Exceptionalism Is Not Imperialism   4 comments

                I think America was and has the potential to be “exceptional”, but I’m uncomfortable with the sort of exceptionalism that our leaders put forth. That smacks more of imperialism than a recognition of worth and I think America works best when we’re not imperialist, but I admit that we have become imperialist.

                President Obama recently spoke before the UN and said America is exceptional because we “sacrifice blood and treasure to stand up for … the interests of all” (referring to our interference with the internal workings of nations around the globe). Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized that conceit in a New Times op-ed, saying it is “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional”. This odd advocacy for humility prompted Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint to fire back that “all humans are created equal, but not all nations are created equal” and John McCain to argue that “the world is better” for active US leadership. Given that McCain and Obama ran against each other in 2008, I’m going to concentrate more on their statements.

                Is being “exceptional” based on an imperialist stance? I don’t think the latter necessarily flows from the former. Exceptionalism is about recognizing that what we have (or, increasingly, had) is (or was) something great. Imperialism is about imposing that something great on others.

Looking back in American history, it appears our forebears always recognized the unique feature that is America. We started with a bold statement “all men are created equal” by men who considered it perfect acceptable to seize the reins of government away from their “god-ordained” king. The Founding generation had little interest in interfering with other nations. They verbalized support for some revolutions that were moving toward self-governance, but they gave no money or troops to most. We fought the Barbary pirates because they were interfering with American trade, but we didn’t invade their country and try to turn them into an American-type republic. In George Washington’s 1794 farewell address, he wrote:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it … The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.


                Washington advocated restraint because he was devoted to the peace and permanency of the Union, with the goal of preserving domestic peace at all costs. He recognized that the US enjoyed a peculiarly “detached and distance situation” from other nations, a position that “invites and enables us to pursue a different course.”

               The Founding era idea of American exceptionalism was more about what America doesn’t do than what it does. Early American policy at home and abroad was about national self-restrain more than national self-assertion. Our political connections and involvement now extend far beyond European friendships and enmities. Our global interference around the globe is now routine.

               Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner criticized nascent American imperialism in 1899, noting that by claiming it had a unique civilizing mission to perform, America sounded just like every other major power at the end of the 19th century.

“There is not a civilized nation which does not talk about its civilizing mission just as grandly as we do,” he said, referring to the French, Germans, Russians, Ottoman Turks, and Spanish.

               Washington would strongly reject the “exceptionalism” expressed by today’s American politicians. He saw domestic concerns as our most important issues. Our current president, who is quite certain that he himself is exceptional, defines strict national interests as “narrow” and selfish. We must interfere with other countries because we’re better than they are.

                We were better than many other countries, but as we have attempted to force our governing system and culture on “lesser” nations, we have degraded our own exceptionalism. If we were to return to our ideals, we might recapture that unique position once more. If we are to preserve any part of our nation, we would do well to return to those ideas that made us great, return a time when Sumner’s warning made sense.

                America’s governing system worked because it did NOT do things like other nations. We were characterized by what we did NOT do. We let individuals govern themselves. We didn’t have the huge administrative state of France. We had no king like England. We stayed home and paid attention to our domestic concerns and made people from all over the world want to come here to live.

              That is exceptionalism without imperialism. Can we get back to that?

4 responses to “Exceptionalism Is Not Imperialism

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  1. I think both are true. We are exceptional, and we are imperialistic. I agree that being imperialistic is not necessarily a good thing; however, I believe it is impossible not to be. At a time when we attempted to remain out of the affairs of other nations, we were dragged into WWII when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In this day and age, we must be proactive concerning national security, which includes interfering in the affairs of other nations. We are “some what” a policing nation trying to preserve peace and advocate for freedom.


    • I grew up believing that story of how we were “dragged into” WWII by the attack on Pearl Harbor, but I’m less convinced of that every year. There’s a lot of historical evidence suggesting that the Roosevelt Administration was manipulating circumstances to force the Japanese to act.

      I’m not saying our entry into WW2 was a wrong move. Certainly what the Japanese were doing in China and what the Nazis were doing in Europe deserved a response. The Nazis had been attacking our Atlantic merchant ships for nearly a year before Pearl, so it’s clear Hitler wanted a confrontation. I’m just not buying the whole “we were innocent victims” narrative. I think Roosevelt knew that the American people were going to continue to resist entry into “other people’s wars” unless there was a huge tragedy and his administration set up Pearl Harbor to be just that.

      My argument is that the imperialism that we’ve shown since World War 2 is WRONG on every level and we’re not doing ourselves any good by being the world’s police officer. I’ll post more on it. I sort of got sidetracked by dealing with the Fairbanks Four comments today.


  2. American exceptionalism is really just a justification for American imperialism, as you’ve pointed out. It’s not something that necessarily follows believing America to be the greatest country ever, any more than being conventionally attractive means you are destined to become a supermodel. That’s a choice, and being attractive would be a reason why you’d pursue/succeed at that career decision, just as some would argue American being just the bestest is why we should pursue and would succeed at forcibly showing other countries how to be like us, the bestest. But we don’t HAVE to make that decision. We could decide that if we’re so great, we could just keep on being great and, if anything, just lead by example, not by force.

    But in the end American exceptionalism being used as a justification for imperialism is really only a justification to reduce war weariness among the public. Money and power are the only real driving forces for imperialism, while the marketing pitch from the elected elite is why such a thing as “America is the best country ever” needs to be tied to why we ought to murder some brown people in this country over here. For their freedom.


    • Brandon, you really need to study history a bit instead of the metanarratives so beloved by your generation.

      The American people are an exceptional people. Yes, we haven’t been consistent with our principles all the time and we should acknowledge that. But it doesn’t mean we’re not exceptional. Go back and study the things we’ve invented, the medical treatments we’ve devised, the charitable organizations that we created and sent forth to do good. No other country in the last 250 years can point to the same level of achievement. If not for American exceptionalism, you’d be sitting next to a coal fire in the dark reading by candlelight and dying in your 40s of what today is a minor illness.

      And the very things that you denigrate are the sources of that exceptionalism. The democratic republic, the capitalist (more-or-less) free market system that existed until the 30s, the locally based educational systems, the belief that God blesses those who do good — these provided Americans with the liberty to think big, try big, and fail (sometimes) big and learn from it, to later succeed big. Edison didn’t have to apply to the ministry of paperwork for a license to develop the lightbulb; he just played with the concept 140 times until it worked.

      Within what you say, however, there is a kernel of truth. It was never necessary for us to violate our principles to be a great nation and we could go on being a great nation through leading by example rather than force. However, you can’t always count on that. The world being what it has always been, minding your own national business doesn’t always mean the other guys are going to mind theirs.


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