The Scuffle over ‘American Exceptionalism’

Before the American Legion, Hillary Clinton sought to paint herself as the real patriot running for President by invoking “American exceptionalism,” a phrase that has caused much trouble and that Donald Trump disdains, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Hillary Clinton gave a speech this week in which American exceptionalism was a major theme. She obviously chose that theme partly because it would appeal to her specific audience (an American Legion convention) and partly because it would enable her to criticize Donald Trump, who has said he doesn’t like the term “American exceptionalism” because people in other countries don’t like to hear it and feel insulted by it.

Trump is right about that, although in many other respects he shows he doesn’t have qualms about insulting people in other countries, including Mexico, the country he briefly visited on Wednesday and has described as a nation of rapists and drug dealers.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona, March 21, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking with supporters at a campaign rally in Arizona, March 21, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

America is indeed exceptional in some obvious respects, and there is nothing wrong with Americans reminding themselves of that, as long as they do not stick the concept in the face of non-Americans. It is some of the corollaries that tend to flow in an unthinking fashion from the concept of American exceptionalism that have caused problems. Several such tendencies in American exceptionalist thinking have contributed to bad policy.

One particular common corollary of the notion of exceptionalism that Clinton emphasized in her speech was that of indispensability.

“We are the indispensable nation,” she said. “So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead.”

As with exceptionalism itself, it certainly is true that the United States is, or at least has been, indispensable in some respects. An example would be the role of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency and of U.S. government debt as an instrument in international finance.

The problems come from the tendency — which is implicit in much of the wording of Clinton’s speech — to consider the United States and U.S. leadership as indispensable in addressing all significant problems abroad. But not all problems abroad are U.S. problems, not all such problems are solvable, what solutions there are do not all come from the United States, and in some problems U.S. involvement or leadership is instead counterproductive.

A related and common tendency is to invoke the physical metaphor of a vacuum. “When America fails to lead,” said Clinton, “we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void.”

The vacuum metaphor has several problems when applied to foreign policy. It understates or overlooks altogether whatever was present before any outsiders rushed in. It incorrectly assumes a zero-sum or mutual exclusion relationship between the supposedly indispensable superpower and any other players who may be involved.

Clinton talked about values and about how American exceptionalism includes the idea of “America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.”

The overlooked question in this kind of rhetoric concerns the conditions in which other nations are, or are not, receptive to the freedom and opportunity being championed. Herewith is an inherent internal tension in American exceptionalist thinking. The more exceptional are the conditions in which American values arose, the less transferable are those values to others. And that is a problem with the corollaries about indispensability and American leadership in addressing problems hither and yon.

Clinton did invoke Abraham Lincoln’s concept of the last best hope of Earth and Ronald Reagan’s image of a shining city on a hill. The idea of making the American republic the best, and the best example, it can possibly be — so that even a Donald Trump can’t wreck it — is a better way to implement ideas of exceptionalism than to act like an indispensable vacuum-filler.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

24 comments for “The Scuffle over ‘American Exceptionalism’

  1. Jones
    September 7, 2016 at 03:08

    I see no difference between ‘an exceptional nation’ that must rule the world, and ‘a master race’ that must rule the world. A slight difference in choice of words, but the meaning is identical.

    Its the ‘must rule the world’ part that is so very dangerous. And this time, there are nuclear weapons.

  2. James
    September 7, 2016 at 03:05

    People ranging from Ivy League political scientist to former President Jimmy Carter have stated that America is no longer a democracy. The poly sci experts described it as an oligarchy, and noted that ordinary people have absolutely zero impact on decisions.

    The US is now so imperfect a democracy that it is no longer a democracy at all. A democracy is a system where the sovereign power of the nation lies with the people. A nation where the people have no impact at all on decisions made by a government is the opposite of a democracy. And that’s what the US is in the early 21st century.

  3. Bob Salsa
    September 6, 2016 at 06:52

    The US is not perfect; no democracy is. But without it, all of you would be living within a Chinese or Russian type of state mafia or worse, and you certainly would not be posting commentary like this. If you believe otherwise, you ignore most history and current events because you are scatimonios fools that have likely contributed nothing but whining from the sidelines. If you can’t appreciate the US exceptionalism, tough for you, it’s not going away on Putin’so best day.

  4. Brad Benson
    September 6, 2016 at 04:32

    We are a dying Empire, choking on our own arrogance–nothing more, nothing less. We’re not exceptional in any way, shape or form except that we are exceptional at creating death and destruction. The world fears us and is currently working to help the Empire die as quickly as possible without taking the rest of the them with us.

    • Bob Salsa
      September 6, 2016 at 06:56

      You need to look up the definition of empire, and spend a little time studying history’s actual examples.

