The term ‘American Exceptionalism’ refers to a belief that the United States of America occupies a special position in the human history and on the global stage due to a number of characteristics unique to the country.1
Since independence in 1776, the nature of its political institutions has shaped the nation and the position it occupies in the world.2 Sometimes the special position that America occupies in the world and human history is inferred from the nature of the political institutions that describe the history of the nation.3
For instance, the declaration of American independence, the American Revolution and the constitution remain the major events that shaped the American history and gave the nation a special position in the world.
Secondly, the position and role of the united states in the 20th century was generally unique, with the nation playing a special role in the development of a new world history.4
For example, America played a special role during the two world wars in the 20th century, which shaped the world and gave rise to the need for international cooperation.5
However, in the 21st century, American position in the world as well as the role that the nation plays is perceived from the nature of international security and terrorism.6 Since 9/11 terrorism attacks, the United States of America has established herself as a unique country, especially in relation to her foreign policy.7
The American push for an international cooperation has instilled a notion that the US occupies a special position within the context of globalization of intelligence and the security system, a phenomenon that has attracted debate in political science.
In particular, terrorism is an important aspect in the role that America plays on the global stage. In the 21st century, the exceptional position that America is playing is perceived from the nation’s perception and conceptualization of terrorism and a terrorist.
The American foreign policy is particularly exceptional, with much of its efforts dedicated towards fighting terrorism.8 However, this unique position has not only attracted debate in the world politics, but also brought America into conflict with other nations, and particularly the Arab and Islamic world.9
The purpose of this paper is to review the exceptional nature of the United States in its constructing and conceptualization of terrorism and a terrorist.10
The review takes into consideration the exceptional nature of the American position in the modern world, and the American finding of legitimacy ground for her consideration of change in autocratic regimes in the Arab world.11
The paper develops an argument to describe the uniqueness of America’s perception and fear of Al-Qaeda as the sole terrorist group and her efforts to mobilize nations to consider Islamic terrorism as the sole and clear target for all efforts geared towards fighting world terrorism.12
Globalization of intelligence, security system and terrorism are important issues in defining the unique position that America occupies in the 21st century.
What is American Exceptionalism?
In its classic definition, the term ‘American Exceptionalism’ refers to the special position that America occupies in the world as a unique and free nation whose ideas and leadership are based on democracy and personal liberty.
According to Gibney, the unique character is deduced from the nature political events that have established American political institutions since 1776, including the declaration of independence, the revolution and the constitution.13
Secondly, the unique position that America played during the two World Wars in the 20th century shaped the world’s perception on the US, creating a notion of American uniqueness in the world.
However, the uniqueness of the US in the 21st century is largely based on America’s role in the world security and globalization of intelligence and the security system.14
Evidently, American fear of terror has placed the country in a unique position in the world by making other nations perceive Al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorist organizations as the only threat to world security.15
With these regards, it is worth reviewing the uniqueness of America in perceiving terrorism and a terrorist in the modern world.
The New US Exceptionalism, Globalization and the War on Terrorism
Just after George W. Bush became the American president in January 2001, there was a clear indication that the country was headed towards the direction of a ‘concept of exceptionalism’.16
Prior to his election as the American president, Bush’s bid to win the 2000 elections was promoted by PNAC, a group that supported the Republicans’ quest for presidency. Consequently, the group supported a new approach to foreign policy, which also promoted the notion of US Exceptionalism.17
The new approach to foreign policy ignored the notion of building the nation and instead, it embraced the view that a focus on national and world security is better when based on foreign military intervention. The new perspective attempted to promote ‘American internationalism’ as a part of a new foreign policy.18
The idea was derived from the concept that the use of military intervention was instrumental in winning the Cold War in the late 1980s. This notion created a new school of thought that claimed that the US has a unique and special responsibility in the era following the Cold War.
