The experience of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the other "traumas" of the 1960s and early 1970s caused many Americans to doubt or even cease to believe that their nation's actions were consistent with the values and principles upon which their society was supposed to function. Following Vietnam, Americans suffered what was labeled a "crisis of confidence" concerning the future of their nation and its purpose in the world. But the belief in American exceptionalism was not destroyed by the experiences of Vietnam and Watergate. Indeed, each post-Vietnam president consistently attempted to bolster American self-confidence and revive the perceived moral legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy, usually by rhetorically justifying actions in terms consistent with the belief in American exceptionalism.
Jimmy Carter's self-proclaimed objective was to restore the "moral compass" to the making of U.S. foreign policy. He attempted to follow a foreign policy rooted in what he perceived as the values and principles upon which the United States was founded. Carter attempted to conduct a foreign policy consistent with the belief in American exceptionalism, particularly through his human rights policy. But the record of Carter's administration shows that moral principles, even in the application of the human rights policy, were usually superseded by strategic, economic, and political interests. Despite repeated appeals to exceptionalist rhetoric, Carter failed to revive American self-confidence and, particularly during his last year in office, following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizing of American hostages in Iran, he was widely criticized for contributing to the sense that the United States was in decline.
Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, was the greatest advocate of the belief in American exceptionalism during the post-Vietnam era. Reagan imbued his public pronouncements with exceptionalist symbolism and imagery, describing the United States as "a land of hope, a light unto nations, a shining city on a hill." He was a true believer in the exceptional nature of his country. He sought to overcome the crisis of confidence in the United States by largely denying that any problems existed. Reagan insisted that the United States was the greatest nation on earth and that so long as Americans maintained that belief, they would be able to overcome any crises they faced. In foreign policy, he took a tough rhetorical stance against the Soviet Union, which in stark exceptionalist terms he condemned as the "evil empire." He also conducted a massive arms buildup, and demonstrated a willingness to employ force, all in an attempt to overcome the perception of weakness that had characterized Carter's presidency.
Reagan succeeded in bolstering American self-confidence, but his claims that the United States had renewed its strength and overcome the limits imposed by Vietnam were largely illusory. Despite standing tall rhetorically, the president was still reluctant to employ the full power of the United States to back up his strong words. For all the posturing of his foreign policy rhetoric, the Reagan administration employed U.S. military force only twice, and then in extremely low-risk, limited operations against Grenada (1983) and Libya (1986). The only other major deployment of armed forces was as part of the ill-fated peace-keeping operation in Lebanon (1982–1984). Otherwise the administration was prepared to use force only by proxy in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan was far from the overtly activist foreign policy president that his image would suggest. He did couch all his foreign policy in terms of the missionary strand of American exceptionalism but, despite his insistence that all his actions were taken in keeping with the values and principles on which the United States was founded, policies such as the covert war in Nicaragua and his exchange of arms for hostages with Iran indicated that the reality of Reagan's foreign policy did not live up to the claims of his exceptionalist rhetoric.
George H. W. Bush admitted to having a problem with what he called the "vision thing," but, like his predecessors, utilized the language of American exceptionalism in his foreign policy. Following the end of the Cold War (1989–1990), Bush advocated a "new world order" based on global cooperation and the rule of law rather than force. The new world order was Bush's answer to the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world. It was a vision of how the world's nations could strive collectively to achieve, and then maintain, international stability. Significantly, though, Bush maintained that world order was possible only with the leadership, guidance, and protection of the United States—it would continue its tradition as a redeemer nation. For all his talk of universalism, Bush's new world order was distinctly an American idea which assumed that traditional American values and principles had universal applicability. Bush's vision also ensured freedom of action for the United States. The United States would not be subservient to the collective will of the United Nations, but would define and follow its own priorities, preferably with—but if necessary, without—the support of the international community. The new world order was in fact a clear expression of exceptionalist thinking.
Bill Clinton, too, couched his foreign policy in terms of American exceptionalism. He repeatedly identified the United States as "the world's only indispensable nation." Clinton made "democratic enlargement" one of the cornerstones of his foreign policy. The United States would actively support and promote the spread of democracy and free market economies throughout the world. This policy, like so many before it, was underpinned by the idea that unique American values, principles and practices had universal applications.