American Exceptionalism

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American Exceptionalism

The idea that the United States has always been an exceptional country is one of the core elements of the country’s ideology. The formation of the US was indeed different from any other state in the history. Moreover, from the beginning, it was believed that the rights of men were given by God. America was a pioneer state that believed that people should give government its power, that army should be controlled by civilian rule, that the power of government should be limited, and that church should be separated from the governmental powers, among others. It is indeed true that in many ways in the beginning, the United States was better than the countries of the Old World, which was some kind of idealized implementation of ideas created by philosophers of the time. The unique history and idealized concepts with regard to which the US was created have led to the belief that America is exceptional. As a result, a term of “American exceptionalism” was created in order to explain the life in the country as well as the actions of its government (which in many cases have proven to be exceptional as well). Undoubtedly, no one neglects the outstanding history of the United States, but in the modern days there is a question whether America is still so different from other countries. It is also unclear if American exceptionalism has its justification in modern world or is just a useful belief that justifies all the actions of the US government. By reviewing the works of some scholars on American exceptionalism, this paper will present a short analysis of the notion and explain if the term still preserves its original meaning.

Koh and Bromund Discussion

After the events of 9/11, the notion of American exceptionalism became once again very popular among both politicians and academia. The works of Harold Koh and Ted Bromund are among those focusing on the issue and analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of the common belief in American exceptionalism. Actually, the previous phrase is not fully true, as Koh, on the one hand, was searching for some negative aspects of American exceptionalism and was trying to define their role in the US and other parts of the world. On the other hand, Ted Bromund was, in fact, presenting the concept as an ideal and purely good. Harold Koh did not present harsh criticism of American exceptionalism and has, in fact, believed that it could do good if it was developed properly. On the contrary, Bromund presented very aggressive criticism of Koh’s views, assuming they were unscientific and extremely biased, “For Koh […]” double standard means that the USA is doing something […] he dislikes” (Bromund, 2009). However, Bromund strongly defends the concept of American exceptionalism and states that it exists because the USA presents liberal virtues in the purest form; nevertheless, his argument seems to be much weaker and less justified than the one of Koh.

In Koh’s review of American exceptionalism (2005), there are a lot of positive moments that show that the author though presenting criticism of the concept, still believes in its justification. The scholar believes that there are “right” and “wrong” kinds of American exceptionalism, and in order to create the better future, it is important to support the right kind of exceptionalism by reducing “double standards while expanding our capacity for global leadership”. Throughout Koh’s paper, there is a clear note of pride and strong belief in American exceptionalism, which Ted Bromund did not clearly notice. In fact, there is criticism toward some of the elements of American exceptionalism such as double standards (when the US believes that different rules are applied to it and to the rest of the world) or the flying buttress mentality (as the country does not ratify international treaties while complying with them). Nevertheless, Koh (2005) still has a strong belief that the United States is exceptional in many ways and is, in fact, the major good force in the modern world. The sole fact that the scholar believes that America is the only force willing and able to do something in the sphere of human rights shows that Koh is a strong supporter of American exceptionalism and Bromund’s criticism is not justified at all.

Analysis of American Exceptionalism

Taking into consideration Bromund’s reaction to Koh’s friendly and positive criticism of American exceptionalism, the ideas and attitudes expressed further would have probably exasperated the scholar. Even the critical comments expressed by Koh seem too idealistic and soft. Although the author is speaking of double standards that US constantly implements in its foreign policy, Koh still states that some of the disadvantages of American exceptionalism are more harmful for the country than for the rest of the world (i.e. cultural distinctiveness or distinct rights culture). The author encouraged some modes of exceptional behavior of the US governmental officials, which at the same time could be considered negative and dangerous. What Koh (2005) calls “exceptional global leadership and activism” of the US can be considered unjustified intrusion of the country’s authorities in internal activities of an independent state.

The constant desire of the United States to build democracy “the American way” in different parts of the world is directly triggered by the notion of the country’s exceptional rights and knowledge. Thus, the desire of the US to intrude into the internal affairs of other states is truly exceptional. Apparently, the same as the country’s military expenditures which, according to Phillips (2010), are more than the expenditures of the next 15 or 20 countries combined together. By seeing other-but-American cultures less advanced than the US one, Americans automatically assume that those cultures could be meddled with, and the US government can interfere in the affairs of other states in order to adjust them to American standards. The locals’ opinions do not matter as, firstly, everything is done for their good and, secondly, US authorities definitely understand the situation better.

Going back to the analysis of Bromund’s (2009) speech, it is interesting that the author states that President Obama is one of the critics of American exceptionalism because he claims that each person believes that their homeland is exceptional, but, according to Bromund (2009), the US is the only country that has the right to real exceptionalism. At the same time, Philips presents a part of Obama’s speech that represents the politician as a true supporter of the idea of American exceptionalism, “… true strength of our nation comes […] from the enduring power of our ideas: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope”. Despite the President’s answer when directly asked about American exceptionalism, these words show that Obama, as the majority of the US citizens, believes that the country is still based on exceptional and outstanding ideas that give its people not only strength but also extraordinary possibilities.

However, it is unclear whether the values and ideas presented by Americans exceptional, or they are common for the Western world. In fact, this is the question that has to be asked while discussing American exceptionalism. It is true that when de Tocqueville came to America, he saw a country that was different from any other and, thus, he stated that “The position of the Americans is quite exceptional, and […] no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one” (De Tocqueville, 1835). Indeed, in the times of de Tocqueville, the life on the continent was different from the one in the Old World, while liberal ideas developed by European philosophers were, in fact, implemented in the New World. Therefore, American exceptionalism could be justified at those times. Nowadays, almost 200 years later, one can see that ideas and values that exist in America can be found all around the world (or at least in the developed countries), and some rights are even less limited in the United States, especially after the growing security measures of the last decade. Therefore, all the ideas that made America special in the 19th century are currently common in the developed world.

Without any distinctive values and ideas that would currently differ Americans from, for example Germans, American exceptionalism currently benefits from the nation’s history and what Jacobs (2004) calls “America’s essential goodness”. In fact, the belief that American citizens and American government are better (not just different) than the rest of the world is quite common throughout the country. Moreover, patriotic feelings are strengthened by the media. Even if one checks US TV shows, the messages of American superiority and exceptionalism are seen everywhere. What is interesting, the process of globalization that triggered the phenomenon of Americanization has also spread the idea of American exceptionalism around the world.


The study of American exceptionalism, its roots, characteristics, and consequences is extremely interesting. Thus, it requires further research and analysis. This paper has shortly described the roots of American exceptionalism and the role of de Tocqueville in the formation of this notion. Moreover, it briefly covered the views of both proponents of exceptionalism and their opponents. The main attention was paid to the critique of American exceptionalism, which is seen as a danger to the world due to America’s desire to meddle in the affairs of other countries as well as its desire to use double standards. Moreover, the paper has showed that currently American exceptionalism has no sufficient background as other developed states are based on the same values and ideas, and some have even more rights than modern-day America. Therefore, the ideas of “America’s essential goodness” are being commonly introduced through media without any rational justification.