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American Exceptionalism – Conceptual Thoughts and Empirical Evidence Johannes Thimm

Paper für die Tagung der Nachwuchsgruppe “Internationale Politik” der DVPW 13./14. Juli Darmstadt

Entwurf-Bitte nicht ohne Zustimmung des Autors zitieren! Kontaktadresse: Johannes Thimm Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik Ludwigkirchpl. 3-4 10179 Berlin Tel: +49/30/88007-436 johannes.thimm@swp-berlin.org

American Exceptionalism

Johannes Thimm

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Introduction1
This article is about the concept of American exceptionalism. The term has a long history

and has been applied to a whole range of features that are unique to US society, particularly its history, identity, and culture (Lipset 1996; Madsen 1998). To recount the evolution of the concept of American exceptionalism and to give a comprehensive account of the diverse meanings it has assumed over time is beyond the scope of this paper.2 I will therefore limit my discussion to a very specific aspect of the topic, which has recently received a lot of attention. In the context of US foreign policy, the label “exceptionalism” has increasingly been used with respect to an American tendency to remain outside of multilateral regimes and to an unwillingness to abide by the norms of international law (compare e.g. Luck 2003; Ignatieff 2005b). Even in this more limited context, the meaning of the concept of exceptionalism not clear, but remains vague and inconsistent. I aim to contribute to a clearer understanding of the concept of exceptionalism, as it refers to American policies toward multilateral regimes. In the article I explore both the present use and the analytical utility of the concept of American exceptionalism. In the first section of the essay, I discuss its use in the literature about US foreign policy. In comparing and contrasting it with unilateralism – another prominent concept with some overlapping connotations – I try to identify what the term can add to our understanding. I distinguish between two methodologically separate ways to apply the concept. The first variant emphasizes the idiosyncrasies in the American behavior, leaving their reasons unexplored, and thus treating exceptionalism – either explicitly or implicitly – as a dependent variable. The latter regards American exceptionalism itself as an explanation or cause of foreign policy behavior, treating it as an independent variable. I will discuss the conceptual advantages and problems with each of those variants. In the second section, I discuss the empirical evidence for American exceptionalism and unilateralist views in public opinion data. First, I look for evidence of exceptionalist beliefs among the American public. Subsequently, I explore the question of whether these exceptionalist beliefs lead to unilateral attitudes and policy preferences on questions of foreign policy. I conclude by summing up these findings and making suggestions for further research.

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I want to thank the members of the Research Unit The Americas of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik for valuable comments and contributions to an earlier version of this draft. 2 While „exceptionalism“ has also been used referring to other nations, e.g. Russia, China or Israel, American exceptionalism has received a level of attention that make a inquiry limited to the US appear to be a worthwhile enterprise. I use the terms “exceptionalism” and “American exceptionalism” interchangeably, leaving open, whether the argument can be applied to other countries and situations.

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American Exceptionalism

Johannes Thimm

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“American Exceptionalism” – the Concept
On the most general level, ‘American exceptionalism’ refers to the belief “that the

United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations, because of its unique origins, national credo, historical evolution, and distinctive political and religious institutions” (Koh 2005, p.225). As John Winthrop (1996 [1630]), one of the first settlers and governor of...
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