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Unmaking an exception: A critical genealogy of US exceptionalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 October 2014


US exceptionalism is a hot topic in contemporary political discourse in the United States and in recent years it has attracted increasing attention from International Relations (IR) scholars. Unfortunately, however, analysis of US exceptionalism in has been compromised by its failure to historicise the concept and by its reliance on myths cultivated in other disciplines. This article offers a critical genealogy of US exceptionalism in order to expose it for what it is: a discourse that works to legitimate the United States' exceptions to domestic and international law in the minds of its citizens and foreign observers.

Copyright © British International Studies Association 2014 

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1 I recognise the objection that the very use of the term ‘America’ to mean ‘the United States’ is itself a marker of ‘exceptionalism’. I do not mean to marginalise the other countries in the Americas, merely to use the common terminology deployed in the disciplines discussed.

2 Terrence McCoy, ‘How Joseph Stalin Invented “American Exceptionalism”’, The Atlantic, 15 (March 2012), available at: {} accessed 8 June 2014.

3 Obama claimed, ‘America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.’ Putin replied, ‘It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.’ Barack Obama, ‘Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Syria’, 10 September 2013. White House Office of the Press Secretary, available at: {} accessed 19 October 2013; Vladimir Putin, ‘A Plea for Caution from Russia’, New York Times (11 September 2013), p. A31.

4 Bobbitt, Philip, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (London: Penguin, 2002), p. 691 Google Scholar.

5 For example, the Bush administration refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and the Ottowa Land Mine Convention and it withdrew from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

6 Kagan, Robert and Kristol, William, Present Dangers: Crisis and Oportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000), p. 22 Google Scholar; Fukuyama, Francis, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 101 Google Scholar.

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8 Ignatieff, Michael, ‘Introduction: American Exceptionalism and Human Rights’, in Ignatieff, Michael (ed.), American Exceptionalism and Human Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 126 Google Scholar.

9 Examples of these strands of US exceptionalism include, respectively: President Clinton's attempt to exempt US citizens from the jurisdiction of the ICC in 1998; ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1991 but not its provisions banning the infliction of the death penalty on juveniles; and waiting nearly four decades to ratify the Genocide Convention (1948) and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950).

10 See John Ruggie, ‘American Exceptionalism, Exemptionalism, and Global Governance’, in Ignatieff (ed.), American Exceptionalism, pp. 304–38, in particular pp. 318–21.

11 See, for example, Andrew Moravcsik, ‘The Paradox of U.S. Human Rights Policy’, in Ignatieff (ed.), American Exceptionalism and Human Rights, pp. 147–97; and Cass Sunstein, ‘Why does the American Constitution Lack Social and Economic Guarantees’, in Ignatieff (ed.), American Exceptionalism and Human Rights, pp. 90–110.

12 According to Google Trends, the spike in interest in ‘American exceptionalism’ during 2008 has only once been exceeded (in September 2013). Republican Senator Marco Rubio made ‘exceptionalism’ the central theme of his 2010 Senate campaign in Florida. Sarah Palin has frequently evoked the term in her social media communications and in her book America by Heart (2010), which contains a chapter titled ‘America the Exceptional’. Newt Gingrich launched his 2012 presidential campaign with the release of a book titled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters (2011). Mitt Romney's campaign book, No Apology: The Case For American Greatness (2010), charges: ‘This reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism [under Obama] is misguided and bankrupt.’

13 Jeffrey M. Jones, ‘Americans See U.S. as Exceptional; 37% Doubt Obama Does’, Gallop Poll Report (22 December 2010), available at: {} accessed 19 October 2013.

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17 An epithet derived from ‘the world's indispensable nation’, coined by President Clinton in his second inaugural address in 1997.

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20 Article 2.7 provides, ‘nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state’.

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64 Ibid., p. 12.

65 Pfaff, ‘Manifest Destiny’.

66 Ibid.

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70 Ibid.

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77 Tyrrell, ‘American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History’, p. 1034; Kammen, ‘The Problem of American Exceptionalism’, p. 6; Deudney and Meiser, ‘American Exceptionalism’, p. 25; Restad, ‘Old Paradigms in History Die Hard’, p. 62.

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85 Ibid.

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90 Ibid., p. 3

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92 Ceaser, ‘The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism’, p. 18.

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101 Restad, ‘Old Paradigms Die Hard’, p. 64.

