American Exceptionalism and Other Isms

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign event at the Wings Over the Roc
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign event at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The notion of American exceptionalism has popped up in the last few election cycles. I thought I knew what it meant, but apparently it means quite different things to different people, including Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Chris Matthews. Whatever it means, apparently, if you don't believe in it, you are un-American. It's worth noting that George Washington was a non-believer.

There is a common core to the notion of American exceptionalism shared by partisans and non-partisans alike. Although taken from the Republican Party Platform 2012, "the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history," seems to be part of the common core. And there are some American values that are considered universal and worthy of promotion abroad. From the Democratic Party Platform 2012, freedom to speak one's mind, assemble without fear, have access to information, worship as one pleases, choose one's own leaders, and enjoy equality under the law appear to be typical of the core values. Beyond the core there are differences within each party and across parties that lead to three different expressions of exceptionalism -- exemplarism, vindicationism, and exemptionalism.

Exemplarism is the principle that the United States could best serve the spread of liberal democracy by being an enviable example to the world -- the shining light on the hill, the beacon. Being a good example requires strengthening the institutions that assure individual liberties, the rule of law, and the prosperity born of industry and commerce. The New World's remoteness from the Old made exemplarism a realistic option.

While Secretary of State in the Monroe administration, John Quincy Adams echoed the sentiment (1821) saying "Americans should not go abroad to slay dragons they do not understand in the name of spreading democracy." Instead we should provide "moral support rather than armed intervention in independence movements." Typical of many statements made by Thomas Jefferson on the matter, "The presumption of dictating to an independent nation the form of its government is so arrogant, so atrocious... " (1823). The Monroe Doctrine (1823) declared defensive solidarity with the peoples of the Western Hemisphere attempting to break free of European colonial rule.

Today, exemplarism is favored by diverse political factions. Adherents of the pacifist Christian tradition, generally Liberals, and Libertarians are likely to favor exemplarism and non-interventionism, and they are joined by paleoconservatives who do not believe that the products of Western Civilization can be exported.

Vindicationism, in contrast, asserts that America can best serve the world by spreading democracy, not merely by example, but by forceful action abroad. Adherents believe that liberal democracy is universally accepted and that if the shackles of Old World governments were removed everyone would choose liberal democracy as their form of government.

While exemplarism dominated in the early years, vindicationism was strong under the label of expansionism. To Puritans, it was God's will to be an example and avoid Old World wars. But under the rubric of Manifest Destiny, it was God's will to exercise dominion over North America from the Atlantic to Pacific Coast by "Divine Providence." Expansionism and the right of conquest led to war against the indigenous peoples and war that seized over half of Mexico's territory as "allotted by Providence." The same Adams and Jefferson who spoke against imposing democracy abroad spoke confidently of imposing the American system over North America. Vindicationism dominated in North America while exemplarism dominated elsewhere.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a tipping point in American history. Admiral Dewey defeated the Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay in short order. Rudyard Kipling called for America to "take up the white man's burden," the European version of vindicationism; Europeans had, through foreign empire, the sacred obligation to bring civilization to uncivilized (non-white) nations. The Roosevelt Corollary (1904) to the Monroe Doctrine extended defense of the New World against the Old to the use of offensive force against governments in the New World. Theodore Roosevelt claimed the right of "international police power in the Western Hemisphere," and expressed his version of vindicationism (1905) saying, "The expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place." Dominion over much of North America consolidated, vindicationism expanded from continental to hemispheric.

Woodrow Wilson continued with the Corollary and reserved the right to determine which Latin American governments were legitimate and responded frequently with military intervention. With respect to Europe, Wilson would be satisfied with exemplarism, neutrality, and diplomacy until he could no longer resist intervention in the First World War. American military force would be used abroad to "remake the world" in America's image. Vindicationism expanded from hemispheric to global.

Today vindicationism is shared by factions left and right. Centrist Democrats and neo-conservative Republicans assert interventionism and vindicationism. Adherents of the crusading Christian tradition, who believe they have the right and obligation to dominion over others, also align with vindicationism under the label dominionism.

