American Exceptionalism and the Politics of Foreign Policy

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They might mean different things when they say it, but Obama and the GOP candidates are talking a lot about American exceptionalism. Why?

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Left, this 2007 photo of Barack Obama provoked controversy controversy for his failure to place his hand over his heart during the pledge of allegiance. Right, Michele Bachmann during the pledge at a recent campaign event in New Hampshire / Reuters

Despite what you may have read in the Washington Post recently, "American exceptionalism" is not going away this election season.

It's a persistent idea: French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called the U.S. "exceptional" almost 180 years ago. But it's also complicated. The belief -- that the United States, in its governance, politics, mission, and place in the world, is unique, and, in its most extreme version, qualitatively superior to other nations -- abides to this day. The Washington Post recently argued that "American Exceptionalism on the decline," based on a Pew poll that measured opinion about "American culture." Pew found 49 percent of Americans think the nation's "culture is superior," down from 60 percent in 2005. While culture is certainly part of American exceptionalism, it is a small part. A better read on Americans views of the nation's exceptionalism was provided by a Gallup poll from late last year, which found that 80 percent of Americans believe the United States "has a unique character because of its history and Constitution that sets it apart from other nations as the greatest in the world."

With those numbers, it is unsurprising that the Republican presidential candidates have spent a good deal of oxygen and printer ink this campaign season decrying that President Barack Obama does not, they say, believe in American exceptionalism. They point to an answer, applauded by some, at a 2009 press conference where he qualified the idea by saying, "I believe in American exceptionalism ... [American] leadership is incumbent -- depends on -- our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone." He's also suggested that American exceptionalism is similar to British and Greek national pride. This was not exceptional enough, it seems, for Republicans. Former Governor Mitt Romney said in this week's Republican foreign policy debate, "We have a president right now who thinks America's just another nation. America is an exceptional nation." Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich have all made similar comments.

These Republican candidates might be surprised to learn that Obama has talked more about American exceptionalism than Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush combined: a search on UC Santa Barbara's exhaustive presidential records library finds that no president from 1981 to today uttered the phrase "American exceptionalism" except Obama. As U.S. News' Robert Schlesinger wrote, "American exceptionalism" is a not a traditional part of presidential vocabulary. According to Schlesinger's search public records, Obama is the only president in 82 years to use the term. 


It's tempting to argue that no other president has cited American "exceptionalism" because it's not an actual word, or at least not one fit for presidential rhetoric. But presidents have not talked about "exceptional America" either. "Exceptional nation" or "country" are also both absent from the presidential record. The phrase "exceptional people" pops up in some specific instances, when speaking of individuals and communities. But references to the nation's "exceptional government," "exceptional system," "exceptional idea"? None.

International relations scholar Stephen Walt is the latest in a line of those who have attempted to debunk the "myth" of American exceptionalism. "Although the United States possesses certain unique qualities," he wrote, "the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics."

American Presidents, when faced with other proud nations and confronted by the threats and challenges the international system provides to every nation, let alone one with such global and dispersed interests as the United States, tend to agree with Walt, or at least act as it they do. They have avoided rhetoric that suggests the nation is qualitatively superior to other nations.

Despite academic refutation, despite a long track record of presidents avoiding it in their rhetoric, and despite a decade of challenges and frustrations that have left the nation struggling at home and abroad, it is springtime for the idea of American exceptionalism. And it is not just Obama and those vying to oppose him in 2012. Former President Bill Clinton admitted in his new book, despite his not using the phrase during his presidency, "I do believe in American exceptionalism. My life has been graced by it."

American exceptionalism is really just another name for a particular version of American nationalism. American nationalism is stirring -- and being stirred -- for a number of reasons. Its reawakening has complicated the foreign policy politics for the Obama administration and its Republican challengers.

One possible reason that American nationalism is booming could be the nation's recent struggles. Andrew Sullivan suggested as much. A decade of frustrations in war and the economy, have led, as another Pew poll rightly found, to doubts about the nation. Having surely learned from President Jimmy Carter's infamous (if mislabeled) "malaise" speech, today's political leaders, when faced with a crisis in American expectations and beliefs, want to be seen as cheerleaders rather than doomsayers. They cheer most loudly when their team is down a few points. In his 2010 State of the Union, President Obama declared, "I do not accept second place for the United States of America."

