To understand how American foreign policy comes into shape as it is, American exceptionalism offers some guidance of importance. Since its birth out of revolution, the country has been obsessed with the idea and kept developing it into fullnesswhich has ascended to a theory affecting America’s understanding of itself and its relation with other nations.
Judging from the term itself, American exceptionalism means that America is exceptional, unique, different from all other nations in the world. That, however, is only one and the more superficial layer of the meaning of the term, while the other and underlying layer of the meaning is that America is not only different but different in a good way which makes American civilization better than other civilizations. During its fledging years, though feeble and innocent, the young country looked at the European continent with this high self-esteem regarding the Old World as morally corrupt and moribund while itself as.
To understand that confidence, we must bear in mind a good sense of time and space. The claim of American being better doesn’t mean that America is “quantitatively better” here and now but rather “qualitatively different” or better in the long run.That qualitative difference constitutes an ideology called “Americanism”, which, according to Seymour Martin Lipset, is “an ‘ism’ or ideology, abstract and ahistorical, bearing those merits of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissezfaire. Being qualitatively better doesn’t mean that America exclusively owns these characteristics but rather that America was born with them, which made it a natural possession rather than artificial adoption.
That sense of destined superioritygives rise to a missionary mentality that directs Americans’ understanding of its relation to other nations. At different times of American history, the “mission” that Americans have in mindvariedboth in formand content. During the earlier years, it was for the country to lead the western hemisphereon the track to free republic and isolate it from the corrupting force and imperial aggressionof the European continent. As the U.S. ascendedin power, the mission extended into full engagement and then leadership worldwide. Before it was formally and firmly established, the notion had already been combined with the idea of Manifest Destiny which was proposed by Jacksonian Democrats in justifying the American acquisition of the Oregon Territory, the Texas Annexation and the admission of California and New Mexico. The logic is that America is a “city upon the hill” and is destined to expand itself. In the modern American politics, neoconservatives has adopted and enriched the notion of American exceptionalism in making foreign policies that are known as “nation building” or “democracy exportation”. It is the mission of America in the modern world, according to Francis Fukuyama, a prominent figure of neoconservatism, to offer the package of modernity thatcombinesthe material prosperity of market economies and the political and cultural freedom of liberal democracy to other less developed parts of the world. Neoconservatives believe that America serves as a paradigm of the desirable characteristics of the modern world and should export those elements to other nations so as to ensure the world on the progressive track.
That missionary ideology has been working especially well after World War Ⅱ when America assumed overwhelming power and consummated its success in the collapse of the Communist camp in the 1990s. Self-confidence in itself being the best “end of the history”seemed to be justified by America becoming the lonely super power waiting for challenges. That scenario, however, turned out to be no more than an illusion. Since the last decade of the 20th century, the world has witnessed diffusion of power, emerging economies performing miracles without conforming to the American model of progress, closer contact and more frequent conflictbetween civilizations, which makes the American mythology of destined superiority blaringly anachronistic, leading to unfavorableconsequences in the practice of American foreign policy-making as follows:
The failure of Nation building—nation building of those“failed states”(American foreign policy-making is based on a world view which puts countries on a spectrum from “failed” to modern states)has bred more trouble than good so far. To the disillusionment of the nation builders, democracy exported to these politically backward places is soon kidnapped by religious extremism, leading to full-scale regression from, instead of progression to those principles of modernity that nation building was aimed at. Due to the persistence of American exceptionalism and the nation’s missionary mentality, failure of the same kind recurs without signs of improvement.
Double standard on playing by rules—the U.S. is fond of talking about playing by rules in world politics and is jealous of its dominant place in making them. On the one hand, it keeps reminding other nations to comply with rules mostly made by the U.S. before they are allowed to join the international community. On the other, the U.S. firmly believes that, due to its exceptional characteristics, exemption from these rules is its exclusive right whenever it is necessary to maintain its good model. That double standard undermines trust between nations, causes confusion and runs the risk of disorder and jungle rule.
The U.S. and the other—American exceptionalism divides the world into the U.S. and the other, the latter being a vague picture in the darkness of being politically backward. This view is problematic in ignoring particularity of each state, giving rise to miscalculation and improper intervention that leads to nothing but chaos. In a world where change may be drastic and power elusive, it is more reasonable for the U.S. to get over the myth of American exceptionalism inforeign policy-making and acknowledge the fact that each nation is exceptional to some extent. Only in this way can nations get along with each other better.