Tuesday, May 22, 2012

American exceptionalism

rogereolson says:
May 22, 2012 at 12:18 pm
Ah, but you forget…American Exceptionalism. We are not bound to the ethical codes that bind all other societies and countries because we’re special.

I wonder if Olson is really that ignorant. To my knowledge, American exceptionalism involves the following theses:

i) There are certain universal human rights. A transnational ethical code.

ii) At this time in history, America occupies a privileged position. We enjoy unique influence and power to shape world events–for the better.

iii) With privilege comes responsibility. That has foreign policy implications. Rather than exploiting our hyperpower position for our national aggrandizement, America has a moral obligation to extend universal human rights to oppressed peoples around the globe, so that they can share the benefits which we enjoy.

Here’s a more detailed exposition:

This is not a matter of defending American exceptionalism, but defining American exceptionalism. To my knowledge, Olson’s definition is a complete travesty of what the phrase actually means. American exceptionalism is idealistic, not cynical. (Indeed, it might be idealistic to a fault.)

We can debate the pros and cons of American exceptionalism. But we need to begin with an accurate and honest definition of the concept.


  1. Olson's Arminian ethos pervades all his thought. It's not "fair" that America is exceptional, every nation should have an equal chance, America should divest itself of power so that the playing field is level, everyone is special, so that no one is special.

  2. Well, as a non-American who tends towards neoconservative, let me offer a different perspective.

    Around 1999 I recall reading a speech by Jesse Helms. He argued that America could be trusted, pretty much by definition, to act fairly and rightly in international affairs. His reasoning for this, IIRC, boiled down to basically "Well, the only other choices on offer are Russia and China, and since we're not dictatorships like them, ergo we're infallible."

    What didn't help the Senator's argument was going on to reject any sort of accountability to, let alone supervision by, the community of nations because American officials are meant to promote America's interests in their foreign policy. Not those of other nations.

    So there we have the problem with "US exceptionalism" as actually practised. A combination of "We will not be judged by the likes of Libya and Upper Volta because we have been a constitutional republic continuously for 220+ years and because we have always been, and will always be, on the right side" together with "We will not be judged by the likes of Libya and Upper Volta because American officials are responsible to American voters only." Taken together, that's an unstable combination.

    Now, as I said, I'm sympathetic to neoconservatism and I've found it generally a useful rule of thumb that, historically speaking, whichever side is at present violently opposing the Great Satan in Washington DC turns out to be the bad guys. (Confederacy, Kaiser, Nazis, Soviets, now al-Qaeda, Iran and Chavez). But this is not a guarantee that the US government is preserved free from all moral defect in future.

    1. 1. Of course, Steve said in his post he isn't defending American exceptionalism. Just defining it.

      2. I don't know how representative Jesse Helms' speech in 1999 is of American exceptionalism?

  3. (1) Okay, but my problem with defining it is that this tends inevitably to shade into either defending the concept or attacking it. I suspect it's because it's used, at different times (sometimes by the same speaker) to denote two conflicting ideas that can collide head on. The first - "We are a city on a hill, the last best hope for all humankind, the thrower-down of tyrants, because we are a constitutional republic of limited government" - doesn't always sit easily with "Because we are a constitutional republic of limited government, our officials can usually be trusted to act in the interests of their constituents, unlike less favoured countries - not only Third World dictatorships, but also European nations, whose interested have been sold out by transnationalist elites".

    (2) Helms's speech (I think this http://archive.newsmax.com/articles/?a=2000/1/28/211810 is the one I recall) was pretty representative. Mark Steyn and Jonah Goldberg, for example, seem to come down about 50% of the time to supporting the removal of Saddam as a selfless sacrifice of US blood and treasure to help bring democracy to the Iraqis (and thus mocking the "It's all about oil" cynics on Left and Right as paranoid conspiracy theorists) and the other 50% to debunking the idea of using the USAF for "nation-building social work" as per Clinton-era interventions in Haiti and Kosovo.