Exceptionalism or Expansionism? The American Dream Abroad


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 read our submissions guidance

The United States of America is exceptional because it has done exceptional things, not because of boasts.  Historically, exceptionalism — a belief that because of what America represents, its actions are just and benign — offered good intentions i.e. by supporting the spread of democracy and human rights.  America’s brand of exceptionalism has, however, also led the United States into tragedies from Vietnam to Iraq.  What lessons might be learned?

America’s founders had every reason to celebrate the American experience, offering a sense of “newness” and separation from the “old world” of despotic tyrants in Europe. Commenting on the French Revolution, Jefferson wrote:

This ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll around the globe, at least the enlightened part of it, for light and liberty go together.

Still Jefferson also believed that America’s influence was to be achieved by example, not entanglements.  America’s more recent leaders have regularly appealed to this sense of uniqueness in the world, but now insist that vision shape foreign policy priorities. John F. Kennedy, for example, called on Americans to

let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Yet, just years later, America found itself trapped in Vietnam.  Campaigning for president in 2000, George W. Bush said:

For all its flaws, I believe our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division.  These are American convictions.  Defending them is America’s calling.

That calling, however, blinded America to the obvious dangers of invading Iraq, leading to exaggerated expectations that America would be welcomed as a liberator and contributed to dangerously inadequate and assumption-driven military planning.

Exceptionalism was a central issue in the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney who said, “Our president does not have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.”  The insinuation was as clear as it was ridiculous — Obama did not love his country in the same way.  This claim was made despite the fact that Obama epitomized the American dream — a child of an immigrant father, raised by a single mother, close to his Kansas grandparents in America’s heartland, worked his way into college, showed the value of talent and hard work rising to the Harvard Law Review, the Illinois Senate, the U.S. Senate and then elected the first African-American president in U.S. history.  Regardless of what one thinks about Obama’s policies, his personal story is an exceptional example of what makes the American spirit so strong.

It is, as then-Sen. John Kerry said at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, what America does that makes it exceptional, not what it proclaims:

Our opponents like to talk about American exceptionalism, but all they do is talk.  They forget that we’re exceptional, not because we say we are, but because we do exceptional things.  We break out of the Great Depression, win two World Wars, save lives fighting AIDS, pull people out of poverty, defend freedom, go to the moon and produce exceptional people who even give their lives for civil rights and human rights … an exceptional country does care about the rise of the oceans and the future of the planet … that is a responsibility from the Scriptures.

It was, nevertheless, a loose consensus of liberal interventionist Democrats and neoconservative Republicans that dominated foreign policy priorities for two decades.  Absent external balancing forces or internal constraints, America — backed by the “do something” chorus of exceptionalist claims — drove right into a ditch with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  This was especially problematic because the difficulties of military interventionism in the service of exceptionalism had been made clear, yet lessons were repeatedly ignored. The United States failed badly in its intervention in Somalia, dithered for several years over Bosnia-Herzegovina, struggled to win a war against Yugoslavia over Kosovo, and did nothing while over 800,000 people were killed in a genocide in Rwanda.  The United States military surged into Afghanistan in 2009 based on flawed assumptions and joined a catastrophic war in Libya in 2011.  Now, many of the same advocates of those escalations suggest the United States should enforce no-fly-zones in Syria and send lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine — dangerously assuming that the potential to shoot down Russian airplanes or to send lethal American weapons hundreds of miles from Moscow would not result in potential problems.

As an example of exceptionalist aspirations running ahead of reality, Americans need not look much further than the current decline in relations with Russia.  During the Clinton and Bush administrations, the nation paid scant attention to new security guarantees its leaders were offering via NATO enlargement.  The policy was sold as a peace and democracy-building exercise with little associated dangers or costs.  Now, Americans have to wonder whether or how their country would defend the Baltic countries against a Russian attack.  In 1996, the Clinton administration declared:

[I]t is in our interest to do all that we can to enlarge the community of free and open societies, especially in areas of greatest strategic interest, as in Central and Eastern Europe and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union.

This was an unprecedented change in the geographical understanding of American security priorities.  This view led to the expansion of the American-led military commitments into the backyard of an increasingly nationalistic, paranoid, and nuclear-armed Russia.