Nationalism is not an unusual means of uniting a divided population, especially one as frustrated by economic difficulties, political challenges, and foreign setbacks as America's. In the 1970s, the exceptionalist rhetoric of such candidates as Ronald Reagan appealed to a country overcome by the nation's failure in Vietnam and beset by domestic challenges. While correlation does not always equal causation, the timing of exceptionalism's resurgence in the lead-up to the 2008 campaign suggests the nation's struggles were a driving force in the resurgence.

That timing also points to another likely reason behind this emerging trend: American politics. Republican candidates are pursuing a nationalist campaign against Obama. Because it makes for effective politics, the Republican candidates, as they have the past few years, will continue to argue that Obama is not proud enough and does not believe the nation is exceptional even if they do not use the word -- for example, Romney's "just another nation" comment. Last fall, the Washington Post suggested that, in the 2012 presidential election, the issue of American exceptionalism has already become a "new front in the ongoing culture wars." Spencer Ackerman recently made a similar point.

Nationalism-as-opposition-politics has been a rich and successful tradition in political history. "Birtherism" is based, in part, in the idea that Obama's policies are alien to American tradition. This attack leverages the perception held by some that Obama is, as a Hillary Clinton campaign adviser put it during the Democratic primary, "not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values" -- though both Clinton and, to a large degree, Republican nominee Senator John McCain rejected this approach. Again, this is not new in American politics; Republicans leveraged doubts about the foreign-ness and Greek ethnicity of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988.

But there is another, more interesting, and perhaps more important reason for the reawakening of nationalist politics in the United States. It has to do with the rigidity and frustrating results of Washington's foreign policy consensus at a time of great flux at home and abroad.

While presidents have avoided talk of "exceptionalism," Washington's foreign policy community has emphasized exceptionalism, as opposed to realism, in large part because of the politics it faces at home and the challenges and the opportunities they see abroad. For much of the post-Cold War era, Republican and Democratic foreign policy-makers and elites have coalesced around the idea of the United States as an "indispensable nation" in a "unipolar moment." In other words, America is exceptional in its power and exceptional in its mission and thus must serve, as some have written, as the "world's government" underwriting its security, economy, and development .

This exceptionalist consensus means, among other things, that the Clinton, Bush, and Obama foreign policies have all had this underlying ideology in common. Obama himself, in his 2009 Nobel laureate lecture, may have best defended the resulting good, bad, and ugly foreign policy when he said, "The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms."

The consensus still holds a tremendous sway in Washington. Republicans seem to object more strongly to how Obama is going about the country's foreign policy business than to what he has chosen to do. The result is a debate on the margins: Republican focus on the deadline imposed on how quickly to withdraw from Iraq rather than whether a long-term involvement in that country is in the nation's best interest.

Still, the U.S. foreign policy consensus has a mixed track record: the nation is in a more frustrating international position today than it was at the end of the Cold War. Its economy is beleaguered, its military overstretched, its governance dysfunctional, and its political influence only somewhat recovered from unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration. Republicans and Democrats, rather than revising the prevailing consensus or holding difficult and politically sensitive conversations over this new reality, have focused on posture over policy; talking about how the consensus will be put into action rather than whether its persistence is a good idea.

Republican candidates now are arguing that a more exceptionalist posture, like the one they believe President Ronald Reagan took in the 1980s, would help the nation. In 2008, President Obama's supporters believed something similar: that his persona, based on his international background, racial heritage, and rhetorical gifts gave him, and thus the United States, added authority in its relations with the world. This wasn't a campaign talking point, but it occasionally popped up. In November 2007, Obama told an interviewer:

If you can tell people, "We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who's half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian," then they're going to think that he may have a better sense of what's going on in our lives and in our country. And they'd be right.

Obama's personal exceptionalism and his view of American exceptionalism will be put to the test this election season against his Republican opponents. At a time of limited American focus on foreign policy news and matters, it's unlikely to be the main event. But with these nationalist stirrings returning to American politics, the fight over who best envisions -- and who best represents -- American exceptionalism will be a part of the 2012 conversation.

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John A. Gans Jr. studies international relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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