  5. Bart Gruzalski
    September 5, 2016 at 17:01

    Hillary’s exceptionalism is basic favoritism, survival for the favored, down the tubes with Hillary wanting to be the “best” and more stuff like that. Even Obama has lost his basis. Look at the bottom two pictures on this article: “….Cease-fire at G-20 in Hangzhou, China.” Putin is doing great, even laughing at Obama and Hillary. He tries not to stretch the wimpy ego of the Democrats and his own wife Michele. The biggest flop is Obama looking so incredibly childish, not only toe to toe but when Obama keeps his eye on Obama from across the room.

    The difference between a real leader like Putin and a child like Obama is the difference between a cup of coffee and a strawberry milkshake. Don’t these people get it?

  6. Candace
    September 5, 2016 at 16:07

    Donald ‘Make America Exceptional, I mean – “Great” again. The same guy who said politically correct culture is ruining America, that he shoots from the derogatory hip guy – has a problem with American Exceptionalism because it might make people in Russia or Germany feel bad? Does he know that there are Muslims in Russia and Germany?
    If Trump wins anyone that isnt a white male supporter of his should move to Russia and Germany and we might survive his presidency.

  7. dahoit
    September 5, 2016 at 12:48

    Americans are exceptionally divided,ignorant of reality,propagandized,our military has shown itself as non exceptional,our media the nadir of exceptional,our politicians heretofore the same,our healthcare and education both nadirs of the developed world,our culture down to sex and violence,all from hollywood cruds,baseball now played better by foreigners,our infrastructure collapsing,banksters rampant,with America Football still triumphant!
    Jesus Christ,send US Donald Trump,and we will recover form the neolibcon nation destroyers.

  8. exiled off mainstreet
    September 5, 2016 at 11:22

    Lets not kid ourselves “American Exceptionalism” are codewords for unchallenged yankee power. Historically it is reminiscent of Napoleon and the Nazi regime. In the nuclear age it means the threat of armageddon. The major question posed by this election is who is the bigger threat to set off uncontrollable war, and I think the answer is obviously the fascist harpy who already has the destruction of democracy in Honduras and, more importantly, war crimes and crimes against humanity as demonstrated by her spearheading of the destruction of Libya and her role in the destabilisation of Syria on her plate.

  9. Tristan
    September 4, 2016 at 00:20

    Oh, no, This is it. Sorry.

  10. rosemerry
    September 3, 2016 at 16:42

    As a non-American, I do NOT agree that the USA is exceptional in any way that benefits the rest of us. The US dollar is used to ensure the USA remains in control of so much of world trade. US military might pushes those it regards as “enemies” (not because they have threatened the USA but because they try to exert independence) into a wasteful and dangerous arms race. Why is there need to be a “leader”, and why is the USA so reluctant to use negotiations and try to consider other points of view? Why is support of Israel and the Arab oil monarchs so acceptable by an alleged model democracy? Why is money allowed to control the election process?

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 3, 2016 at 22:03

      Rosemary I am an American, and I have the same questions you do about our country. I am not qualified enough to speak for all Americans, but there are many others who like me are dissatisfied a lot, and I do mean a lot, with how our country handles itself when dealing with this worlds other nations. Hillary and people of her status, don’t need to stand in a TSA line. Hillary will never be harmed by an IED, nor will she need a limb amputated in a field hospital due to an explosive device. Hillary won’t go without a pay check, because the corporation who employed her for so many years up and left for parts unknown, before she could retire with a pension. Hillary Social Security won’t be endangered while Hillary escalates another expensive war. Hillary isn’t Palestintian, let’s just leave it at that. Keep in mind when I use the name Hillary I am also talking about others like Hillary who have sold their soul to America’s corporatocracy on high, and there in lies the bubble they live in. My hope is when the day of reckoning comes, is that the Hillary’s of our nation feel the pain over the many innocents who were lied to, for so many years. America has a lot of work to do before it becomes exceptional and indispensable, let’s just leave at that.

      • Peter Loeb
        September 4, 2016 at 07:57

        TO JOE TEDESKY….

        “….. Hillary won’t go without a pay check….”

        I cannot let that remark go without a very personal story:

        In my family my Dad was the politician
        (national campaign mgr. etc). My Mom went to concerts and
        played amateur violin. When a candidate lost—which they
        all did–Mom would murmur: “Politicians never starve.”

        They don’t.

        When Jill Stein who I will vote for loses, I don’t imagine her

        —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

        • Joe Tedesky
          September 4, 2016 at 13:17

          Peter, once being a drummer in a rock band I find it flattering to be in the same company as your concert violinist Mom, wow, thanks…JT

      • Joe Wallace
        September 6, 2016 at 23:52

        Rosemerry and Joe Tedesky:

        It’s been said that a person cannot lay claim to being a writer until someone “calls” that person a writer. Along these lines, while it’s common for Americans to proclaim that the United States is indispensable and exceptionalist, and that the rest of the world clamors for our leadership, how often do other nationalities make that claim about the U.S.?

