Exceptionalism




Trevor B. McCrisken

"American exceptionalism" is a term used to describe the belief that the United States is an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history; a nation that is not only unique but also superior. Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to use the term "exceptional" to describe the United States and the American people in his classic work Democracy in America (1835–1840), but the idea of America as an exceptional entity can be traced back to the earliest colonial times. Jack P. Greene's analysis of a wealth of contemporary materials has established that by "the beginning of the nineteenth century the idea of America as an exceptional entity had long been an integral component in the identification of America." Many scholars of the belief in American exceptionalism argue that it forms one of the core elements of American national identity and American nationalism. Deborah Madsen, for example, contends that exceptionalism is "one of the most important concepts underlying modern theories of American cultural identity." It is a central part of the American belief system or what Benedict Anderson calls its "imagined community."

The ways in which U.S. foreign policy is made and conducted are influenced by the underlying assumptions that Americans hold about themselves and the rest of the world. Like most nations, the United States has a distinctive pattern of policymaking that is determined by unique aspects of its national culture. Each country's historical and cultural heritage, its montage of national beliefs and experience—its national identity—has an influence, whether consciously or not, upon the way it practices politics. U.S. foreign policy is driven by a variety of causal factors including strategic, economic, political, and bureaucratic interests; international and domestic pressures; the personalities and agendas of policymakers; and the actions of other nations. However, the belief in exceptionalism, since it is a core element of American national identity, has an important underlying influence on foreign policy activity. This belief is one of the main ideas that, according to Michael Hunt, has "performed for generations of Americans that essential function of giving order to their vision of the world and defining their place in it." Although such views are not "codified in formal, systemic terms," Hunt shows that the evidence for their existence and influence can be found in the "private musings" of policymakers and, more importantly, "the public rhetoric by which they have justified their actions and communicated their opinions to one another and to the nation." The belief in American exceptionalism provides an essential element of the cultural and intellectual framework for the making and conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

Two main strands of exceptionalist thought have influenced U.S. foreign policy. One is that of the United States as an exemplar nation, as reflected in ideas such as the "city upon a hill," nonentangling alliances, "anti-imperialism," "isolationism," and "Fortress America." The other, often more dominant strand is that of the missionary nation, as represented by the ideas of "manifest destiny," "imperialism," "internationalism," "leader of the free world," "modernization theory," and the "new world order." Both strands have been present throughout the history of U.S. foreign relations.

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See also Anti-Imperialism ; Colonialism and Neocolonialism ; Continental Expansion ; Development Doctrine and Modernization Theory ; Ideology ; Imperialism ; Internationalism ; Intervention and Nonintervention ; Isolationism ; Nationalism ; Public Opinion ; Realism and Idealism ; The Vietnam War .

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