Americans are not unique in their belief that theirs is an exceptional nation. Many, if not all, countries have shared such national vanity at some time or another in their histories. The French mission civilisatrice, the British Empire, and the Third Reich, for example, were all accompanied by their own versions of exceptionalism. Americans are clearly not alone in holding exceptionalist beliefs. Neither are they unique in pursuing foreign policies that are informed by those cultural beliefs. In all countries policymaking is based to a certain extent on assumptions formed from unique elements of national culture.
The fact that other nations have their own forms of exceptionalism, however, does not diminish the effects that the belief in American exceptionalism has on the making of U.S. policy. As the United States remains arguably the most powerful nation in the world, it is important to recognize the consequences that the belief in American exceptionalism has on U.S. foreign policy. Political, economic, and strategic interests are the major determinants of U.S. foreign policy. But no matter what the root reasons for a foreign policy decision are, that policy is usually couched in terms consistent with American exceptionalism. Use of this rhetoric assures substantial public support for policy and has proved very effective throughout U.S. history.
This fact begs the question of whether the use of exceptionalist rhetoric is simply a manipulative tool designed to win public approval for policy. Do American policymakers formulate their desired policy, then cloak it in terms they believe will assure the greatest possible public and congressional support? Certainly officials within most U.S. administrations have acknowledged that couching policy in terms of exceptionalism would have positive effects on public opinion, but to suggest this is the only reason for such language being employed would be to ignore other evidence. Nowhere in the public or archive record, including declassified accounts of National Security Council meetings, is it even implied that once a particular course has been chosen, it will then be packaged in exceptionalist terms. In fact, exceptionalist language is not used only in public explanations of policy; it is also used by policymakers themselves in policymaking sessions behind closed doors. Presidents and their foreign policy advisers frequently use arguments couched in exceptionalist language during private meetings and in personal memoranda. They do so even when perfectly good practical arguments for policy options exist, and they often couch even strategic, economic, or political justifications in exceptionalist terms. It appears to be automatic for American public officials to conceive their policies in terms that represent some notion of the exceptional nature of the United States. They do so not simply because it will be politically advantageous but also because those terms form a natural part of the language they use to understand the world around them. American exceptionalism exists deep within the American belief system, and many of its assumptions are shared by the public and officials alike. It therefore provides the framework for much of the discussion of foreign policy, its presentation by officials, and its realization.
Throughout U.S. history the tension between the exemplary and missionary strands of American exceptionalism have been among the defining characteristics of foreign policy. They have survived challenges to their continued acceptance, such as the imperialist debate of the 1890s and the defeat in Vietnam. They form a core element of American national identity, and will continue to provide the cultural and intellectual framework for the making of U.S. foreign policy. Foreign observers in particular often regard with contempt or confusion the use of exceptionalist rhetoric by U.S. policymakers. But if we are to truly understand the ways in which U.S. foreign policy is conducted, it is essential that we take seriously the intellectual and cultural framework in which it is made.