American Exceptionalism and the Politics of Foreign Policy

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."

Presented by

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

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