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History of the American Exceptionalism Essay


Every nation is different in its own ways. Such differences are replicated not only in the construction of nationalism but also in the development of national agendas. The unique ideologies held by a specific nation are played out in the international arena through foreign policy and partisan positions in the global communities. Indeed, in the formulation of foreign policies, nations have to align themselves with policies that reflect their self-image while at the same time being opposed to policies that seek to erode their value and moral fundamentalism.

This paper discusses the notion of exceptionalism in the US approaches to the making of foreign policies since the 1990s. It then ties together the nation’s approaches to the development of foreign policies with how exceptionalism influences the manner in which the US interacts with the rest of the world. However, the paper first examines the concept of exceptionalism in the American context.

The Notion of American Exceptionalism

The American exceptionalism may be studied from three constructs. The primary approach is based on the principle that from American chronological contexts, the country is intrinsically different from any other state. To this extent, American exceptionalism emerged from the revolution era in which the nation became ‘the first new nation’ (Bacevich 2008, p.48), which developed a unique ideology anchored on Americanism and founded on principles of democracy, individualism, liberty, and egalitarianism among other philosophies that define the American uniqueness.

The second argument that describes the notion of American exceptionalism is the idea that the US possesses an exclusive mission of transforming the entire world (Masden 1998; Restad 2014). Abraham Lincoln made the first suggestion of this ideology in 1863. During the Gettysburg Address, the president noted that America had the duty of ensuring that ‘government of the people by the people, for the people shall not perish from earth’ (Bender 2006, p.121). Thirdly, American exceptionalism implies that the history and its missions accord it some superiority over any other nation.

It should be noted that exceptionalism does not translate into superiority. However, neo-conservatist writers and some American conservative scholars promote the deployment of the term. To these writers, America is exempt from any historical force that would influence any other nation. Nevertheless, Spanos (2008) criticises this position. Marxists coined the term exceptionalism in their attempt to offer convincing arguments on why the US seemed to have not adopted Marxist or socialist principles in its historical process of development, despite having class conflicts, parties that operated on the principle of Marxist and socialist movements. However, these developments were much less compared to nations such as Germany or France.

The role of American exceptionalism in the development of foreign policies may be traced from patterns that include legalism, unilateralism, and moral pragmatism. However, irrespective of its source, it demands the taking of active leadership in the global affairs (Cheney & Cheney 2015). The next section examines these roles from the context of the US foreign policymaking processes from the 1990s.

The Notion of ‘American Exceptionalism in the making of the US Foreign Policy since the 1990s

From the time the US was declared an independent nation and throughout its history, it has taken a unique position in matters of foreign policy. This position could be seen from its reluctance to become a signatory of the League of Nations and its policing roles around the globe in an attempt to maintain peace while forcing some warring nations to de-escalate. For instance, it played a key role in toppling the Libyan president (Gaddafi) in the recent past.

Its responses to the Russian-Ukraine conflicts also substantiate this position. While attempts of the US since the 1990s to regulate the international relations between nations may not be enough to impose the American culture, it suggests an effort to present America’s self-image as a sole agent of the world order. To this extent, unilateralism is an important aspect of the notion of the United States exceptionalism, which is evident in its foreign policymaking approaches.

Exceptionalism is evident in the efforts of the US to lead the world through transformation processes. In 1998, Madeleine Albright, the then Secretary of State noted that in case the US deploys force, then it is because of Americanism. America is an indispensable nation that stands tall as it looks far beyond the future (Pease 2009). This observation underlines the principle of unilateralism in the enactment of foreign policies.

It suggests that America has the freedom and ability to develop foreign policies that are appropriate for pushing for its way of thinking, even where some nations may not be willing to adhere to its fundamental principles such as democracy and/or upholding human rights, which it believes are necessary for the future survival of the nation. Hence, the US has the responsibility of ensuring that other nations benchmark from its leadership approaches, which aim at guaranteeing freedom for all people and long-term survival of democratic leadership philosophies.

As Madeleine Albright suggested it in the 1998 statement, the implication is that where some nations engage in violating the principles that not only define American exceptionalism but also are fundamental to the existence of global societies, then the US may exert a unilateral power to enforce them.

In 2002, Dick Cheney stated that America possesses some friends and enemies. However, it can only lead them, a responsibility, which the vice president claimed was not conferred to America by chance. Rather, because the US possesses unique assets, the character of its people is unique. Cheney’s understanding of the American exceptionalism implies that the nation has distinctive characters that should be emulated by other nations that seek to be equal to it (Hodgson 2009).

However, opposed to this suggestion, conditions that preceded the birth of America are different in diverse respects relative to those that other nations face. Therefore, they are irreproducible elsewhere. Consequently, even if other nations want to emulate the US exceptionalism, they may never be at the same level with it. Material circumstances, which limit and/or shape the conducts of different societies, can never be equal. Does this claim suggest that the US will remain exceptional to other nations? Moral pragmatism suggests that this situation may be the case, although the position is open to criticism.

The notion of exceptionalism in the US approaches to making foreign policies is evidenced by the consistent application of legalist ideologies when intervening in global affairs. Dueck (2010) asserts that this principle develops from the US refusal to ensure power balancing as the primary mechanism for enhancing national security in line with the view that people behave rationally and that they prefer peace instead of war in settling multilateral disputes. Therefore, the US engages in the creation of worldwide systems, rules, and institutions through its foreign policies that are aimed at settling disputes that may escalate into war.

