American Exceptionalism

American politicians are often asked if they “believe” in American Exceptionalism. There is nothing to believe in. According to Kissinger (1994) American Exceptionalism is a fact of America’s exceptional history: America grew up protected from great power politics by two oceans. As a result, Americans distrust the “balance of power” politics practiced in Europe since the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and in the rest of the world since the rise of civilization. Instead, Americans think that nations should behave toward one another according to some lawful order, and ever since President Woodrow Wilson pushed for the League of Nations at the end of WW I we have been trying to establish one. The failure to establish a stable balance of power against an emerging Germany is one of the many causes of WW II, but what is remarkable about America’s Wilsonian idealism is the extent to which it has succeeded. The United Nations is accepted by almost all nations as a viable alternative to war for power accumulation.

The other major aspect of American Exceptionalism is that Americans believe in the balance of power applied internally to the American government by design, in order to impede the concentration of state power. As Friedberg (2000) puts it, America is the world’s only anti-state state. The strong current of anti-statism in American politics led to the establishment of a public-private partnership, the Military-Industrial Complex instead of a takeover of the economy by the state after WW II. As a result, the US was able to contain Soviet expansionism on the cheap. The US spent roughly 4% of GDP on its military against the USSR’s 17%. The next US experiment in public-private partnership is the emerging “Medical-Industrial Complex,” i.e., Obamacare. Like the New Deal before it, the most excessive aspects of it will be rolled back, but it will not be rolled back entirely.

What is no longer exceptional about America is its being a liberal democratic republic. Democracy is now so widely esteemed that its name is worn most prominently by its enemies, e.g., the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea. And America itself has been getting less liberal (limited government, respect for individual rights and liberties) and more populist (popular sentiment trumps established law and liberties). For a democracy to be liberal it must comprise the right balance of institutions that restrain as well as respond to public opinion.

Nor does American Exceptionalism derive primarily from America’s power in the world. America started out as a minor power and its “unipolar moment” is passing. America will have to build and rely on partnerships, like Gandalf in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. That is the consensus of the authors represented in Leffler and Legro (2008) and in the Obama Administration’s National Security Strategy (2010).

In summary, Americans seek to establish a balance of power internal to the state to create a space for individual liberties, and a lawful order among states as an alternative to interstate coercion and war. That is what makes us exceptional. And despite our many missteps, on balance a force for good in this world.


Friedberg, Aaron L.  2000.  In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America’s Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kissinger, Henry.  1994.  Diplomacy.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

Leffler, Melvyn P. and Jeffrey W. Legro. Editors.  2008.  ­To Lead the World: American Strategy after the Bush Doctrine.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Obama Administration National Security Strategy (May 2010) at []


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