The argument was that America must use this uniqueness and power to spread democracy and freedom throughout the world, create international cooperation and encourage nations to respect human rights.19
During the first few months after entering the White House, Bush attempted to strengthen the unilateralism orientation of the US foreign policy. He attempted to develop a new approach that would strongly place the country in a unique position on the global stage.
For instance, a few months after his election, Bush renounced the Kyoto protocol on climate change, rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile.20
In addition, the Bush administration went on to withdraw America from the list of countries signatory to the Rome Treaty intending to create an International Court of Crime.21 This is a clear indication that America was headed towards a stronger position as a unique nation on the global stage.
It was also clear that the Bush administration was only willing to cooperate with other nations or engage in multilateral endeavors only when there is no other option.
According to Patman, the moves taken by the new administration seem to confirm that America’s position as an exceptional nation was appropriate because the it enjoyed a unique imbalance of power.22
In addition, he claims that the world is likely to enjoy peace if there is a single hegemony. Krauthammer further claimed that America was not just a hegemony, but it runs a unique and ‘benign imperium’.23
American Exceptionalism: The War Against Terrorism and American Perception and Construction of Terrorism
Together with these moves by the Bush Administration, the events following the 9/11 attacks on the US have completely shaped the country’s position on the global stage.
After the attacks, it was clear that there groups throughout the world that did not like America’s new approach to foreign politics and that some groups were willing to bring the country down at any expense.24
Among other things, the Bush administration realized that the Americans were frightened and would like an administration that assured them of their security.25
In addition to this realization, the administration was conscious that the conservative Christian population had overwhelmingly voted for the Republicans just some few months earlier.26
With this in mind, the Bush administration moved quickly to describe the attacks from a Christian perspective, which was largely anti-Extremist Islamism.
Bush’s first move was to declare that the US was going out for an all-out war against ‘global terrorism’ and illustrated the war on terrorism as a long struggle between ‘good and evil’.27 He declared that America had the responsibility to answer the attacks and eliminate the ‘evil’ from the world.
In fact, bust declared that other nations and the international community were either with America or against it. The administration further likened the war on terrorism as justified by the will of God in declaring that ‘freedom and fear’ or ‘justice and cruelty’ have always been in conflict and that ‘God supports justice and freedom’.
Simultaneously, the Bush administration defined its actions as ‘good’ and the opponents of the war on terrorism as ‘evil’. Bush’s actions were clearly providing an indication that American exceptionalism had not changed but gained more strength.28
Since then, the US has always emphasized on issues related to the war on terrorism, developed a new concept of terrorism and terrorists and went on to mobilize the world to join in this war.
Any nation not willing to take steps towards preventing or fighting terrorism or attempting to reject America’s new approach is considered an enemy of peace in the world.29
In the years following the attacks, the Bush administration merged a Christian worldview on terrorism with political language, which in turn created a new form of American exceptionalism based on a new construction and conceptualization of a terrorist.
The new concept of a terrorist sought to link world terrorism with Islamism to a large scale. Although this did not please most nations in the Arab world, the hastiness in which the international community approved a war on terrorism after the attacks clearly displays America’s unique position in the global stage.30
The United Nations Security Council resolution 1368 was passed just 24 hours after the attacks because the UN was under intense pressure from the Bush administration to declare war on terrorism and justify attacks on nations that America thought were harboring or sponsoring terrorists.
This resolution recognized that acts of terrorism were a threat to the international security and peace and in effect, it authorized an immediate use of force to answer the attacks.
It is worth noting that despite the fact that America lost less than 3000 people in the attacks, the event was considered a horror that affected the lives of the people throughout the world. This is in contrast with the slow pace in which the UN responded to events in other nations even where massive killings were witnessed.
Consider, for instance, the mass killings in Rwanda, Congo and Serbia just a few years before. In these cases, the UN’s intervention was often late and untimely, while making of decisions to intervene was always slow.31
An additional indication that America occupies a special position in the world politics became clear when NATO countries immediately declared their readiness to invoke article 5 of the Alliance Charter in order to provide an immediate assistance to the US as it responded to the attacks.
