Every nation in the world has its version of why it’s exceptional, and that limits exceptionalism’s value as a foreign policy tool

Exceptionalism is a myth used by every state in the world. Source: Reuters

Exceptionalism is a basic political tool of nation building and, as such, it will always remain an integral part of every nation’s political toolbox. It drives domestic politics to an appreciable extent, insofar as the state must justify its actions in terms of the national myths it propagates.

But exceptionalism hardly at all affects foreign policies. International political disputes staked out in terms of exceptionalism are virtually nonexistent (although you could argue that Israel is a notable exception). Few countries invoke exceptionalism as a bargaining chip precisely because every state could play the same card. In short, there is nothing exceptional about exceptionalism.

Myths, so long as they are emotionally satisfying, often prevail over sober fact. It is no different with exceptionalism. The myth of exceptionalism is, if you like, an emotional credit that can be spent when the political account dips into the red.

Not that it is always wrong to put belief ahead of reason. A false belief may even have a greater survival value than the truth. The morale of an occupied nation may hinge on a baseless belief in a quick liberation that can, however, stave off collapse. The same is true with exceptionalism. In rational terms, it may be so much hot air, but hot air can sometimes uplift the nation. Quite simply, the value of a belief cannot be measured strictly by its veracity. This is why emotional harmonics in the form of national mythology are sometimes capable of instilling psychological cohesion, offering solace in times of trouble, or even eliciting self-sacrifice.

The problem is, like every currency – whether political, cultural, or economic - exceptionalism is not immune to inflationary trends that exhaust its utility in the long run. With each successive jolt of propaganda, the returns diminish as the emotional needle settles on a new baseline. To get a rise out of the population again, the stimulus has to be sharper, the message louder, and the rhetoric more hysterical. Over time, it may entirely erode the effectiveness of the myth.

Exceptionalism is a nationalistic myth fomented by every state in the world—not only by the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and India but also Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Benin, and Brunei (to name just a few of those beginning with ‘B’). Another way of saying it is that there is nothing exceptional about the United States, which is another way of saying that every nation on Earth is exceptional.

But there is no fine line between nationalism and exceptionalism. Whoever thinks he can identify this line should be made to wear a motley cap because he is a fool. Since I am not, I will instead quote from my book “American Utopia and Social Engineering”:

The United States today is afflicted with political alienation, militarized violence, institutionalized poverty, and social agony. Worst of all, perhaps, it is afflicted with chronic and acute ahistoricism. America insists on ignoring the context of its present dilemmas. It insists on forgetting what preceded the headlines of today and on denying continuity with history. It insists, in short, on its exceptionalism.

There are many faces of exceptionalism. Ahistoricism is only one of them. But in our world of tabloid sound bites, political newspeak, and acute attention deficit, it may be one of the most pernicious.

At its core, exceptionalism (as a form of nationalism) is really tribalism writ large. It is rooted in human biology and more specifically, in the suite of adaptations that have served us well over eons of evolution (after all, we’re still here). At the end of the day, exceptionalism and its ‘us versus them’ mentality is as much a part of our human nature as our instinct for cooperative and pro-social behavior.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.