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Exploring American Exceptionalism (Part II)

Has American exceptionalism served as a foundation both for isolationism — and unilateralism?

July 18, 2007

Has American exceptionalism served as a foundation both for isolationism — and unilateralism?

The exculpatory power of a sense of uniqueness in the minds of a people is a potent force. In 2006, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the United States ranked first in national pride of 34 countries, followed by Venezuela.

The appeal of American exceptionalism resides not only in its ability to ignore many historical facts, but even more in its ability to prove supportive to different foreign policies.

It can provide a foundation both for isolationism (the United States should not dirty its metaphorical hands with the evil politics of the Old World) and Reagan's crusading — if somewhat careful — resumption of a virulent Cold War (the United States must engage with increased military spending against the "evil empire").

Even during 1945-1980, when a relatively progressive U.S. leadership prevailed in foreign policy, supported by both the Democrats of FDR and the Republicans of Dwight Eisenhower, widely shared notions of American exceptionalism imposed limits on that leadership.

During this era, the United States never joined an international organization that imposed serious restrictions on its ability to take unilateral decisions.

There was the veto in the United Nations Security Council, voting rights in the World Bank, the reality of decision-making in NATO and the like.

In some ways, matters had not changed all that much since the United States rejected the League of Nations in 1920 due to the Covenant's Article X, which some felt would bind the United States to policies not approved by Congress.

Whereas the Europeans are prepared to sacrifice a certain amount of state sovereignty to supranational organizations (for example, the Council of Europe and European Union), the United States is not.

Whereas the European democracies are small, rely greatly on others and have had a disastrous experience with unchecked nationalism and exercise of violent state power, U.S. history is different — with small and weak neighbors and few wars on its own soil.

Even given the strength of the historical preference for unilateralism within America, FDR understood the need to build institutions that, while confirming U.S. power, would legitimize that power internationally through explicit support from others.

Others would have some say about international policies, but the United States would not be completely constrained. Washington would have to discuss and listen, and its diplomacy would be complicated.

But in the last analysis, when decisions were made, there would be a broad sense of international legitimacy, not to mention the material reality of burden sharing.

A disturbing — and yet also comforting — pattern presents itself in the first terms of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Both of those first administrations employed a doctrinaire unilateralism.

But in the second term, global reality pushed both presidents in a more multilateral direction. The pity was that so much damage was inflicted on the rest of the world, and its legal institutions of multilateralism, by the persistent if quixotic effort to impose unilaterally a Pax Americana.

The comfort was found in the seeming inescapability of international law and institutions in the modern world that forced both presidents back into the fold of the international system.

It is a testament to the strength of international law and institutions. The discourse of ultranationalism cum moral superiority may be temporarily popular at home, but to confuse campaign rhetoric with sound foreign policy is to rely on a recipe for difficulty in international relations, as many Bush supporters have discovered.

The bottom line is that a globalized world is not conducive to applications of a unilateral version of American exceptionalism on most issues.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is adapted from “Power and Superpower: Global Leadership and Exceptionalism in the 21st Century,” copyright 2007 The Century Foundation Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Read Part I here.