With debates on the concept of exceptionalism in full swing in the U.S. and abroad, Russian and foreign experts discuss its advantages and disadvantages.

Is American exceptionalism a danger or a boon? Photo: Reuters

The recent discussions over U.S. military intervention in Syria, combined with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed column for the New York Times, in which he downplays America’s special role to play in the world, have fueled new debates on the concept of American exceptionalism. The term has recently been in the spotlight among U.S.  and Russian academics, journalists and experts.

“America is not the world’s policeman,” Obama said in his televised speech on Syria. “Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. … That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

And it’s not just leading politicians who grapple with the full meaning of this term. The term also appears in popular culture. The Newsroom series (which is also well-known in Russia) raises this problem and shows clearly and vividly how it influences the U.S. When asked by a student in a conference room what makes America the world’s greatest country, TV news anchor Will McAvoy - Jeff Daniels’s character – makes no bones about criticizing the U.S. for its exceptionalism.

“It's not the greatest country in the world,” he exclaims pointing out all the disadvantages and problems facing the U.S. “We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons; we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. ... The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one — America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

However, at least 73 percent of Americans, including Republicans and Democrats, still believe that the U.S is an exceptional country “because of its history and Constitution that sets it apart from other nations as the greatest in the world,” according to a Gallup public opinion poll conducted in December 2010.

A 2011 Pew Research Survey echoes this trend: 48 percent of the respondents said that the U. S. was the greatest country in the world and another 42 percent believed that America was one of the greatest countries. Only 8 percent said the U.S. was not a great country.

With debates on the concept of exceptionalism in full swing in the U.S. and abroad, Russia Direct interviewed Russian and foreign experts about what they think about exceptionalism. Is it really dangerous for a multi-polar word? What advantages and disadvantages does it have?  And where is the line – if any - between nationalism and exceptionalism?

Mikhail Troitskiy, associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University)

I do not think that American exceptionalism as it is understood in the United States or at least among U.S. policy making community presents a danger to the world. I believe in the hegemonic stability theory: it is important that there should be an exceptional power in the world that would make sure that some very basic rules of the games in the international community are observed. For example, it is important to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden or international terrorism in AfPak. And I think it requires an exceptionally powerful international leader who can take care of those challenges.

I don’t see why we should see exceptionalism as something negative. Anything that deserves to be called exceptional and has no parallel in the world history is not necessarily negative, of course, excluding  Nazism or other genocidal ideologies that are negatively exceptional by their nature. But there is also exceptional success that you can find in the world history.

So is, for example, the U.S. success story of being able to build a government by the people and for the people and even, more importantly, to face a number of historic transformational challenges that many other nations have failed. This can indeed be called exceptional as well as the current U.S. preponderance in terms of military power and economic potential. Or take the American dream, the openness of the United States to the outside world, the American soft power: it creates a global appeal – all this does make the U.S. exceptional and this is something you probably will not mind having in any other country.

The benefit of the exceptionalist appeal is that you can attract the brightest minds from the rest of the world, and the U.S. has been able to accomplish it. And those people are attracted to the United States because they believe they can find exceptional opportunities there. Also, if you are exceptional, other countries will think twice before standing up to you.

Exceptional values can indeed produce the bandwagon effect. At the same time an exceptional power has to deliver on its promise, be credible, and take the global responsibility. This is something many U.S. policy makers might not realize to the full extent: the United States has to show leadership on the world scale and has to demonstrate that it is true to its ideals of exceptional history, foreign policy, and culture.

Exceptionalism has to do with universal values and messages unlike nationalism – a parochial and narrow-minded ideology which justifies why you put your interest first even if it involves disregard for others' interests. You are only exceptional on the international stage if you are able to show why you are attractive, why your history is something that can be repeated in other places, and your experience can be useful for other countries. Exceptional messages can be well-received in any country because they are universal. 

President Barack Obama and the new geopolitical reality. Photo: AP

Zulfiqar Shah, Pakistan-born analyst, affiliated research scholar with the Central Department of Political Science, Tribhuvan University, Nepal and IASE University, India

Exceptionalism is not an ideology. It is an aspect of the art of statehood, related to regional and global political behavior. It can be both – positive and negative. In some cases, it has proved positive; meanwhile, in others, it has been negative. Therefore, it needs to be examined what impact is being made by a certain exceptionalist tilt or behavior.

The concept of exceptionalism cannot be detached from statecraft, as it is an integral part of state building since the state itself is a social organism. This exceptionalism has two aspects: whenever exceptionalism has transformed into exceptionalist-antagonism, wars have dominated the world stage. Alternatively, whenever nation-states have given space to develop exceptionalist-interdependency, economic prosperity has further strengthened international security.

If this is seen in the multi-polar world, the world has not yet given a chance to exceptionalist-interdependency at the global level. It has only opted for this at the regional level. The successful examples of this are the models for the European Union, Commonwealth of Central Asian States, and ASEAN. In global politics, this phenomenon was only seen after the Second World War, when the League of Nations was founded as a predecessor to the United Nations.

The contemporary realities require that a Global Order should replace the New World Order. This replacement should only be attained by turning American, Russian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Britain, Canadian and French exceptionalism into an exceptional-interdependency in order to create a Global Order.

