Home > Applying Political Science, Foreign Policy, International Relations, Political Science > Republican Exceptionalism? Or What Happened to the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment?

Republican Exceptionalism? Or What Happened to the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment?

Seal of the United States Department of State.

Seal of the United States Department of State. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welcome back! This is the first in our annual series of “Applying Political Science” posts. In a series of weekly posts, University of the Pacific Political Scientists will demonstrate how the tools of political science–concepts, analytical approaches, theories, etc.) can help us explain and understand current affairs. It being campaign season, you can expect a number of posts regarding the 2012 elections. You will also see discussions of a wide range of non-election matters.

My primary interest in political science is International Relations and, specifically, foreign policy. In not particular order, here are a few observations about a particularly interesting aspect of the current presidential campaign.

American Exeptionalism. More years ago than I care to remember I published a book called Consensus and the American Mission. It was an effort to see how various strains of American Exceptionalism had affected U.S. foreign policy during different periods of the Cold War. Back then the phrase “American Exceptionalism” was not used very much in academic discussions and not at all in public rhetoric. But these days, it seems that everybody is an American Exceptionalist. Madeline Albright, a Clinton secretary of state, and President Obama have both called the US the “indispensable nation.”

The Republicans, though, seem to have decided that American Exceptionalism is their foreign policy brand. In a recent interview, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered that Governor Romney’s foreign policy advantage over President Obama is that Romney “would understand American Exceptionalism.” In fact, the platform adopted by the Republican National Convention last week simply calls its section of foreign and national security policy “American Exceptionalism.”

We are the party of peace through strength. Professing American exceptionalism – the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history – we proudly associate ourselves with those Americans of all political stripes who, more than three decades ago in a world as dangerous as today’s, came together to advance the cause of freedom. Repudiating the folly of an amateur foreign policy and defying a worldwide Marxist advance, they announced their strategy in the timeless slogan we repeat today: peace through strength – an enduring peace based on freedom and the will to defend it, and American democratic values and the will to promote them. While the twentieth century was undeniably an American century – with strong leadership, adherence to the principles of freedom and democracy our Founders’ enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and a continued reliance on Divine Providence – the twenty-first century will be one of American greatness as well.

It is never a good thing-on any position of the political spectrum–to allow a slogan to substitute for careful thought. So, here are a few things to think about regarding American Exceptionalism and US foreign policy.

The major analytical approaches in International Relations generally don’t have much use for exceptionalist ideas. Realists like Stephen M. Walt tend to regard American Exceptionalism as a myth and a dangerous, self-deluding one at that. For realists, all states use power to pursue their interests in a competitive world. An ideology like American Exceptionalism–the belief that the US is a uniquely virtuous country with a special mission in the world–is likely to lead to imprudent and probably dangerous behavior in the world. Liberals conclude that it may be necessary for “an indispensable nation” to step up in order to provide critical international public goods. On the other hand, no nation is likely to be THE indispensable nation forever or in every situation. Exceptionalist rhetoric may coincidentally lead the US to step us in crucial situations, but it could also ironically lead the US away from providing the “best shot” to providing international public goods. Indeed, there is a whiff of desperation in the insistence on American Exceptionalism. Assuming that the US cannot maintain its recent hegemonic position in world affairs, crowing about our exceptionalism seems more like denial, and an unfortunate putting off of thinking seriously about US strategy in world where US power is not supreme. 

In addition, like many slogans “American Exceptionalism” conceals a vital debate about what, if anything, is exceptional about the US. Is it the political economy of relatively unregulated capitalism? Is it a stride toward freedom in the working out of democratic political institutions? Is it the rule of law and the realization of equal rights under law? Is it an apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil? Is it the preservation of the essence of Western Civilization? All of these have their roots in the US experience and US culture. But there are obvious tensions among these versions of American exceptionalism. To allow “American Exceptionalism” to be treated as a simple slogan would be to risk instituting the version favored by whoever can shout loudest. That would shut down necessary critical voices.

As is so often true, clear thinking is not the result of simplistic slogans.

For more on the death of the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment, check this space later in the semester.

  1. Hilary Kane
    September 3, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    I agree that it’s never a good idea for a slogan to be a substitute for a careful thought such as the Republican National Convention calling its foreign and national security policy “American Exceptionalism.”