According to the Charter, any attack on a member state is an attack to all the members and as such, they are free to involve in any military actions to aid the member.32
In addition, the Bush administration was successful in developing a new perception of a terrorist in the world after it successfully convinced nations signatory to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) that terrorism was an urgent issue to curb if the world was to achieve peace.
In fact, the members of APEC, in their new approach to terrorism, adopted American’s Christian perception and construction of a terrorist. America successfully made the world to believe that Islamic terrorism was the most critical threat to the world security, and that there was a need for an international cooperation in the war against terrorism.
The new Christian perception on terrorism and a terrorist largely perceived Islamic terrorists as the only terrorism in the world, with a special focus on the nations in the Middle East as the most important point of negotiating how to curb the threat.33
Even some nations like China and Russia, which have been adversaries to the US, expressed their concern over terrorism and even declared that they were behind America’s efforts to eliminate Islamic terrorists.
Moreover, some nations that previously supported some Islamic groups joined in the fight against terrorism, not because they were troubled by the attacks on the US, but because they were not willing to stand isolated just because they oppose America’s ideologies.
For instance, Pakistan, which previously supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, pledged full cooperation with the US. In fact, Pakistan went to an extent of trying to persuade the fundamentalism regime in Afghanistan to pledge full cooperation with the US and help in fighting the terrorists from within.34
The Middle East Factor in American Exceptionalism and Perception of a Terrorist
America and her allies have been aware that the root cause of terrorist attacks is primarily the conflicts in the Middle East. For instance, the stalled peace process had greatly affected the relationship between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
After the attacks, America became more interests and involved in persuading Israel and Palestine to forge a peace deal, with a special concern on the creation of a sovereign state of Palestine.
Previously, American was supportive of Israel even as the Middle East ally violated the previous peace agreements and used military interventions against the Palestine citizens.
It was now obvious that a peace deal between the two sides would reduce the Arab concern over the relationship between Israel and the US, while at the same time reduce the enmity between Islam world and the United States.
In consequence, America hopes to establish herself as an international peacemaker by forcing the two nations agree on a common ground.
On the other hand, America’s intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq was not based on any negotiation, rather the imperialism and exceptionalism was displayed through unstoppable military action.
The American exceptionalism has further been displayed in the economic fight against individuals thought or perceived to have links with Islamist terrorists in the Middle East, even where evidence is lacking.
For instance, just after the attacks, the America government too a series of economic sanctions against individuals and organizations believed to be supportive of Al-Qaida.35
Citing the UN Security Council resolution 1373, which was an initiative of the US, the Bush administration froze several bank accounts of the individuals and groups alleged to be supporting Al-Qaida.
The administration went further and threatened to sanction or fine any organization trading or doing any form of business with the enemy. The definition of the term enemy, in the American construction and conceptualization of terrorism, was largely inclined towards the inclusion of Islamism in world terrorism.36
In fact, the Christian worldview of terrorism remains an important factor in American conceptualization and construction of terrorism and terrorists. The economic sanctions America placed against these individuals and organizations would not be effective without the help of other nations in taking similar economic measures.
The first was Britain, with the Tony Blair administration freezing more then £60 billion worth of assets linked to Taliban regime and its supporters in Afghanistan.
The exceptionalism of America was further shown within the world economic system, where America successfully forced other nations to freeze what it suspected to be accounts linked to the Taliban.
In total, more than 24 million dollars in assets and accounts were frozen in various parts of the world because of America’s economic influence on the world. This is an additional evidence of exceptionalism and the position America holds on the globalization of security system.
In addition, the targeted assets were largely linked to Islamic groups and individuals with links to or living in the Middle East. In fact, it has been argued that the economic steps taken by America were largely targeting a number of Islamic nations in the Middle East.
