The Reasoning Behind American Exceptionalism

14 Sep

k8080.gif I’ve been working my way through American Execptionalism and Human Rights in between teaching and classes, and thinking how strange and unconvincing discussions of America’s role in the international order must sound to foreigners.

I was right. Opino Juris has a post examining the varieties of American exceptionalism, and the commenters aren’t having any of it. Nothing revelatory here, considering the invasion of Iraq and subsequent bungled construction and sectarian conflict. The more interesting question is: how do Americans reconcile their position–from a strategic and ethical standpoint–as opposed to appeals to patriotism?

At the strategic level, the realist rationale is pretty self-evident, and likely the controling rationale for many Americans: an America unbound by international law is free to pursue its interests. It’s about self-sufficiency. The moral critique is likewise a simple narrative for Americans: it’s easier to be sanguine about the use of power when you look at your friends and neighbors and say, “These are fundamentally good people; they’re not war mongers and they make up our military and government.”

But I think John McGinnis might have an answer:

The United States as a Democratic Hegemon. It is precisely because the United States is the hyperpower, in the words of one former French Foreign Minister, that it is exceptional. Because of its dominant position in the world economy, the United States has strong incentives to provide both public and private goods for foreign citizens and it thus is likely to generate legal norms that facilitate such goods. Because it is a democratic hegemon made up of immigrants, it is likely to make better decisions with a greater concern for the welfare of foreigners than hegemons of the past. Ilya Somin and I have made this argument here.

McGinnis’s last point, that a hegemon that is made up of large immigrant populations (historically speaking) is roughly representative of different cultural perspectives that will be more responsive to the welfare of foreigners, is something I hadn’t considered. Whether this leads to greater respect of foreign welfare in practice is another question, but it is a striking rationale, in theory. Of course, many foreigners wouldn’t find this answer convincing either, but then again, they don’t find American democratic capitalism (which they see as the engine driving American imperialism) convincing either.


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