Exceptionalism and American Foreign Policy
"American exceptionalism" is a term used to describe the belief that the United States is an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history; a nation that is not only unique but also superior. Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to use the term "exceptional" to describe the United States and the American people in his classic work Democracy in America (1835–1840), but the idea of America as an exceptional
entity can be traced back to the earliest colonial times. Jack P. Greene's analysis of a wealth of contemporary materials has established that by "the beginning of the nineteenth century the idea of America as an exceptional entity had long been an integral component in the identification of America." Many scholars of the belief in American exceptionalism argue that it forms one of the core elements of American national identity and American nationalism. Deborah Madsen, for example, contends that exceptionalism is "one of the most important concepts underlying modern theories of American cultural identity." It is a central part of the American belief system or what Benedict Anderson calls its "imagined community."
The ways in which U.S. foreign policy is made and conducted are influenced by the underlying assumptions that Americans hold about themselves and the rest of the world. Like most nations, the United States has a distinctive pattern of policymaking that is determined by unique aspects of its national culture. Each country's historical and cultural heritage, its montage of national beliefs and experience—its national
identity—has an influence, whether consciously or not, upon the way it practices politics. U.S. foreign policy is driven by a variety of causal factors including strategic, economic, political, and bureaucratic interests; international and domestic pressures; the personalities and agendas of policymakers; and the actions of other nations. However, the belief in exceptionalism, since it is a core element of American national identity, has an important underlying influence on foreign policy activity. This belief is one of the main ideas that, according to Michael Hunt, has "performed for generations of Americans that essential function of giving order to their vision of the world and defining their place in it." Although such views are not "codified in formal, systemic terms," Hunt shows that the evidence for their existence and influence can be found in the "private musings" of policymakers and, more importantly, "the public rhetoric by which they have justified their actions and communicated their opinions to one another and to the nation." The belief in American exceptionalism provides an essential element of the cultural and intellectual framework for the making and conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
Two main strands of exceptionalist thought have influenced U.S. foreign policy. One is that of the United States as an exemplar nation, as reflected in ideas such as the "city upon a hill," nonentangling alliances, "anti-imperialism," "isolationism," and "Fortress America." The other, often more dominant strand is that of the missionary nation, as represented by the ideas of "manifest destiny," "imperialism,"
"internationalism," "leader of the free world," "modernization theory," and the "new world order." Both strands have been present throughout the history of U.S. foreign relations.
The Roots of Exceptionalism
The idea of America as an exceptional entity dates back to colonial times. Its roots can be found in the thought of Puritan settlers who regarded the North American continent as a promised land where a new Canaan could be built as a model for the rest of the world. The earliest expression of this belief that continues to live on in American public memory comes from John Winthrop, a Puritan leader and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Winthrop delivered a lay sermon aboard the Arbella, during its passage to New England in 1630, in which he declared that his fellow settlers "must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us." Winthrop's words were circulated in manuscript form and have since become one of the main formative texts of American self-identity and meaning. Inherent in this notion of the city on a hill is the belief that the American colonists, and those who have followed them, were uniquely blessed by God to pursue His work on Earth and to establish a society that would provide this beacon for the betterment of all humankind.
American exceptionalism, however, has not only religious but also secular roots. The American Revolution and the formative years of the new Republic reinforced the idea that the United States was a chosen nation which would be an experiment in human society. In his influential revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine argued that it was America's separateness and difference from the Old World that demanded its independence. Paine saw America as a special land where humankind could "begin the world over again" by establishing a political society built on new, progressive ideas. The framers of the Constitution built on this idea in 1787. Theirs was to be an ambitious political experiment. The United States would be a society based on a republican system of government ensuring the preservation of certain individual rights. Although they were relatively pessimistic about its chances, the framers' greatest hope was that the constitutional framework they had created would allow the United States to develop over time into the most perfect republican society in the world. The geographic isolation of the American continent from Europe seemed to offer hope that the United States could protect itself from falling prey to the degenerative nature of the Old World. As Thomas Jefferson observed in his First Inaugural Address (March 1801), the United States was "kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of others." Jefferson and others did not suggest that Americans would be immune from temptation, but they did indicate that, with eternal vigilance, the United States could be prevented from succumbing to the same vices that had destroyed other great nations.
Providential and republican ideology thus combined to firmly entrench the idea of exceptionalism at the center of American national identity. In these early forms it was initially the exemplar strand of exceptionalism that clearly dominated. The United States would provide a model of freedom, liberty, and democracy from which the rest of the world could learn. It would be an example, a beacon of light—a city on a hill.
In early U.S. foreign policy, the notion of the United States as a separate, aloof nation was also dominant, but would come to be challenged by a growing missionary spirit as the Republic became stronger and more successful.
The Influence of Exceptionalist Beliefs on Foreign Affairs
In the earliest years of the Republic, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson called upon Americans to actively seek to preserve their nation's unique position of aloofness from the world's ills. In his Farewell Address of 1796, Washington warned against "permanent alliances," while Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address (March 1801), advised that Americans should avoid "entangling alliances." Such pronouncements laid the foundations for a foreign policy characterized by high levels of unilateralism and so-called isolationism. Jefferson nevertheless presided over the first major expansion of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and contributed to the notion that a republic needed to grow in order to remain healthy with his view of the United States as an "empire for liberty."
