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The Scuffle Over ‘American Exceptionalism’


The Scuffle Over ‘American Exceptionalism’

Paul Pillar

Hillary Clinton gave a speech last week in which American exceptionalism was a major theme. She obviously chose that theme partly because it would appeal to her specific audience (an American Legion convention) and partly because it would enable her to criticize Donald Trump, who has said he doesn’t like the term “American exceptionalism” because people in other countries don’t like to hear it and feel insulted by it.


The concept of American Exceptionalism, like the “city on a hill” image, goes back to the Puritans (most notably, John Winthrop). It has been used for centuries to justify all sorts of bad behavior, and is one of those memes that stand up best when not looked at too closely. The problem is not that folks in other countries don’t appreciate it; the problem is that folks in the USA have been taught not even to consider the possibility of testing their supposed exceptionalism by means of objective comparisons. America could lead better if it realized that its exceptionalism – in aspects where the country is, in fact, exceptional – is a difference in degree, not in kind.


The more exceptional are the conditions in which American values arose, the less transferable are those values to others.



People in other countries feel more than just insulted by American exceptionalism, they fear it. Their countries are being destroyed by it. They know, firsthand, that America is anything BUT a force for peace, freedom and progress. For a warmonger like Hillary Clinton to claim to represent peace is criminal.


Just curious what Wikipedia has to say about American exceptionalism, a term which seems to be the subject of much confusion.

“The theory of the exceptionalism of the U.S. can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the country as “exceptional” in 1831 and 1840.”


It’s curious that Common Dreams invites in voices like that of Mr. Pillar–one who is proudly affiliated with the CIA. Then there are the warriors and war apologists primarily featured by Tom Dispatch (including, but not limited to William Astore & Andrew Bacevich).

Taking this on-line “Progressive” community for a virtual club, inviting in the spooks and soldiers brings to mind the way the terrific film, “Cabaret” showed the gradual acceptance of uniformed Nazi soldiers into the eclectic night spot.

It’s not surprising that under the guise of offering a critique of this arrogant assertion of “American Exceptionalism,” Mr. Pillar uses such antiseptic frames.

Let’s examine two of them:

“The problems come from the tendency — which is implicit in much of the wording of Clinton’s speech — to consider the United States and U.S. leadership as indispensable in addressing all significant problems abroad. But not all problems abroad are U.S. problems, not all such problems are solvable, what solutions there are do not all come from the United States, and in some problems U.S. involvement or leadership is instead counterproductive.”

The comment is accurate enough but it’s noteworthy for what it does NOT say… which is just how much destruction was wrought on nations which obviously configures substantially into the net sum of the problems they face now.

Like bombs destroying their infrastructure, resulting in a million dead, and millions of uprooted refugees.

However, Mr. Pillar frames his article in terms of America playing the role of problem solver, the Quintessential Innocent (or white hat, as Robert Parry defines it).

U.S. leadership isn’t really what’s relevant to problem-solving. The problem is that of U.S. imperialism.

I guess it would not trouble an individual identified with that organization most known for extending to itself a license to kill and embracing the sort of propaganda that enabled Hitler to rise to power… that there is no mention of the FACT that the CASE for war against these nations was all built on PHONY “evidence.”

Now let’s examine this statement:

“Clinton talked about values and about how American exceptionalism includes the idea of “America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.”
The overlooked question in this kind of rhetoric concerns the conditions in which other nations are, or are not, receptive to the freedom and opportunity being championed.”

For anyone to use terms like “peace” and “progress” in congress with policies of extreme violence… is proof positive of the dark art of dis-information at work.

So Clinton says it; and then someone like Pillar speaks to it as if it’s a natural given rather than a 180-degree distortion from the facts on the ground. Those facts include planned theaters of war that this female hawk supports with gusto. She’s basically an emissary of the MIC and its lifeblood is the profits drawn from wars that never end.

In other words, the MIC and its ambassadors are the ENEMIES to peace and progress.

Why does C.D. feature those who grant COVER to U.S. martial foreign policy?

THIS is disturbing!


Didn’t Germany feel it was exceptional prior to and during the 2 world war?
Got mit uns.


So far, the only honest post that gets past Pillar’s P.R. to the crux of the issue that counts!


“We are the indispensable nation,” she said. “So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead.”
And we are doing an exceptional job of leading … this entire planet right into HELL!


I think the main difference between the Germany and the US on this is that according to Wikipedia “Although the term [American exceptionalism] does not necessarily imply superiority many neoconservative and other American conservative writers have promoted its use in that sense.” At least for the Nazi it was actually a claim of racial superiority.


To be fair, at least on climate change the US has clearly taken the lead to save the planet. However, that still needs to be backed up with action. On the climate change issue the US is indispensable. I don’t think anyone can seriously disagree with that. However, this election will determine whether we continue with this indispensable leadership role or pack it in. It is a shame that climate change is largely ignored in presidential elections because it is the most important long-term issue and the differences between the major candidates on this issue could not be much clearer.


Ten thumbs up if I could. I spoke to Mr Pillars CIA background before and am always disturbed that these types are used as voices to critique existing power structures.

Like you I feel their role is to ensure that structure remains in place with that critique being enough to lull the people into believing the excesses are kept in check by the system.


Oh, I think de Toqueville meant it as superiority. But if that’s the way it’s used, that’s what it’s used to mean. I don’t hear anyone using it in any other way.


Indispensable, certainly, just because of our geographic and population size, and our private-automobile culture. But leadership? No, I can seriously disagree with that!


At the risk of sounding like a Trump supporter, I have to say in his defense that he did not say “Mexico was a nation of rapists and drug dealers”. And saying that “even a Donald Trump can’t wreck it” wrecks impartiality in this article. But maybe I’m partial to DT by considering that he is the lesser evil.


Thank you. When I comment in this manner it occurs to me that Deep State interests might be monitoring for this type of response.

However, it feels better not to stand alone in recognizing an Intrusive Force when it’s embedded where it ought not be.

Thank you for the validation. As I stated a few days ago, it’s rare for me not to agree with your comments. And while I recognize some posters for their acute intellectual contributions, I feel that you are one of a few who is not a “one trick pony.” That is, you read widely and have a well-honed BS detector. Both enable you to see deeper into matters and comment with a good deal of astuteness.

I appreciate your commentary.


“To be fair, at least on climate change the US has clearly taken the lead to save the planet.”

I would be of just the opposite opinion! The USA has opposed many of the world’s efforts to reduce the impact of climate change over the past 20+ years. We constitute 5% of the Earth’s population and are responsible for 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike others, we live in large poorly insulated houses, the cheap energy allows us cool these house in summer and heat them in winter. Likewise we drive big cars, something you would be less inclined to do in Germany where gas is almost $6 per gallon at the moment. The list goes on and on, our love of dirty energy sources, opposition to public transportation systems and so forth.


Seeing how the Demoicratic Party continues to make great efforts to confine its pre-1985 Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) history to the closet while comparing itself to and quoting Republicans as much as possible, Pillar highlights Clinton’s Lincoln and Reagan quotes.

How can anybody not support changing the name of the GOP to the Murkin Taliban Party and changing the name of the Democratic Party to the New GOP ?


Clinton emphasized :

“We are the indispensable nation…no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead.”

So, hopefully we will soon be able to actually enjoy :

Freedom of Speech (without being Constantly, Covertly Monitored)

Freedom of the Press (without a Monopolized Corporate Media)


Freedom to Peacefully Assemble (without an Immediate, Intimidating, Potentially Lethal Police Presence,)


The “white man’s burden” has morphed into “the American burden.” Same assumptions.