Immigrants and American Exceptionalism


Prominent Harvard professors may call American exceptionalism a “myth,” and President Obama himself may believe that Washington’s traditional understanding of its unique role in world affairs is not that different from the way other countries perceive their own “exceptionalism.” However, such arguments ring hollow for immigrants like myself who chose to become Americans partly because of a great admiration for America’s special global leadership role as the greatest defender of freedom and civilization the world has ever known.

In fact, an unappreciated part of American exceptionalism is the way in which the U.S. foreign policy community welcomes foreign-born citizens to its highest levels, particularly since the end of World War II.  In turn, some of the successes of America’s grand strategic role as the main defender of the post-World War II liberal world order are due in part to the contributions of immigrants. Often but not always political refugees, and therefore painfully aware of the evils of dictatorships and of the internal and external aggressive behavior of such states, these foreign-born Americans rarely doubted that the United States, by virtue of both its military power and its moral and political values, needs to play a unique role in defending international peace and security.

Early in the Cold War, Hungarian-born scientists and strong anti-communist activists Edward Teller and John von Neumann played leading roles in the development of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb. In later years, von Neumann developed the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) while Teller was a key proponent of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative that contributed to the end of the Cold War. In the realm of the social sciences, German immigrant Hans Morgenthau launched the modern school of realism in international relations theory. Unlike many of today’s academic realists, however, Morgenthau emphasized ethics and morality, as well as power, in the conduct of statecraft. While Morgenthau never served in government, a fellow immigrant of German origins and of a realist bent, Henry Kissinger, dominated American foreign policy in the 1970s first as President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and then also as Secretary of State for both Nixon and President Gerald Ford. Even though many regarded Kissinger’s realpolitik as inimical in some ways to the idealism of American exceptionalism, Niall Ferguson’s recent biography and Kissinger’s more recent books nevertheless show a profound appreciation for the inescapable and ultimately positive influence of America’s ideals in the conduct of its foreign policy. Another national security adviser from the 1970s, Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski, combined his tough realist stance on the Soviet Union with a push for human rights, and brought this item to the forefront of superpower relations thus setting the stage for increasing the ideological pressure on Moscow in future years and hasten the collapse of the Soviet empire.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was also hastened by America’s support for the Afghan mujahedeen against the Red Army, an operation that benefitted from the participation of Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American who worked closely with his former Columbia faculty colleague Brzezinski on that operation. In later decades, Khalilzad had an extraordinary career, from serving as a Pentagon grand strategist during the first Bush administration when he outlined a vision for U.S. global leadership in the post Cold-War era, to serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq during the second Bush administration, and eventually becoming the highest ever Muslim to serve in the U.S. government when he was named U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and thus a member of the White House cabinet.

Another remarkable careers of an immigrant in U.S. foreign policy, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, born in Czechoslovakia, holds the distinction of being the first woman in that position. Secretary Albright, of course, is remembered as a strong voice for American exceptionalism as exemplified by her comment that the United States is the world’s “indispensable nation,” a country that “stands tall and see[s] further than other countries into the future.” Other examples of such exceptional immigrants reaching high levels of the US foreign policy elite and putting their imprint on American strategy include the former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and strong Atlanticist Ivo Daalder (Dutch-born), the  current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations  genocide-prevention advocate Samantha Power (Irish-born), the former Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL, Cuban-born), CNN foreign policy analyst Fareed Zakaria (Indian-born), and others.

Stories such as these inspired me when I came to the United States 13 years ago, and provided me with my own version of an “American dream.”  More so than material prosperity (do not believe the hype on “cushy” academic jobs), for me the American dream is about becoming part of the most powerful “force for good” on Earth, and continuing that tradition. The attraction I felt for America before coming here led to a surprisingly quick shift in my national identity, to the point where after only two years in the United States, I would catch myself talking about “our national interest” and already thinking as myself as an American. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, 11 years later, is almost ready to agree with me on that issue and complete my naturalization process. Despite the delay, my experience is nevertheless a fortunate one: I benefitted greatly during my journey from the mentorship of wonderful bosses and professors who always talked to me as if I were already an American, and encouraged me to pursue a career studying and eventually becoming involved in US. foreign policy. However, recent trends show a decline in the number of foreign students who intend to stay in the United States after completing their degrees. One often hears of such statistics in the context of a loss for the economic prospects of Silicon Valley where about half the startups from 1995 to 2005 had a foreign-born founder, including Sergey Brin of Google. But this trend should also worry the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which could benefit from the influx of a new stream of migrants as much as it did in the Cold War period.

Therefore, the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and in foreign policy isolationism, two sides of the same coin for a segment of the American people, is worrisome not only for the economic prosperity and political health of the United States, but also for the prospects of American Exceptionalism, and, consequently, for the future of a liberal world order that continues to depend on a grand strategy of American global leadership.


Dr. Ionut Popescu is a Visiting Research Scholar at the Old Dominion University. He is the author of The Process of Grand Strategy: Planning and Improvisation in US Foreign Policy (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming, 2017). A native of Romania, he earned a PhD in international relations from Duke University. 

Image: R.D. Ward, Dept of Defense