Although, others feel that the sheer wealth and resources the country has- such as the most powerful armed forces in the world gives them this power. Some consider the strong ideas and principles that the country was founded on as to the reason they have a greater say; whereas others argue that it is the mix of heritage and cultures, which makes America a kind of highbred of the best of the world, allowing for it to have this exceptional place in the world today.

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An odd and contradicting feature of the concept is that as an America knows best; they may over power their own legal system, other countries and conduct various types of secret activities if to protect the democratic system and state interests. America knows best: we must invade Iraq to free the people there from the dictatorship they live in, and then as a secondary thought because, they may have weapons of mass destruction (and oil that could be a lot of use to us).

The idea that hacking people’s internet history and phone calls is just and fine, because the government can act beyond its means, as in the end they are protecting people from themselves- since they know best! The idea of Exceptionalism has allowed America to involve itself in many conflicts since the Mexican- American War of1846; where the Americans refused to accept that Mexico did not want to be a part of the United States and felt it was their mission to spread ‘freedom’ to the people of Mexico, right through to the Iraq war.

During the Cold War the power of American Exceptionalism was used to display the American way of life as the right way and to try and crush the rising power of Communism. Ronald Reagan famously said that America had a duty to be “shining city on the hill” that the rest of the world would look up to. There are many positives and yet, many negatives of American Exceptionalism, and it is the principles of the term itself have brought about its demise.

The waters have been muddied and so there are now many variations of the meaning of the words, which depend on the people using them. There is a spectrum of opinion: to some America is the almighty bringer of justice, and may do this by any means as long as they reach their end target of a freer and fair world. By contrast, others feel that Exceptionalism is simply used as a cover for the falling giant to do whatever it wants; from the invasions of lesser off countries, to spying on the day to day lives of millions of Americans.

The use of Exceptionalism in foreign policy is often questioned; is it just a front the country can hide behind when actually working for personal gains rather than the good of the people? The expression is often used today in questioning America’s place as a super power. At a press conference in 2009 Obama was asked about his belief in American Exceptionalism he said: “I believe in American Exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British Exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek Exceptionalism”.

In 2013 Mitt Romney used this comment to attack Obama, stating that he did not believe in the power of the United States as a power, yet them comment had little power as the term has been lost somewhat. The majority of the countries have democracy, or have made a greater step towards it over the last century, leaving America with a much lesser role as the bringer of social equality. American Exceptionalism has shaped the world we live today, without it both America and Britain would not be looked to as a role model of strong democratic systems and equality.

The idea has brought the same concepts to many other countries and helped to advance areas such as industry and the role of women. However, in recent years the power of American Exceptionalism has faded and the flaws have become more visible. The positive effects of American Exceptionalism are now much gentler, and the goal is more to help countries create justice, rather than impose America’s view.

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