This can only be attained through giving space to each other’s interests in a manner that the interests in broader terms are not antagonizing to anyone. The most important thing here is that there cannot be any absolute exceptionalism. It means that, by creating an interdependency of interests, there is a fundamental need to correct previous blunders, while creating some commonly agreed and shared values.            

The leading nations need to created a commonly agreed ‘exceptionalism’ in their foreign policies to combat  religious terrorism, change the chemistry of the state in rogue states,  and create new states in the event of failed states if the required degree of reform is impossible (for example, in Afghanistan).

Eduard Ponarin, Ph.D., Director, Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, Higher School of Economics

Being exceptional and unique. Photo: AP

The American idea of exceptionalism derived historically from America's isolation from the Old World and then was reinforced and re-interpreted more recently as the U.S. became the leading power after WWII, and especially after the end of the Cold War. 

For better or worse, the status of the only superpower is now ending for the U.S.  There are revisionist powers challenging the world order.  Under such circumstances, America's insistence on its status means a confrontation with the revisionist powers and it may be dangerous depending on the way the conflict is resolved.

Of course, any power [such as Russia, China, Japan or India] could and did claim it was unique. But rarely, if at all, did they claim the exceptional right to be the sole policeman, judge, and hangman for the whole world.  Perhaps, the British Empire, the Mongol Empire, and the Roman Empire at the height of their power might resemble the U.S. in this respect. Russian or any other current exceptionalism is beyond compare with this version of American exceptionalism.

Any great power tends to develop a sense of exceptionalism, although it is a matter of degree. Generally, greater and longer geopolitical success produces more hubris. In the long run, however, hubris hurts the country in question because it tends to lead to unwise decisions, including imperial overextension and loss of allies.

However, the advantage of exceptionalism / hubris is a high prestige factor for the dominant imperial culture, resulting in greater soft power, which allows the achieving of imperial goals without much cost or military force. High prestige of the imperial culture also tends to blur ethnic differences within the empire, turning it into a melting pot. 

At the same time, exceptionalism, as I understand it, is typically an attribute of great power nationalism. Minority nationalism does not have this attribute.

Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Source: Reuters. Photo: Reuters

Peter Schuck, Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and author of a forthcoming book, Why Government Fails So Often, and How It Can Do Better

Exceptionalism can benefit a nation by strengthening its commitment to certain values and encouraging its citizens to be proud of what their society has produced. But, at the same time, it can generate excessive, perhaps dangerous chauvinism, blind people to the true facts about their own society and about others, and obscure the tradeoffs entailed by a commitment to particular values.

The concept of exceptionalism is not dangerous by itself, so long as those who use it remember that nations, like individuals, are exceptional in ways that may be desirable or undesirable.

When it comes to foreign policy, exceptionalism may affect it as well, like in the case of the United States and its concept of “manifest destiny.” Some of our leading politicians – George W. Bush, for example – have invoked the image of the U.S. as having special (exceptional) responsibilities, because of our power and our evangelistic values, for the protection and spread of freedom and democracy.

During earlier times, France’s foreign policies reflected an analogous wish to export its culture.  These motives, of course, are usually mixed with other less lofty ones, and it is probably impossible to disentangle them.

If you take nationalism to be both pride in one’s own nation and a desire to advance its interests above those of other nations, and exceptionalism, which is more of an empirical claim about salient differences among different societies, then the two overlap.

It is usually applied to nations, but it could be applied to individuals, families, religions, and other groupings.   It could also be used to call attention to negative aspects of a society that are unusual, whereas nationalism is not ordinarily used by its proponents to refer to such criticisms.

Exceptionalism claims do not increase the probability of international conflicts.  Indeed, by sensitizing us to the unusual features of other cultures, it may improve our ability to engage with them in positive ways.

Thomas Bender, Professor of History; University Professor of the Humanities, University of California Davis, PhD 1971

If a dozen nations call themselves "exceptional," then the meaning of the term “exceptional” is drained. Exceptional means "against or outside of the norm." There can be unlimited numbers of unique people or nations, but only one that is exceptional.

The problem with exceptionalism is that, being exceptional and outside of the norm, two things come into play. First, as the single exception to the norm, the rest of the world is singular, thus discouraging careful attention to the many differences and nuances within the international system. Second, it means one is not necessarily bound by the norms they belong the rest of the world. This is particularly strong among U.S. neo-conservatives who influenced both Reagan and Bush.

Certainly, it has driven the foreign policy of the U.S. since World War II, and episodically through most of U.S. history. But there are two versions of exceptionalism. One can be identified with John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State and Abraham Lincoln as President: The U.S. can and ought to be an exemplar of republican government. The other is the claim to self-justified action in the world.

I think in the exemplary version, that is the proper understanding of John Winthrop's famous image of "a city on a hill" in 1630 and Lincoln's sense of America living up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. They are aspirational in a good sense. The other version of exceptionalism has no redeeming qualities.

Where is the fine line between nationalism and exceptionalism? Nationalism may claim superiority, but it acknowledges a world of nations. It may mobilize populations to enter wars, but it does not cancel out the norms of the law of nations the way exceptionalism tends to do.