The middle east factor, again, surfaced as an important issue within the US conceptualization and construction of a terrorist.37
The American conceptualization and construction of a terrorist in the Middle East took form when President Bush publicly displayed his accusations on Iraq and Iran as the most probable sources of military, health, social and economic support for Al-Qaeda and allied groups.
The Islamic factor was evident when the Bush administration argued that America’s failure to capture Osama Bin Laden was due to the efforts of Sadaam Hussein and his state machinery in facilitating Bin Laden’s safety in Afghanistan.
Lewis Libby, the American national security adviser and the chief of Staff to the Vice-president brought forward a new theory in which he argued that Bin Laden and his Al-Qaida’s network could not have pulled out of Afghanistan and from the American attacks without the help of Iraq.
After the Afghanistan campaign, the United States was more concerned with eliminating groups and individuals believed to have close links with Al-Qaeda. One of the groups, within the minds of Republican leaders, was Iraq and Hussein himself.
While the world thought that America had completed the war against terrorism by toppling the Taliban regime, the US was for from completing its mission. Bush administration was already planning further attacks on the Middle East nations it perceived to hide terrorists or provide support to Al-Qaeda.
Just after completing the Afghan mission, Bush, in a state of the Union address I January 2002, argued that Iraq, Iran and North Korea were the three nations that made what he called ‘the axis of evil’. Again, Bush linked American perceptions and conceptualization of terrorists to the will of God.
For instance, he expressed his new theory that Iraq and Iran were actually developing weapons of mass destruction in addition to supporting the Al-Qaeda and allied groups. America again placed herself in a unique position by declaring that the two Middle East nations were an enemy of the American people.
Bust argued that the ‘…liberty the American people enjoy is not a gift to the world; rather it is a gift from God to humankind…’38 Bush was of the opinion that these two nations should not be spared in the war against terrorism.
In addition, America would take any action, including military intervention, to eliminate the regimes in the two Middle East nations.
In fact, it was evident that the focus was not given to North Korea even though it was included in the ‘axis of evil’ primarily because North Korea is not an Islamic nation, neither did it have any link with the terrorist groups in the Middle East.
In other words, the possibility of a military intervention against North Korea, unlike Iraq and Iran, was insignificant due to three reasons.
First, North Korea is not geographically located in the Middle East. Secondly, North Korea is not an Islamic nation, neither is it an Arab world. Finally, North Korea had no links with terrorists targeting America or Israel and was not a threat to the United States.
North Korea’s quest to develop weapons of mass destruction was purposely to protect herself against South Korea and not the United States. Therefore, North Korea was left out of the states lined for operation against world terrorism.
Additional evidence that American exceptionalism is the prime factor in constructing and conceptualizing a terrorist and terrorism was emerged when Bush said, in June 2002 at West Point, that American must take the battle to the enemy to confront threats of terrorism before they even emerge.
America was attempting to make the world believe that Iran and Iraq were actually planning terrorist attacks on the US and a number of her allies in Europe, Asia and Africa.
The arrogance of the US was exemplified in the speech as bush said that America was not ready to allow an emergence of a rival power, and would maintain military mighty beyond challenge.39
Secondly, in a document called the national security strategy in the US, the bush administration further codified the idea of global primacy and preemption in order to make the world belief that an internationalization of the security system was important.
Although American was seeking the support of the allies as well as other like-minded institutions, the Bush administration declared that Americans would not hesitate to act alone if necessary to do so.40
This is an indication that America was exceptional, could violate any international regulation or restriction barring her to intervene in foreign nations, specifically the Middle East, and that its use of military power is justified by the will of God.
American Exceptionalism in Constructing and Conceptualizing Terrorism: Why Only Al-Qaida?