  2. Lexa Buerer
    September 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    I believe that the Republican Party is bringing up the idea of American Exceptionalism at this time solely to get votes in November. I mean who wouldn’t want to vote for a party that still believes America is the greatest even though, realistically that is not the case.

  3. john yonke
    September 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    “An ideology like American Exceptionalism–the belief that the US is a uniquely virtuous country with a special mission in the world–is likely to lead to imprudent and probably dangerous behavior in the world.”

    Likely to or certain to?

  4. Jordyn Doyle
    September 5, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    I think the U.S. is quite exceptional; in some areas more than others. We’re what Professor O’Neill calls the “International police.” We try our best to make sure any threats to us or anyone else in the world is put out of power. We speak for the little countries. Sometimes we just impose our power for what we think is the greater good. We may not have the best economical standing right now considering our debt, but the U.S. is exceptional. That doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with “American Exceptionalism” and using it to name our foreign policy. I think it leaves it quite vague, and being vague leaves a lot of room for loop holes in our system. But that’s just my two cents.

  5. Melissa Blakemore
    September 5, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    I do not think we should be using the slogan “American Exectionalism” to describe our foregin policy.

    • Melissa Blakemore
      September 5, 2012 at 6:33 pm


    • bklunk
      September 6, 2012 at 2:59 pm

      Why not?

  6. Andrew Merenda
    September 6, 2012 at 8:52 am

    I believe that “American Exceptionalism”, when used in the right context, conveys the attitude that America is a unique country, with equally unique people, of certain qualities that separate it from the rest of the world. Therefore, making it exceptional. That is what is expressed in the excerpt from the Republicans new foreign policy. However, I do not believe that it can or should be used in the sense of promoting to impose the doctrine that the United States should be policing the world. However, as the super power of the world with massive influence, it seems that America has been doing just that: acting as the World Police. But the issue here has to do with ambiguity surrounding the phrase “American Exceptionalism”. As Dr. Klunk states, “It is never a good thing-on any position of the political spectrum–to allow a slogan to substitute for careful thought.” I believe he is absolutely correct. Both parties have been guilty of using such euphemisms in substitute for what they really mean when they state such ambiguous phrases. But, what the phrase “American Exceptionalism” means to a political scientist will be completely different than what it means to the average person. The phrase is highly subjective. In fact, the use of the phrase originates from American Communist Party’s Jay Lovestone, who used it to convey America’s economic and social uniqueness to Soviet leader Joesph Stalin. However, the concept of American Exceptionalism can be traced to French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who believed early America was exceptional as described in his 1831 work, _Democracy in America_. It is all a matter of perception. While Dr. Klunk perceives American Exceptionalism one way, for the Republicans it rallies support with aspirations of making this century like the American 20th century and maintaining Reagan’s “Peace through Strength” approach to foreign policy… that in it’s self is truly exceptional.

  7. Monique
    September 6, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    I believe that America is very diverse in the way that we do have our exceptional parts as well as parts that need greater attention. Although this is the case to generalize our foreign and national security policy as “American Exceptionalism” brings up greater issues due to the fact the term is so general. Parties are using this term to their advantage because they can say what they mean without truly saying what they mean. This is because the this slogan be perceived in many ways as well as used in many ways. This situation is never good to have in anything political.

  8. Donna Lara
    September 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Its agreeable with the author of this article on their view points in regards to using slogans to replace an issue at hand.

  9. bklunk
    September 10, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Reblogged this on Another Foreign Policy Blog and commented:

    Something I posted on the department blog last week.

  10. Chris Runnels
    September 13, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Great. No wonder most other countries don’t like us, we come off as almost narcissistic. Having a foreign policy that basically says that we are the best country is not a very good foreign policy. I definitely agree that having this belief is likely to pull us into another war half-way across the world just because we think it is our sacred duty as protector of the universe, and that is not what we need as a country. These guys are making Republicans look bad.

  11. sherie salomonsson
    September 20, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    I agree with the previous posts! Americans come off narcissistic because of things like this when we say “American Exceptionalism.” I do think that when we use it in certain contexts we are just portraying that the US does hold some qualities that differ us from the rest of the world but in relation to foreign policy, we just sound vain.

  12. L.Hira
    October 3, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    I also agree with the posts above mine. Why do we even use a slogan like “American Exceptionalism” it makes Americans sound like we are better than other countries. I agree with the writers view that Americans use slogans and expressions to make up for all the real issues that need to be addressed more aggressively. .

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