102 Ibid., p. 68.

103 Ibid.

104 Ceaser, ‘The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism’, p. 6.

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106 Ibid., p. 65.

107 With the solidification of class lines, the appearance of monopolistic capitalism, and its turn to imperialism, ‘the United States once again was returning to the mainstream of European institutional development’. Morgenthau, The Purpose of American Politics, p. 113. ‘The onset of world history also works to diminish differences within the industrialized world. It has relativized, if not vanquished, a sense of historical difference across the Atlantic.’ Baldwin, Peter, The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 245 Google Scholar.

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112 Lipset, American Exceptionalism, p. 7.

113 Pease, The New American Exceptionalism, p. 10.

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118 Ronald Reagan, ‘We will be a City upon a Hill’, address to the First Conservative Political Action Conference, 25 January 1974, available at: {} accessed 19 October 2013.

119 An examination of Pius XII's speeches and radio messages between 1944 and 1949 does not reveal that quotation {}. The closest I can find is the ‘Address of His Holiness Pius XII to a Group of American Senators’ on 23 January 1946, which contains the following passage: ‘it is a pleasure to greet and say a word of encouragement to those who today carry a heavy weight of responsibility to a world, encircled by gloom and darkness, that is groping for the first steady rays of peace’. But Pius here was referring, not exclusively to the United States, but generically to ‘the leaders of State and to them whose exalted duty it is to formulate the laws that will govern and guide the peoples of tomorrow’. Far from God having placed human destiny into American hands, what the pontiff actually said was: ‘God is only too ready, eager to give peace and concord to His world; but men must be humble enough to accept it from His hands, approaching Him along the path of Truth and justice and Charity.’

120 Myrdal, An American Dilemma, pp. lxxix, 1xxviii, emphasis in the original.

121 In six of the key monographs mentioned in fn. 58, the phrase ‘city upon a hill’ appears only ten times. Tuveson does not use it at all, while the single usages in Cherry and Bercovitch refer to developments in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, not to Winthrop.

122 Addressing the Massachusetts legislature in 1961, Kennedy proclaimed: ‘Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us – and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill – constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.’

123 Reagan's first usage of the phrase ‘shining city upon a hill’, to my knowledge, came in a speech to his campaign team the day after losing out on the GOP presidential nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976. He used it again when challenging Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1979, and famously referred to America as a ‘shining city’ in his farewell address of 1989. The word ‘shining’ has Gospel connotations (‘the light of the world’) as well as patriotic connotations on account of the line ‘From sea to shining sea!’ in the 1910 song ‘America the Beautiful’ (whose lyrics were first published as poem by Katharine Lee Bates in 1895).

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125 When Reagan first invoked the ‘city upon a hill’ metaphor in 1969, he included Winthrop's cautionary prophecy; but the humbling and self-restraining connotations had gone missing by the time the ‘shining city’ trope was coined in 1976.

126 Reagan, ‘We will be a City upon a Hill’.

127 Ronald Reagan, ‘Second Inaugural Address’, 21 January 1985, available at: {} accessed 19 March 2013.

128 ‘The terms Pilgrims and Pilgrim Fathers, as used in American history, were unknown until the closing years of the eighteenth century [1798 and 1799].’ The ‘true first “Pilgrims” in America’ were not British Puritans at all but French huguenots in 1564; and rather than symbolising irenic origins these first colonizers were massacred by Spaniard Catholics in an act of religious persecution. See Matthews, Albert, ‘The Term Pilgrim Fathers and Early Celebrations of Forefathers’ Day’, Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: John Wilson and Son, 1915), p. 383 Google Scholar; and Davis, Kenneth C., America's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), p. 8 .

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130 Tomes, ‘American Exceptionalism in the Twenty-First Century’, p. 28.

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132 Pease, The New American Exceptionalism, p. 8.

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138 Cited in Bell, Daniel, The Radical Right (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2002), p. 320 Google Scholar.

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143 In 1954, the words ‘under God’ from Lincoln's Gettysburg address were officially incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance to create the new phrase ‘one nation under God’ and the motto ‘In God We Trust’ was made a legal requirement on all currency (the motto had first appeared on coinage under Lincoln and coins had universally borne the motto since 1938). In 1956, ‘In God We Trust’ was formally ratified as the United States’ national motto in place of ‘E pluribus unum’.

144 Morgenthau, The Purpose of American Politics, p. 299.

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