Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

American Exceptionalism in 2024

| Dec. 11, 2023

Americans have long seen their country as morally exceptional, but their exceptionalism actually comprises three distinct views. Whichever prevails in next year's presidential election will have significant implications for ongoing conflicts in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

As the 2024 presidential election approaches, three broad camps are visible in America's debate over how the United States should relate to the rest of the world: the liberal internationalists who have dominated since World War II; the retrenchers who want to pull back from some alliances and institutions; and the America Firsters who take a narrow, sometimes isolationist, view of America's role in the world.

Americans have long seen their country as morally exceptional. Stanley Hoffmann, a French-American intellectual, said that while every country considers itself unique, France and the US stand out in believing that their values are universal. France, however, was limited by the balance of power in Europe, and thus could not pursue its universalist ambitions fully. Only the US had the power to do that.

The point is not that Americans are morally superior; it is that many Americans want to believe that their country is a force for good in the world. Realists have long complained that this moralism in American foreign policy interferes with a clear analysis of power. Yet the fact is that America's liberal political culture made a huge difference to the liberal international order that has existed since WWII. Today's world would look very different if Hitler had emerged victorious or if Stalin's Soviet Union had prevailed in the Cold War.

American exceptionalism has three main sources. Since 1945, the dominant one has been the legacy of the Enlightenment, specifically the liberal ideas espoused by America's founders. As President John F. Kennedy put it, "the 'magic power' on our side is the desire of every person to be free, of every nation to be independent … It is because I believe our system is more in keeping with the fundamentals of human nature that I believe we are ultimately going to be successful." Enlightenment liberalism holds such rights to be universal, not limited to the US.

Of course, Americans always faced contradictions in implementing their liberal ideology. The scourge of slavery was written into the Constitution, and it was more than a century after the Civil War before Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Racism remains a major factor in American politics to this day....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“American Exceptionalism in 2024.” Project Syndicate, December 11, 2023.