It’s Time to Start Talking About American Exceptionalism Again


Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in our special series, “The American Exception,” which was kicked off by David McCormick last month. If you’re interested in contributing to this series, please submit a pitch (two to three sentences) via email to


Traveling around the world over the years, I saw evidence of American exceptionalism many times and in distant locales. On the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, I saw Americans risk their lives not only to destroy our enemies but to leave behind something decent and lasting. In Eastern Europe, I met former dissidents turned political leaders who never forgot America’s embrace. In Vietnam, I witnessed how the fiercest of enemies could set a new course in peace and friendship.

Honestly, though, I never expected to discover an example of America’s exceptional nature in Bhutan.

Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom nestled high in the Himalayas, made the transition to constitutional democracy in 2008, a few months before I visited with a Senate delegation. Fresh off their first-ever general election, Bhutanese leaders spoke earnestly about their democratic future. They also noted their connections to the United States. The new prime minister was a Penn State grad while the parliamentary opposition leader went to Pitt. Both were diehard NFL fans who stayed up late to watch the games — one is partial to the Eagles while the other favors the Steelers. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk spoke of his time studying in Massachusetts and his love of basketball. As our meeting broke up, His Majesty suggested I check out his page on Facebook.

But it was the brand-new Bhutanese constitution that struck me most. In converting their absolute monarchy into a representative democracy, its drafters had canvassed the world’s charters, drawing together strands from many and combining them with their own national traditions and values. Still, there were a few unmistakable fingerprints. “We the people,” the constitution begins, pledge to “secure the blessings of liberty, to ensure justice and tranquility and to enhance the unity, happiness and well-being of the people for all time.”

One might detect in such abstract notions something deeply American. That’s not because liberty and justice are uniquely American, or because the United States invented those ideals. No, these ideals helped give birth to America. But the United States has been the world’s indispensable promoter of them. Founded not on the basis of a particular ethnicity, religion, or tribe, the United States is more than a country. It is also the embodiment of an idea — that all people, everywhere, possess certain unalienable rights. And today, at a moment in history when debate over the country’s proper role is deep and divisive, we would do well to renew those qualities that make America exceptional.

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American exceptionalism is based on the embrace of individual liberty and political, economic, and social freedom. It maintains that these virtues are not the exclusive province of Americans but rather the birthright of all mankind. And at its core, the notion of exceptionalism holds that the United States, in light of its history and power, should play a leading role in helping to secure these rights in lands where they are denied.

For many years of American history, these ideals were honored only in the breach. At the outset, it seems, all were created equal so long as they were white, propertied men. A glance at the slave cabins in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello reveals the yawning gap between America’s founding ideals and its prevailing practice, even for the Declaration’s drafter. The truth that all have a right to liberty may have been self-evident, but it was not self-executing. In many ways, the effort to close the gap between ideals and reality has been the great project of America. There is ever progress but ever further to go.

A renewed focus on American exceptionalism might seem anachronistically idealistic today, when the world is in significant turmoil and our domestic politics dangerously fractured. At home, America is beset by gridlock, bitter partisanship, intra-party civil wars, and a presidential campaign that is setting new lows for decorum. Yet it is precisely this environment in which our leaders should focus on renewing the exceptional qualities of American life.

Revitalizing American exceptionalism begins with the unique role the United States plays in shaping and upholding international order. Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has led allies and partners in maintaining a global order aimed at reducing the prospects of great power war, opening markets to trade and investment, maintaining monetary stability, and creating institutions and norms to manage interstate relations.

Underwritten by American military, economic, and soft power, this order — for all the deviations from it — has served U.S. interests remarkably well. It has also served the interests of most of the world. In part because of the economic and political stability this order helped engender, the past seven decades have seen a dramatic economic expansion, the longest period of great power peace in modern times, and an expansion of democracy in areas where it had never previously taken root.

Sustaining this order has required American power, expressed through global leadership that is widely perceived as legitimate. The United States has not acted alone, but no other nation could have led the effort. No other country can do so now. The American role is truly exceptional.

Long before the nation’s founding, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop implored Americans to consider that they “shall be as a city upon a hill,” with the eyes of the world upon them. A sense of responsibility flows from America’s combination of liberty and strength. As the richest and most powerful nation on earth, the United States pursues an enlightened self-interest, one that encourages the full flowering of humanity.

What, then, does it take for America to revitalize its exceptionalism?

It requires first the renewal of American power. The combination of economic strength and military might, together with the appeal of our institutions and ideals, will determine the degree to which the United States remains the world’s central player. America needs enough power to shape international order, bring coercive power to bear on transgressors, defend its national interests and values, and serve as an attractive security and economic partner for developed and developing countries alike. The debate about how best to do this — what mix of policy and investments will best renew American power — should animate our political discussions today.

It takes American leadership. No other country today can lead an international order reflective of the values we hold dear, and none will be able to so for decades to come. Too often the desire to see others act where we wish not to remains just that: an aspiration. Complaints about free riders and insistence that others do more, pay more, and ask less do not change the underlying reality. The United States need not act alone, but it does need to act.

Finally, it requires American legitimacy, and demonstrating that the United States acts with a greater good in mind. Doing so not only accords with what makes America exceptional, it is also good statecraft. Promoting human rights and democracy abroad — not the revolutionary imposition of American ideals, but the evolutionary support of universal values — demonstrates that behind American action is not the half-hidden hand of imperialism, but rather leadership on behalf of the intrinsic rights of all humanity.

Only the combination of these three qualities — power, leadership, and legitimacy — can build the world we seek. In employing them wisely, our leaders can bolster the security and prosperity upon which American life depends, and permit the flowering of those values toward which American life is directed.

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More than a decade ago, I worked for Sen. John McCain when he led the fight on Capitol Hill to ban the practice of torture. He and others offered numerous arguments against it — it produced bad intelligence, it undermined our strategic narrative, it was unnecessary, it was morally wrong. While all were accurate, there was one argument that was more compelling than all the others. Fidelity to our deepest values, Sen. McCain said, is not about the terrorists. It is about us. To violate those ideals is not just bad policy. It is un-American.

The contrary is also true. Embracing our founding ideals is the surest path to national greatness. This means growing and deepening our unique democracy. It means engaging with the world, and seeking to align the nation’s values and interests. And it means refusing to rest content; the American project remains forever unfinished.

In this most political of years, the direction of that project remains uncertain. Yet there is strong reason for optimism.

My hopes are based on America’s extraordinary capacity for self-renewal. In looking at troubles at home and abroad, Americans quite naturally ask why. But to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, by way of RFK, they also dream of the world’s many possibilities and ask why not. That searching, ambitious, and idealistic mindset changed a continent and a world. It is deeply American. It might even be called exceptional.


Richard Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: Paul Goyette