The main player in the legal perspectives is the UN. However, economic matters are also primary issues that may lead to disputes. To deal with these situations, economic institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are created. Commerce holds people from different nations together in a manner that economic interests herald peaceful coexistence. Similarly, international trade also binds different nations together, thus producing similar effects.

Through legalism, the US plays a central role in the manner in which these institutions and bodies that help to foster international peace operate by having a significantly large voice. The contribution of legalism to the US foreign policymaking through international institutions from the 1990s can be seen from the imposition of trade sanctions to nations such as Iran (Vasquez 2009).

The pledge system deployed by the US in its foreign policy initiatives evidences the American exceptionalism from the 1990s. Using this approach, the US established a principle, which it then called upon other nations to ratify via treaties or declaration of their support to the code (Cheney & Cheney 2015). However, such a principle largely lacks legal enforcement. Issues such as the disarmament of nations that are claimed to produce nuclear weapons, yet they are not recognised as nations with nuclear capability (Waltz 2010) and the now rising call for nations with nuclear weapon reserves to destroy them exemplify this scenario

Variations on the pledge system constitute a dominant aspect of the US foreign policy approaches to bilateral coupled with the multilateral trade. For example, in 1993, when America faced the intransigent nation (Japan), the US people who took part in the negotiations with it only agreed to the framework, which established the manner in which future agreements would guarantee the resolution of trade imbalances coupled with the underlying barriers.

However, no details of the pacts specifics were released. At the multilateral dimensions, the 1994 pacts were signed reflecting the pledge for the formation of free zones that targeted 33 nations in the western hemisphere and the United States. Indeed, no blueprint or any detailed schedule on this agreement was presented.

How American Exceptionalism affected the Way the US Interacts with the rest of the World

In terms of national styles, experience, and value systems as demonstrated through the American foreign policymaking processes since the 1990s, other nations see the US exceptionalism as having a different motivation other than attempting to display its uniqueness. For example, Iviea and Ginerb (2009) reveal how some critics see America as antirevolutionary and one that endeavours to stop social change while at the same time destabilising revolutionary movements formed in third-world nations that may threaten its role and dominance in the global affairs. Such a view suggests that the US foreign policies from the 1990s and before are imperial and founded on the expansionist ideologies that are capitalistic in nature (Dueck 2010).

The US foreign policies may be seen as racist in nature as it may be illustrated by the immigration policies that have led to discrimination of non-western Europeans, especially the Chinese. Additionally, the US exceptionalism emphasises dominance of the nation in the global affairs through interventionism that is masqueraded as internationalism (Justin 2012). Hence, the US intervenes in the affairs of other nations beyond the scope of its exceptionalist interests. This move influences the way the US relates with other nations negatively, as it is seen as having the interest of imposing a one-world order, which ensures the unilateral spread of its political, economic, and cultural hegemonies.

In the attempt to impose the American exceptionalism policies, other players see the US in the international relations as trying to impose standards that are overruled by its conduct. For example, through moral pragmatism, America portrays its self-image as that of a nation that should be emulated in terms of compliance with the idea of respecting human dignity and life. In pursuing this cause, the US has intervened in wars in different nations as part of its foreign policy goals for ensuring peaceful coexistence of nations.

This plan exemplifies its attempts to ensure that nations respect the territorial integrity of other nations as the foundation of building long-term peaceful coexistence (Nau 2008). However, instead of recognising this self-claimed role of the United State in the international relations by other nations, the nation is seen as only playing ill motives due to its application of double standards to its moral-pragmatic philosophy. For example, while it advocates for peace and the right to respect human rights, including the right to life, it targets and kills suspected terrorists (Cole & Dempsey 2002).

The high dependence on the use of drones by President Obama’s administration has unilaterally led to the placement of the American war approaches far away from the techniques that other countries have deployed (Unger 2012; Lipset 2015). Using moral pragmatist approaches to foreign policies, the US has justified this cause of action in air power using the principle of the right to defending its territorial integrity that is enshrined in the international law.

However, this debate took the centre stage in 2011 when the US killed two of its citizens in Drone attacks that targeted terrorists (Meyer 2010). Questions were raised on the unilateral power of the administration to kill its citizens, including the sluggishness of the ensuing judicial process that sought to respond to these issues. This experience constructs major issues in the manner in which the US relates with other nations.

For example, the issue is of great concern when an American citizen dies through the application of unilateral foreign policy directive. What is the situation when such a policy leads to the death of another innocent person who is not a citizen of the United States? Does this case not amount to the violation of that person’s rights?

The self-imposed responsibility attracts controversies that present the US negatively before other nations. For example, a military action against Libya was justified through legalism while relying on NATO and the UN and applying the principle of having a responsibility to offer protection. The action led to the toppling of the nation’s then president (Gaddafi). Similarly, President Obama responded to the Russian decision to deploy troops in Ukraine, terming the action as amounting to the violation of the sovereignty of a nation.


Exceptionalism constitutes an important aspect that defines the American history. Although it is not sufficiently safe to presume that exceptionalism has presented the US as having unquestionable powers compared to any other nation, America has imposed itself a primary role in regulating the conduct of other nations in the international affairs. The paper has argued that this power is evident in the legalism, unilateralism, and moral pragmatism aspects that characterise the US ways of making foreign policies since the 1990s.


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