Why should the world be concerned with Al-Qaida while there are several other terrorist groups in the world? An answer to this question lies within the American conceptualization and construction of a terrorist and its definition of terrorism in the 21st century.41
The debates America has brought to the world in regards to the nature and characteristics of Al-Qaeda and the threat associated with the group remain an important point of discussion in political science.42
Questions on what al-Qaeda is, how it should be conceptualized and how it can be eliminated provide a number of access points for studying American policies and perceptions of al-Qaida as compared to other terrorist groups outside the Middle East.
In the context of the politics of the Middle East, the perception of a threat of terrorism makes an important point for making arguments on the nature of American exceptionalism and the position it occupies on the global stage.
Since the Bush administration, the United States developed and introduced a notion that the largest threat to world peace is terrorism. Secondly, it developed a notion that the largest source of terrorism in the world is Al-Qaeda and the ‘rogue’ states that support the group in one way or the other.43
Specifically, the new perception of terrorism is that Al-Qaeda is a threat to the world peace, and should be eliminated possible.
In addition, the new paradigm developed by the bush administration implies that eliminating Al-Qaeda does not necessarily mean fighting the group, but removing any possible source of materials, money, military support and fighting grounds for al-Qaida.
This notion further implies that the US and the world remain vulnerable to terrorism as long as the ‘rogue’ nations are allowed to freely associated and trade with al-Qaeda. In this context, America has placed herself in an exceptional position on the world politics given the ability to introduce new ideologies on terrorists and terror.
The United States further developed a conceptualization that takes Al-Qaeda as a complicated and difficult to understand. Evidently, the United States perceives Al-Qaeda as a complex connection of units or groups linked to Middle East ‘rogue’ nations that continue to pose a threat of attack on other nations friendly to the US.
Secondly, the US identifies the Al-Qaeda as a terrorist group with the primary intention of attacking America and her allies, destabilizing the world peace and more important, threatening the position of America as the exceptional nation in world politics.
Moreover, America perceives the Al-Qaeda as the largest threat to its position as the sole super power, while the ‘rogue’ nations like Iran and Iraq (prior to 2003 intervention by US) are a supportive power to the complex group.
As such, American foreign policy exemplifies the exceptionalism America has in relation to the other nations in the world as it attempts to make the world belief that the rogue nations, just like the Al-Qaeda, are a threat and enemy of the world.
It is worth noting that the Bush administration, and currently the Obama administration, has developed foreign policies that seek to eliminate the threat posed by Al-Qaeda indirectly by placing sanctions against such countries as Iran.
Although America accepted its failure and being rogue in the 2003 Iraq interventions, the perception that Iran supports Al-Qaeda is the main factor that the US is attempting to make the world see the need for taking steps, including a possibility of military interventions, on Iran.44
The New Concept of American Exemptionalism and the Arab Factor: Is There a Line Between Arab Rogue States or Dictatorial Regimes and Al-Qaeda?
Despite America’s ability to convince the world that a terrorist is not a terrorist without the Al-Qaeda factor, the recent interventions in the Middle East and the northern African states in the Arab spring is worth discussion.
There is a probability that the Obama administration has shifted from perceiving terrorism as ‘all about AL-Qaeda’ to a new notion that takes Islam nations as the most probable source of terrorism or threat to American and western supremacy in the coming years.
Particularly, America and Britain’s mobilization of NATO in 2011-2012 in countries like Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and Oman remains a topic of debate because the western nations seem to have a special interest in removing the dictatorial regimes in the Arab world by aiding rebels and opposition leaders.
Evidently, America’s exceptionalism describes its interest in establishing American-oriented regimes in the Arab world, which would not only support the idea of America being an exceptional and sole power, but also eliminate any chances of Al-Qaeda getting any support in future.
The special focus on the Middle East and Arab nations is exemplified by America’s quick intervention when there is need to eliminate dictatorial leadership in Arab nations perceived to be in apposition to support Al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups.
Yet, America takes years to intervene or fails to intervene in non-Arab nations where oppressive dictators or rebel and terrorist groups continue to violate human rights.
Consider, for instance, the situations in the Sub-Saharan African nations such as Congo and Sudan, where massive atrocities take place every year or where dictators continue to violate human rights.