History offers abundant examples of what happens when one state attempts to impose its ways on others. States will resist individually and, if necessary, form alliances to balance against the imposing power. How, then, can the United States practice vindicationism and honestly not expect strong opposition? The answer, exceptionalism.

Exceptionalism. There were many expressions of exceptionalism in the early years variously rooted in religious, military, or economic terms. To the early Puritans arriving in New England, removing themselves from the problems of the Old World was virtuous. The New World is a place where humankind could possess the liberties that God intended. The new Americans were chosen people and America the new Israel. What later would be called isolationism was God's will according to these early Americans. None other than George Washington (1778) doubted the idea of American exceptionalism on the world stage and cited "the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest." Benjamin Franklin cited the relative lack of economic disparity as an example of exceptionalism. In his "Information to Those Who Would Remove to America" (1784), unlike Great Britain's gap between its titled wealthy and those who toiled under unremitting deprivation, America was where "a general happy Mediocrity prevailed." And the lack of a hereditary aristocracy made America the land of opportunity, equal opportunity.

Alexis de Tocqueville identified perhaps the best known version of exceptionalism in his 1835 observations. America is bounded east and west by protective oceans, and north and south by friendly and weaker neighbors. Because of these facts, the United States did not need to maintain a large, standing army. And that fact made America exceptional. It was a threat to no one and could be trusted among nations.

Accordingly, American interventions abroad would be accepted, even welcomed. There is considerable evidence to support that view. The United States has intervened abroad with positive results in both world wars. The reconstruction efforts after the Second World War were extraordinary, and the United States left Germany and Japan without claim on territory. In the Middle East, the United States once was seen as a force for fairness as major powers competed for colonial empire, e.g., the Suez Crisis (1956). Interventions for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief today are well received abroad and supported at home. The invasion of Iraq is seen in stark contrast, as were the frequent earlier interventions in Latin America, and the US is no longer seen as an honest broker in the Middle East.

Exemptionalism is another expression of exceptionalism. America is exceptional, therefore, it is exempt from the rules others are expected to follow. The United States has been successful in building international institutions and law through treaty and, on occasion, the United States has exempted itself from treaty provisions.

Congress has been the strongest proponent of exemptionalism. It rejected the League of Nations after WWI. To assure ratification of the U.N. treaty, Southern Democratic senators insisted on language that would exempt Jim Crow laws and lynching as human rights abuses. The Eisenhower administration barely defeated the Bricker amendment that would have virtually eliminated the president's ability to enter into the treaties that establish international law, which Republican proponents saw as subordinating U.S. sovereignty to international law. Post Cold War, the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and made clear that the same fate awaited the Kyoto Protocol on the environment. President Clinton saw as fruitless the attempt to submit the statute on the International Criminal Court allowing international prosecution of individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes if the individuals' state failed to act.

Also post Cold War, the executive branch has claimed a special preordained US role in the world and has exempted itself from international norms citing "the obligations of the last remaining superpower." No natural, national, international, or biblical law is cited as the source of these obligations. Might makes right is sufficient for some. But one would think the sole superpower could choose its obligations and should choose them wisely.

Whither Exceptionalism? Exemplarism and vindicationism present a dilemma. Exemplarism allows for defensive power while vindicationism requires the ability to project power beyond its borders. The institutions to project power have a strong tendency to concentrate power in central government and they threaten liberal institutions. Their costs tax the public and divert resources from domestic prosperity. And it is prosperity, liberty, and the rule of law that stem from liberal institutions. By improving domestic order, we improve our image abroad. By weakening the domestic order, we degrade the image abroad, weaken the ability to lead by example, and increase the costs of leading through force.

When someone claims to believe in American exceptionalism, or claims someone else doesn't, they may be offering a rationale for exemplarism, vindicationism, or exemptionalism. American choices today remain to promote democracy through example, encouragement, assistance, coercion, or compellence. How the sole superpower behaves on the world stage is a choice, and presidential candidates should be challenged to express their choices.