Russia’s opposition to NATO’s early enlargement was unfounded as the first and second rounds produced diplomatic and economic gains for Moscow.  But, this liberal order-building exercise derived from a desire to expand America’s sense of values in Europe ran into reality when the Bush administration rallied NATO to declare in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia would one day be members.  While the statement was approved by NATO, the United States and its allies had no intention of delivering on it via Ukraine actually joining the Alliance.  Of course Ukraine decides its own sovereign foreign policy direction and if it wishes to seek NATO membership and to align with western values, it should.  Nevertheless, one might now reasonably ask, is it moral (or “exceptional”) to lead the people of Ukraine into a false sense of hope that the United States will solve its problems if it is really not serious about NATO membership?  Ukraine needs energy diversification, a massive uprooting of corruption, massive economic reforms, and a rebuilding of its intelligence and armed forces likely from scratch.  These initiatives will likely cost many tens of billions of dollars in guaranteed loans.  Words of support often run deep, but when asked to write the check, few advocates are to be found in Washington, D.C.

Both liberal interventionists and neoconservatives also used claims of exceptionalism to advance military intervention over the last two decades while those who questioned this dominant worldview were quickly dismissed.  In 1993, when Colin Powell raised operational concerns about potential American intervention in the Balkans, he was chastised by then U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright who said:  “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Justifying her worldview, Albright later declared:  “If we have to use force, it is because we are America.  We are the indispensable nation.  We stand tall.  We see further into the future.”  Critics questioning this vision, for example over NATO enlargement were eventually labeled by Albright as reflecting “echoes of Munich” while becoming a “litmus test” for whether America would “remain internationalist … or retreat into isolationism.”

These opponents included some of America’s greatest strategic thinkers – from George F. Kennan to Sen. Sam Nunn to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  In his memoirs Robert Gates wrote:

NATO expansion was a political act, not a carefully considered military commitment, thus undermining the purpose of the alliance and recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests.

Ironically today it is hard to find public NATO declarations of concern about the violations of democracy and freedom growing in two of its newest members (Poland and Hungary) even as the alliance gathers for a summit this coming July in Warsaw.  One might reasonably ask: Is it exceptional to launch a plan to spread democracy in Europe via NATO, and then look away when new members appear to turn against Western values?

America has done great things — exceptional things — from liberating Europe in World War II, to the Marshall Plan, to building the kind of innovative economy its talented people create at home and launching to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.  America ultimately leads best when it leads by example.  However, a nation which fails to resolve issues of racism and disparity as in Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore, Maryland does not act in an exceptional way.  A nation that pays women less than men for equivalent work is not acting in an exceptional way. A nation that is the wealthiest in the world but which leaves many of its citizens without basic health care is not acting in an exceptional way.  A nation that saddles its young people with massive debt simply for their effort to gain human capital for competitiveness in the 21st century via a university education is not acting in an exceptional way.  A nation with many elected leaders who deny the reality, let alone the urgency, of climate change is not acting in an exceptional way.  A nation that accepts torture is not acting in an exceptional way.  A nation that continually sends its military into ill-advised and poorly planned wars is not acting in an exceptional way.  A nation that does not stand up to support its veterans whose unemployment and serious health challenges continue to run high, is not doing an exceptional thing.  A nation that talks of building walls, rejecting refugees fleeing terror, and refusing entry to people based on their religion, is not doing exceptional things.

As America heads into its fall election, perhaps one of the most important questions confronting the candidates is not whether they will make America great again — it is great and always has been.  The question is whether or not they truly understand the responsibilities that come with leadership and whether they will indeed return to the great tradition of American exceptionalism via actions, not platitudes.  Candidates from both parties would thus be well to heed the calling of one of America’s truly exceptional leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in declaring his opposition to the war in Vietnam said:

I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America.  I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world.  I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America.  And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love.

Ultimately, what makes America exceptional is our ability to see ourselves as a work in progress – it is the ability to challenge ourselves and to demonstrate our commitment to advancing key principles of freedom, equality, human rights and peace that not only makes America great at home, but also allows it to lead the world by example.


Sean Kay is Robson Professor of Politics and Government at Ohio Wesleyan University and also is Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University.  His most recent book is America’s Search for Security:  The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism.