November 2011
Foreign Policy

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

The idea that the United States is uniquely virtuous may be comforting to Americans. Too bad it's not true.

by Stephen M. Walt

Over the last two centuries, prominent Americans have described the United States as an "empire of liberty," a "shining city on a hill," the "last best hope of Earth," the "leader of the free world," and the "indispensable nation." These enduring tropes explain why all presidential candidates feel compelled to offer ritualistic paeans to America's greatness and why President Barack Obama landed in hot water -- most recently, from Mitt Romney -- for saying that while he believed in "American exceptionalism," it was no different from "British exceptionalism," "Greek exceptionalism," or any other country's brand of patriotic chest-thumping.

Most statements of "American exceptionalism" presume that America's values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.

The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America's global role is that it is mostly a myth. Although the United States possesses certain unique qualities -- from high levels of religiosity to a political culture that privileges individual freedom -- the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics. By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.

This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S. dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy, whether the subject is possession of nuclear weapons, conformity with international law, or America's tendency to condemn the conduct of others while ignoring its own failings. Ironically, U.S. foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.

What we need, in short, is a more realistic and critical assessment of America's true character and contributions. In that spirit, I offer here the Top 5 Myths about American Exceptionalism. . . .


WAR IS A RACKET: Excerpt from a speech delivered in 1933 by General Smedley Darlington Butler, USMC. General Butler was the recipient of two Congressional Medals of Honor -- the highest military decoration presented by the United States.

Howard Zinn, "Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology," HarperPerrenial (1991)

"Poll: Israel and US Biggest Threats to World Peace," The Wisdom Fund, October 30, 2003

"U.S. Military, Mercenaries Torture Iraqi Prisoners," The Wisdom Fund, April 30, 2004

"The Warlords of America," The Wisdom Fund, August 23, 2004

Howard Zinn, "The Myth of American Exceptionalism," MIT, March 14, 2005

Enver Masud, "Iraq War: 'Supreme International Crime'," The Wisdom Fund, June 29, 2005

"America: Freedom to Fascism," The Wisdom Fund, October 6, 2005

VIDEO: David Ray Griffin, "9/11: The Myth and The Reality," October 30, 2007

Stephen J. Sniegoski, "Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism," The Wisdom Fund, June 23, 2010

"THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT," The Wisdom Fund, October 5, 2011

Andrew J. Bacevich, "America: With God on our side: Presidential candidates feel no shame in asserting divine purpose in U.S. policies and actions. In this ubiquitous view of American exceptionalism, the nation is not bound by rules to which others must submit,", October 16, 2011

[. . . every nation considers itself exceptional.--David P Goldman, "US exceptionalism a matter of faith,", March 12, 2013

Patrick Smith, "American exceptionalism is a dangerous myth,", May 26, 2013

["It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," Putin wrote--"Vladimir Putin Warns Against U.S. Military Intervention,", September 11, 2013]

[American Exceptionalism should restore individual liberty as the center of the Constitution's universe and transparency the lifeblood of self-government. It should understand that the final end of the state is to make citizens free to develop their faculties and to be morally accountable for their destinies, not to bestride the world like a colossus or to make the people government wards. It should make the rule of law king, accept risk as the oxygen of freedom, and repudiate arrogance in favor of self-doubting.--Bruce Fein, "American Exceptionalism Challenged,", September 18, 2013]

Mort Rosenblum, "As a World Watches . . . the Incredible Shrinking America,", September 30, 2013

Oliver Stone Blasts American Exceptionalism, October 13, 2013

Kishore Mahbubani, "The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World," PublicAffairs (March 4, 2014)

[Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle "If you are not with us, you are against us." To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.--"Address by President of the Russian Federation,", March 18, 2014]

Tom Engelhardt, "An Exceptional Decline for the Exceptional Country?,", July 14, 2014

Pepe Escobar, "BRICS Rising: 'The Western Model Is Broken',", July 15, 2014

[We're #1 in investment in our military and our national security state!--David Bromwich, "American Exceptionalism and Its Discontents,", October 23, 2014]

John Pilger, "War by Media and Triumph of Propaganda -- Secrecy, Surveillance and Censorship,", December 5, 2014

Erin Dooley, "CIA Torture Report: The Most Stunning Findings,", December 9, 2014

Charles Davis, "America, nation of torturers: Stop saying 'this isn't who we are' -- here's the real truth,", December 16, 2014

Patrick L Smith, "Our dangerous new McCarthyism,", January 30, 2015

[The Declaration of Independence explained that individual liberty was the center of our constitutional universe; and, that the United States was formed to protect the unalienable rights of citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--Bruce Fein, "Ignoring America's true greatness,", February 3, 2015]

Tanya H. Lee, "The Native American Genocide and the Teaching of US History,", April 1, 2015

James Bradley, "The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia," Little, Brown and Company, April 21, 2015

[Until we overhaul our foreign policy and stop invading other countries, changing their regimes, occupying, torturing and indefinitely detaining their people, and uncritically supporting other countries that illegally occupy other peoples' lands, we will never be safe from terrorism.--Marjorie Cohn, " Obama the Outlaw,", April 28, 2015]

"Human Development Report 2015,", 2015, p.47 (United States' HDI rank 8 -- behind Norway, Australia, Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Ireland)

Bruce Fein, "U.S. foreign policy flies under banner 'American Exceptionalism',", February 10, 2016

["after seeing working-class Italians with two months paid vacation, Finnish schools with no homework and the world's best test scores, Slovenians going to college for free, and women seizing unprecedented power in Tunisia and Iceland--you may realize that the entire movie is about how other countries have dismantled the prisons in which Americans live: prison-like schools and workplaces, debtor's prisons in order to pay for college, prisons of social roles for women, and the mental prison of refusing to face our own history."--Lauren McCauley, "Michael Moore Says His New Movie Will Change America,", February 11, 2016]

[What, then, made America truly exceptional, from the start? It was a country founded not on race, ethnicity or religion but on ideas. And, crucially, those ideas were open to all. This openness to people, ideas, cultures and religions resulted in the creation of a new person - the American.--Fareed Zakaria, "Yes, America is being changed -- but by whom,", February 11, 2016]

[US is "exceptional" only in the unbridled violence it applies to others who get in its way--Paul Craig Roberts, "The Evil Empire has the World in a Death Grip,", February 23, 2016]

Hillary Clinton on American Exceptionalism, May 5, 2016

Eric Roston, "America Is Not the Greatest Country on Earth. It's No. 28,", September 22, 2016

[What was truly exceptional about American culture was the idea of the individual being sovereign and superior to the state.--Ryan Miller, "America's Exceptional Past,", September 29, 2016]

[When makers of American foreign policy dream of an ideal world, they fixate on one word: primacy. It used to be called "full-spectrum dominance." . . .

The pursuit of primacy is the pursuit of our own slow and increasingly violent decline.--Stephen Kinzer, "The US is your know-it-all friend who should just keep his mouth shut,", September 29, 2016]

[The United States is among the world's biggest per-student spenders on education, but its 15-year-olds still trail in math against peers in most developed countries.--Amanda Ripley, "What America Can Learn About Smart Schools in Other Countries,", December 6, 2016]

Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky, 2016

[The United States, McKinley argued, could not possibly tyrannize faraway lands, as European powers did, because the tyrannical impulse is foreign to America'scharacter and tradition. He said that since the United States set its foreign policies with "unselfish purpose," its influence in the world could only be benevolent. The essential goodness of the American people, he argued, is the supreme and sole necessary justification of whatever the United States chooses to do in the world. . . .

In the space of just nine months, the United States had brought Cuba under American military rule and annexed Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines.--Stephen Kinzer, "The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire," Henry Holt and Co. (January 24, 2017) p.132, p.134]

David Stockman, "Bravo, Donald! The Imperial City Can't Stand The Truth About Its 'Bloody Hands',", February 11, 2017

Peter Frankopan, "The Silk Roads: A New History of the World," Vintage; Reprint edition (March 7, 2017)

[Americans are the least exceptional people in human history. Americans have no rights at all. We hapless insignificant beings have to accept whatever capitalists and their puppet government impose on us.--Paul Craig Roberts, "The Looting Machine Called Capitalism,", April 26, 2017]

["In the early twentieth century the United States was not just a country with racism," writes Yale law professor James Whitman in his book "Hitler's American Model." "It was the leading racist jurisdiction - so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration."--Jeff Guo, "The Nazis as students of America's worst racial atrocities,", May 19, 2017]

Jennifer Harper, "U.S. ranked the 114th most peaceful nation on earth says annual global ranking,", June 1, 2017

Suzy Hansen, "Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World," Farrar, Straus and Giroux (August 15, 2017)

[Since World War II, during a supposed golden age of peace, the United States military has killed some 20 million people, overthrown at least 36 governments, interfered in at least 82 foreign elections, attempted to assassinate over 50 foreign leaders, and dropped bombs on people in over 30 countries.--David Swanson, "List of U.S. Wars and Hostile Actions,", September 16, 2017]

Jerry Day,, September 20, 2017

Fareed Zakaria, "While we obsess over Trump, China is making history,", October 25, 2017

[When the American republic slowly came to be relabeled as a "democracy," there were no significant institutional modifications to justify the change in name. . . . the use of the term "democracy" to refer to an oligarchic republic simply meant that a different word was being used to describe the same basic phenomenon.--Gabriel Rockhill, " The U.S. is Not a Democracy, It Never Was,", December 13, 2017]

[In 1920s Oklahoma, many members of the oil-wealthy Osage Nation were dying untimely and suspicious deaths. . . . The author points his investigative lens at the perpetrators of the murders, reveals cover-ups by authorities all the way up to the national level, and illustrates that the deception continued almost a century later.--David Grann, "Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI," Vintage; Reprint edition (April 3, 2018)

[GDP, the value of a country's goods and services, is outdated--Rex Nutting, "To boost the economy, let's first change how we measure the economy,", October 28, 2018]

"American Empire: An Act of Collective Madness," December 10, 2018

Lawrence Wittner, "The United States is First in War, But Trailing in Crucial Aspects of Modern Civilization,", January 1, 2019

Marie Arana, "Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story," Simon & Schuster (August 27, 2019)

Dave Lawler, "Belief in American exceptionalism on the decline: poll,", November 21, 2019

Robert Scheer, "Noam Chomsky: America Has Built a Global Dystopia,", January 10, 2020

[If what happens in courtrooms across the country to poor people of color is justice, what is happening in the Senate is a trial. If the blood-drenched debacles and endless quagmires in the Middle East are victories in the war on terror, our military is the greatest on earth. If the wholesale government surveillance of the public, the revoking of due process and having the world's largest prison population are liberty, we are the land of the free. If the president, an inept, vulgar and corrupt con artist, is the leader of the free world, we are a beacon for democracy and our enemies hate us for our values. If Jesus came to make us rich, bless the annihilation of Muslims by our war machine and condemn homosexuality and abortion, we are a Christian nation. If formalizing an apartheid state in Israel is a peace plan, we are an honest international mediator. If a meritocracy means that three American men have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the U.S. population, we are the land of opportunity. If the torture of kidnapped victims in black sites and the ripping of children from their parents’ arms and their detention in fetid, overcrowded warehouses, along with the gunning down of unarmed citizens by militarized police in the streets of our urban communities, are the rule of law, we are an exemplar of human rights.--Chris Hedges, "America: Land of Make-Believe,", February 3, 2020]

Daniel Immerwahr, "How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States," Picador; Reprint edition (March 3, 2020)

[In the false history comes strength for the opinion that we Americans and our country are exceptional and indispensable and that these traits justify Washington's hegemony over the world. Our destruction in whole or part of seven countries in the 21st century, our withdrawal from arms limitation agreements, our dangerous demonization of militarily powerful countries such as Russia and China all rest in our self-righteous view of ourselves.--Paul Craig Roberts, "Churchill's War: The Real History of World War II,", April 19, 2020]

Calvin Woodward, "Coronavirus shakes the conceit of 'American exceptionalism',", April 19, 2020

"Exceptionalistic Claptrap," Forbes via, April 24, 2020

David Leonhardt and Yaryna Serkez, "The U.S. Is Lagging Behind Many Rich Countries. These Charts Show Why,", July 2, 2020

Martha Lincoln, "Study the role of hubris in nations' COVID-19 response,", September 15, 2020

Martin Jacques, "From Follower To Leader: The Story Of China's Rise", September 21, 2020

[But at the end of the cold war the 'west' began to ignore the actual international law and to replace it with its own rules which others were then supposed to follow. That hubris has come back to bite the 'west'. -- The End Of The 'Rules Based International Order',", September 22, 2020]

"Anarchy in the USA,", January 7, 2021

Wolff Responds: DC Rage: More Coming Unless Basic Economic Changes Made, January 7, 2021

The European, The American Dream is Over, January 27, 2021

'Why only in America?' Sky Correspondent challenges Senator Ted Cruz, Sky News, May 26, 2022

Megan Brenan and Nicole Wilcoxson, "Record-High 50% of Americans Rate U.S. Moral Values as 'Poor',", June 15, 2022

[It was created with two key goals in mind: thwarting Soviet expansionism, and preventing another surprise attack like that carried out by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour during the second world war. While Moynihan's campaign to shut down the CIA did not ultimately prevail, there was certainly a widespread perception that the agency was no longer fit for purpose and should be curtailed.--Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, "The inside story of the CIA v Russia - from cold war conspiracy to 'black' propaganda in Ukraine,", August 25, 2022]

Yellen's visit to China: Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, CGTN, July 9, 2023

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