America, citing no threat these situations pose to her national security, exceptionalism and superiority, fails to intervene, yet it claims to be pushing for world peace.
It appears that in the context of exceptionalsim, a threat to the world peace that threat posed by groups such as Al-Qaeda and the ‘rogue’ nations that target America and destabilize its influence on the world politics.45
From the analysis of the American exceptionalism in the world, it is evident that American occupies a special position in the world politics and economy, and continues to mobilize other nations to support its position.
Secondly, it is evident that America considers Islamic terrorism as the main challenge to its position as an exceptional country and a super power, which makes it develop unique constructs and conceptualization of a terrorist.
Finally, the American conceptualization of terrorism is largely based on the notion that the Middle East ‘rogue nations’ and the Al-Qaeda factor pose a threat to the world peace than do other groups because their main target is the United States and its exceptional position on the world economy and politics.
Behnke, Andreas and Christina Hellmich. Knowing Al-Qaeda: The Epistemology of Terrorism. New York: Ashgate Pub Co, 2012.
Buzan, Barry. American Exceptionalism and September 11: Understanding the Behavior of the Sole Superpower. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Deudney, Daniel and Jeffery Meiser. American exceptionalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Gibney, James. Globalization, American exceptionalism and security. London: Routledge, 2006.
Patman, Robert. “Globalisation, the New US Exceptionalism and the War on Terror.” Third World Quarterly 27 (2006): 963 -986.
Svendsen, Adam. “The Globalization of Intelligence since 9/11: Frameworks and Operational Parameters.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 21 (2008): 129-144
Tyrrell, Ian. “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History.” American Historical Review 96 (2005): 1031–1055
Walt, ‘Stephen. “Beyond bin Laden: reshaping US foreign policy”. International Security 26 (2008): 56-68
1 James Gibney, Globalization, American exceptionalism and security (London: Routledge, 2006), 24
2 Daniel Deudney and Jeffery Meiser, American exceptionalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 91
3 Robert Patman, “Globalisation, the New US Exceptionalism and the War on Terror,” Third World Quarterly 27 (2006): 963.
4 Adam Svendsen, “The Globalization of Intelligence since 9/11: Frameworks and Operational Parametersl,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 21 (2008): 129
5 Patman, 964
6 Deudney and Meiser, 94
7 Gibney, 31
8 Svendsen, 131
9 Patman, 971
10 Gibney, 75
11 Ian Tyrrell, “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History,” American Historical Review 96 (2005): 1031
12 Svendsen, 133
13 Gibney, 68
14 Deudney and Meiser, 94
15 Patman, 966
16 Stephen Walt, “Beyond bin Laden: reshaping US foreign policy,” International Security 26 (2008): 56
17 Tyrrell, 1035
18 Walt, 56
19 Svendsen, 134
20 Deudney and Meiser, 98
21 Gibney, 87
22 Patman, 965
23 Patman, 966
24 Svendsen, 135
25 Tyrrell, 1039
26 Gibney, 123
27 Walt, 61
28 Deudney and Meiser, 88
29 Svendsen, 138
30 Walt, 66
31 Deudney and Meiser, 76
32 Patman, 969
33 Deudney and Meiser, 97
34 Deudney and Meiser, 106
35 Deudney and Meiser, 119
36 Deudney and Meiser, 121
37 Deudney and Meiser, 29
38 Barry Buzan, American Exceptionalism and September 11: Understanding the Behavior of the Sole Superpower (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 38
39 Deudney and Meiser, 79
40 Buzan, 43
41 Andreas Behnke and Christina Hellmich, Knowing Al-Qaeda: The Epistemology of Terrorism (New York: Ashgate Pub Co, 2012), 86
42 Behnke and Hellmich, 88
43 Behnke and Hellmich, 89
44 Behnke and Hellmich, 97
45 Behnke and Hellmich, 106