President James Monroe further emphasized the difference between American and European intentions in foreign affairs on 2 December 1823, in what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe declared the Western Hemisphere closed to European colonization, warned against European interference in the affairs of the Americas, and signaled the intention of the United States to be the region's dominant power. Although the Monroe Doctrine was based largely on strategic interest, it was couched in terms consistent with the belief in exceptionalism. Monroe stressed that the United States held nothing but goodwill toward the world's nations and emphasized that the U.S. policy of noninterference in European affairs marked it apart from the imperialistic nations of the Old World. As Monroe's Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had stated famously on 4 July 1821, the United States "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." Adams was expressing another crucial element of the conviction that the United States would avoid repeating the faults of the Old World. The United States is deemed exceptional because it is believed to be incapable of seeking dominion over others in its own self-interest. It would, then, avoid the temptations that had caused all great nations to seek expansion of their power by conquering and subjugating other peoples. If the United States did intervene abroad, it would be for the good of others, in the name of higher principles. As Adams insisted, America's "glory is not dominion, but liberty."
This belief in the basic benevolence of all U.S. actions abroad was further emphasized by President James K. Polk in his reassertion of the Monroe Doctrine on 2 December 1845. He emphasized that the United States had taken upon itself the responsibility
not only for its own freedom and security but also for that of all the nations in the Western Hemisphere. According to Polk, the United States did not pursue wars of conquest, but it would do whatever necessary to defend the independence of the Americas. It would not tolerate the interference of a self-interested imperial power in its region yet, paradoxically, it considered its own interference in a neighbor's affairs as being to the benefit of the neighbor. Such a policy was, of course, the declaration of an ambitious state seeking hemispheric dominance. But subsumed within the doctrine was an assumption that American intervention would not amount to self-interested foreign interference. According to the tradition of exceptionalism, the United States is incapable of doing ill to others, and therefore the nature of its interference in the Americas would be inherently more benign than that of any other foreign power. Polk stretched the credibility of such claims with the war against Mexico in 1846. In his public rhetoric, he justified his ambitions for the acquisition of new land and the provocative nature of his actions toward Mexico by couching the conflict in terms that were consistent with his pronouncements on the exceptional nature of U.S. foreign relations, and cast the United States as the innocent party. Indeed, a new phrase had entered the American vocabulary that helped explain westward expansion as an integral part of American exceptionalism.
The war with Mexico and the annexations of Mexican territory that followed were believed by most Americans to be the result of their "manifest destiny." The term is generally attributed to John L. O'Sullivan, a Democratic newspaper editor from New York. O'Sullivan's conception of manifest destiny came to national attention through an editorial in the New York Morning News on 27 December 1845, which claimed the
right of the United States to Oregon territory disputed by the British: "And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of Liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us."
In his classic book Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansion in American History (1935), Albert K. Weinberg defines manifest destiny as being "in essence the doctrine that one nation has a preeminent social worth, a distinctively lofty mission, and consequently, unique rights in the application of moral principles." He relates how the idea soon became "a firmly established article of the national creed." The idea of manifest destiny is one of the clearest expressions of the belief in the exceptional nature of the United States. Territorial expansion was justified by Americans because they believed theirs was a special nation chosen by Providence to spread its virtues far and wide. As Weinberg has shown, nineteenth-century Americans laid claim to new land using a variety of justifications subsumed under the idea of manifest destiny. Americans believed they had a natural right to expand, and that territorial propinquity determined that they must spread across adjacent lands in North America. American expansion was also thought to be divinely blessed because it would cause the extension of democracy and freedom. Americans argued further
that they should expand because they would use the land in ways more beneficial to and desirable for the progress of humankind than could its often sparsely distributed existing inhabitants.
The Mexican War saw a further element of manifest destiny emerge that became a central aspect of the belief in the exceptional nature of American interaction with other nations. Most Americans found moral vindication for the war in what Weinberg characterizes as "the conception of a religious duty to regenerate the unfortunate people of the enemy country by bringing them into the life-giving shrine of American democracy." The Mexican War seemed to confirm the belief among Americans that if the United States did involve itself in the affairs of other peoples, it was not in order to subjugate them but to help them realize their right to the same liberties and freedoms for which Americans had fought in the War of Independence. Countless Mexicans and Native Americans may have perceived events rather differently, but that was of little concern to the exceptional vanguards of civilization and progress. By the mid-nineteenth century, then, with westward expansion justified by manifest destiny, the missionary strand of exceptionalism was becoming the dominant form. At the end of the nineteenth century, with historian Frederick Jackson Turner having declared the frontier closed, Americans undertook an overseas intervention which is generally regarded as the event that signaled the arrival of the United States as a world power. The highly popular Spanish-American War of 1898 was supposedly fought to secure basic rights of freedom for the oppressed peoples in Cuba and other Spanish colonies. Yet the war gave way to a conflict in the Philippines that left blood on American hands and ignited a nationwide debate over whether the United States was living up to its principles as an exceptional nation or whether it would assume an empire in the tradition of the Old World powers.