    • Realist
      September 4, 2016 at 03:47

      When I hear, “We are the indispensable nation. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead,” I know she means, we are better than you and therefore entitled to rule you, no matter what country you are from. The arrogance rankles even many Americans such as myself. Unfortunately, far too many buy into the notion that they are superior to all else simply by birthright and that the world must take orders from us or feel our righteous wrath. Apparently, our prerogatives should extend even when we don’t understand a thing about the next country we wish to dominate. Some say we wanted only chaos in all the countries we recently invaded and thereby succeeded in our goals, I say we wanted control, we wanted compliant vassals, and totally mucked up because we didn’t understand the people, their beliefs and their will to stand up to us.

      • Joe Tedesky
        September 4, 2016 at 13:18

        Hillary is not exceptional nor indispensable, there are plenty of corrupted politicians to go around.

  11. Tannenhouser
    September 3, 2016 at 14:06

    Trump never characterized Mexico as outlined in second paragraph. He characterized the Mexicans in the country illegally as such. Either characterization is dubious as best. The paragraph only serves to insult readers interested in fair an relatively unbiased representation of reality. America has only ever been exceptional at war. This is an observable and demonstrable fact, not an opinion. Period.

  12. Sally Snyder
    September 3, 2016 at 13:28

    As shown in this article, the Clinton family has a long history with war:

    It is only voters who can determine who is telling the truth and who is using propaganda to vilify a perceived threat.

    • exiled off mainstreet
      September 5, 2016 at 11:29

      Thank you for your link which again documents the fact that Slobodan Milosevic was eventually cleared of war crimes charges. Actually, the destruction of Yugoslavia now serves as the real war crimes precedent where the post-cold war US regime felt it no longer had to adhere to international law itself. Others have mentioned that the corrupt Kosovar regime, placed in power so the yankee military could build a major airbase to facilitate the destruction of middle east countries it found inconvenient for whatever reason, became a beacon of corruption led by thugs whose rackets included harvesting the internal organs for sale of those they found inconvenient.

  13. September 3, 2016 at 13:17

    The problem with American “exceptionalism” is its uncritical and unquestioning acceptance by the majority of Americans who then believe that that every time we go to war and kill 10’s or 100’s of thousands of people we are doing it to “save” them (much as when Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno justified the FBI and US Army attack which killed almost all the men, women, and children inside the David Koresh compound by saying it was intended to “save the children)”. In the case of foreign wars, the root cause is either oil or commerce; in the case of the domestic attack on the Branch Davidians (much like the police attack on MOVE in Philadelphia) the purpose is the suppression of dissent. My preferred term is American “exceptionableism”.

  14. Zachary Smith
    September 3, 2016 at 11:04

    The vacuum metaphor has several problems when applied to foreign policy. It understates or overlooks altogether whatever was present before any outsiders rushed in. It incorrectly assumes a zero-sum or mutual exclusion relationship between the supposedly indispensable superpower and any other players who may be involved.

    Amen to that. What Exceptional America is doing is mucking up societies for the benefit of itself, Israel, and certain Big Corporations. Then it offers its services to fix things up in ways better liked by itself, Israel, and certain Big Corporations.

    Reminds me of an old joke about how Lawyers (in their Legislative Hats) pass complex laws written in legal gibberish which they or their buddies (in their Lawyer Office Hats) charge huge sums to decipher for the citizen chumps. One side in both scenarios gets the gold mine, and the other gets the shaft.

    Hillary is a horrible person, yet she is almost certain to become President. Not a happy situation at all.

    • Gregory Herr
      September 3, 2016 at 12:50

      Yes, the “vacuum metaphor” observation is excellent. Mr. Pillar’s worthy article could have been strengthened, in my view, by pointing to the hollowness of Clinton’s description of American values as “a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.” The final sentence of the article should have Clinton’s name inserted along side Trump’s.

  15. Erik
    September 3, 2016 at 10:54

    Very sensible observations, to which I would add that solutions of international problems do not often involve military intervention. Unless a stable democracy has been invaded or overthrown, there are few success stories to support political development by invasion. Even colonialism was far more successful there.

    Nearly every problem in foreign nations is best addressed with foreign aid, incentives to political progress, education, and time. The exceptionalism of America lies in its original concept of democracy without aristocracy, its economic strength and stability due to size and isolation (not due to virtue), and its relative conomic strength after WWII. All of these have been discarded by the military interventionists.

    If the US had spent its pointless military expenditures since WWII on humanitarian assistance, it would have lifted half the world from poverty. If it had thereby built the roads, schools, and hospitals of the developing world, it would have no organized enemies, and would have truly achieved an American century. These would have directed the resources wasted in military technology toward greater domestic development, more useful technology, and economic strength.

    For the US to recover its exceptionalism, it must halt militarism and fearmongering demogoguery. It must make many reforms of federal law to stabilize the economy, ensure consumer protection, and so forth. It must make constitutional amendments to restrict funding of mass media and elections to limited registered individual contributions, and to improve checks and balances, but without those tools of democracy we cannot get those protections.

    It is failure to regulate economic power that cost the United States its exceptionality. That appears to be an incurable disease.

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