Americans still believe their country is unique but are less convinced it has a special responsibility to lead. This has both domestic and international implications.

Exceptionalist discourse is on the rise in American politics. In an article published in the Atlantic, Terrence McCoy found that the term ‘American exceptionalism’ appeared in national US publications 457 times in 1980–2000, climbing to 2,558 times in the 2000s and 4,172 times in 2010–12.

Concepts and beliefs associated with the term figured prominently in the 2012 US presidential election, bringing it from the relative obscurity of academia into mainstream political discourse. In the run-up to the election, American exceptionalism became a central part of the debate over which candidate had the better vision for restoring America’s economic vitality, for preserving the country’s role in world affairs and for revitalising the American dream.

At the height of the deliberations over the US response to chemical-weapons use in Syria last year, President Barack Obama claimed that having the will and capacity to act was ‘what makes America different ... what makes us exceptional’. Earlier in the speech, he had argued that ‘for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security ... The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.’

Exceptionalism is not merely a rhetorical device. It is not just one concept or argument, but an interwoven bundle of ideas that together represent an American creed or ideology. American exceptionalism implies a belief that the United States is unique among nations – and, for some, even superior to others. According to a Gallup poll published in December 2010, 80% of Americans asked whether ‘the U.S. has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world’ responded ‘yes’. Another twist on exceptionalism holds that America has a special or pre-ordained role to play in world affairs that requires it to lead. For some, American exceptionalism is about a mission or duty; for others, it is a cover for imperialism.

Karen Tumulty, a staff writer at the Washington Post, has observed that questions about American exceptionalism have been a ‘front’ or major battleground ‘in the ongoing culture wars’ during the election. For Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, authors of The Silence of the Rational Center, American exceptionalism is ‘the mother of the nation’s Big Ideas’: those fundamental concepts and narratives that reoccur in American political culture and underwrite foreign-policy doctrines, party platforms and strategic culture.

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Robert R. Tomes is President of the MapStory Foundation, Director of the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs and Adjunct Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of US Defence Strategy from Vietnam to Operation Iraqi Freedom (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006) and co-editor of Hybrid Warfare and Transnational Threats (New York: Council for Emerging National Security Affairs, 2011).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2014

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