Published on February 12, 2013
Shortly after his inauguration in 2009, President Barack Obama met NATO leaders in Europe to discuss the future of the Transatlantic alliance. At a news conference following the meetings, Ed Luce of the Financial Times rose to ask this question: “In the context of all the multilateral activity that’s been going on this week, could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy?” President Obama paused slightly before answering, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Although Obama faced immediate criticism back home for suggesting that America was not uniquely exceptional, the President made what was at the same time a simple and an astute observation: Most countries see themselves as having been anointed with some special role or purpose in history. Such exceptionalisms are textbook examples of national “master narratives”, widely shared stories that interpret a given community’s historical and cultural experiences in order to support shared identity, understandings and collective aspirations. Master narratives help groups define where they come from and who they are, and thus how to make sense of unfolding developments around them.
It follows that understanding a country’s exceptionalism narrative is key to anticipating how public opinion might move or be moved there, or to communicating effectively with the people of that country. Lack of this understanding makes it all but inevitable that U.S. statesmen and officials at various levels miss important signals and commit needless diplomatic missteps. Regardless of how any American assesses the accuracy, legitimacy or uniqueness of America’s own exceptionalism narrative, it is critical that we understand what other countries think is exceptional about themselves.
The master narrative of exceptionalism we know best is, of course, our own. In its popular form it usually goes something like this:
Americans have always defined themselves in accordance with the Declaration of Independence’s stirring proclamation that all men are created equal, and endowed by God with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Enshrined by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, these values formed the bedrock of America’s unique and unwavering commitment to democratic equality, personal liberty and economic opportunity. This foundation made America a place where anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps and achieve prosperity. The result is that the United States has become not only the most successful and powerful country in history, but also a beacon of hope to the world—“a city upon a hill.” Americans owe a duty both to themselves and to the world to continue to defend their way of life and their form of government, and where possible to encourage and enable others to follow their example.
As with all master narratives, there is no one correct way to render it. Though we call it a narrative, it does not exist as a canonical text. Like an oral tradition, it contains a core idea—namely, that intrinsic qualities in the American landscape and people allowed liberty to flourish in unprecedented ways—but is inherently malleable. It has both evolved over time and is routinely reinterpreted based on the preferences and purposes of the speaker. In more religiously inflected versions, for example, American exceptionalism is said to reflect God’s beneficence toward the American people. More secular versions may instead attribute America’s unique qualities to the ingenuity of the American legal and political system created by the Founding Fathers as it intersected with a vast and rich land at a time of dramatic scientific and technological progress.
Crucially, too, the narrative remains open to competing interpretations about its implications for U.S. foreign policy: Should the United States rest content in serving as a model for others to emulate, or does our providential fortune impose a duty on us to support others who wish to follow our lead? Both isolationists and internationalists have always found ways to adopt the narrative of American exceptionalism to their own predilections.
American exceptionalism connects in telling ways to other master narratives that make up the set of shared worldviews that define American national identity. Past master narratives include “manifest destiny”, “the frontier” and “the melting pot”, all of which intersect with and contribute to the emergent 20th-century master narrative of exceptionalism in one way or another. In its current form it connects closely to the master narrative of the American Dream, which claims, as James Truslow Adams put it when he coined the phrase in his 1931 book The Epic of America, that America is “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” While Adams himself did not propose extending this promise to the rest of the world, others have insisted on the universality of the American Dream. This is the paradox at the heart of the narrative of American exceptionalism: It is both an explanation of what makes the United States unique, and for many an account of why America should encourage everyone else to become like us.
Like all master narratives, American exceptionalism is hardly uncontested. There are many both within and especially outside the United States who dispute American exceptionalism, pointing out that its self-congratulatory tone belies the messy realities of U.S. history and society. If the United States is such a beacon of freedom and opportunity, they say, then what to make of the historical, political and social exclusion of African-Americans and other minorities, U.S. support for right-wing dictatorships during the Cold War, and steadily decreasing social mobility? Surveying this pock-marked historical landscape, some say that American exceptionalism is little more than a “myth.”
Regardless of its possible historical inaccuracies or misrepresentations, however, the narrative remains both instantly recognizable to, and deeply resonant with, many audiences. Even where an audience may know full well that the narrative does not correspond precisely to historical truth, it can nonetheless remain emotionally compelling as an expression of ideals, aspirations and guidance. The optimism inherent within it can boost morale, too. Conversely, challenging the narrative carries risks: Any American leader who tries to tell the American people that either historical facts or moral logic are at odds with their sense of exceptionalism is going to have a short career.
Because the narrative of American exceptionalism will doubtless endure for many years to come, framing policy in its terms will remain an effective way to generate support for that policy. During the 2011 debate over what to do about Libya, for instance, President Obama claimed that (limited) U.S. intervention was necessary because, while “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries, the United States of America is different.” By contrast, those who rejected the interventionist approach in Libya from both Left and Right claimed that the blessings of liberty do not confer upon us any right, much less a duty, to intervene in foreign lands. What virtually all seemed to agree upon, however, was that any decent Libya policy had to square with their own understanding of American exceptionalism.
Foreigners, too, can better influence the U.S. policy conversation by framing their arguments in terms of American exceptionalism. Given the historically intimate religious and cultural relations between the United States and Israel, and the close relationship of the two governments since the 1960s, it is no surprise that Israeli leaders have been particularly adept at connecting the alliance to key motifs of American exceptionalism. When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed Congress in May 2011, for example, he framed his calls for the United States to take a hard line against Iranian nuclear ambitions not just as a matter of shared interests, but also of shared commitment to freedom against tyranny:
Like all of you, I pray that the peoples of the region choose the path less traveled, the path of liberty. No one knows what this path consists of better than you… . My friends, the momentous trials of the last century and the unfolding events of this century attest to the decisive role of the United States in defending peace and advancing freedom. Providence entrusted the United States to be the guardian of liberty. All people who cherish freedom owe a profound debt of gratitude to your great nation.
Clearly, Netanyahu’s speechwriters were pushing every American exceptionalism button they could find to make the case that U.S. support for Israel was an obligatory extension of America’s own exceptional moral mission. And the Israelis are hardly unique in this respect. The Georgians have done it, and so have the Poles and the Taiwanese. Indeed, virtually anyone who wants something from the United States (which is virtually everyone) usually tries to frame their pleas in terms of Americans’ better sense of ourselves. Understanding how foreigners appeal to the master narrative of American exceptionalism in order to sway our diplomats, political leaders and the American people can help us recognize and, when the time is right, resist calls that may be at odds with our national interests.
But the same lesson also applies in reverse: American leaders would do well to learn the exceptionalism narratives of major competitors and allies—from those of other great powers to those of significant movements such as Salafi Islam—that most affect our strategic circumstances. Americans can do better than we have historically at recognizing and strategically responding to one simple fact: Appreciating the nuances of other countries’ exceptionalism narratives is key for anyone who wishes to understand and successfully engage with those countries. Just consider what we know—and don’t know—about the exceptionalism narratives of two of our greatest geopolitical rivals of the past sixty years, Russia and China.
Our Cold War rival, Soviet by profession but Russian by nature, was also a continental-scale power with a unique sense of its historic mission. When Alexis de Tocqueville famously remarked in the 1830s that Russia and the United States were destined to emerge as the great powers of the future, he based his prediction on each country’s abiding sense of its own exceptionalism. Tocqueville believed that America’s ability to “fulfill its destiny” depended on its ability to conquer “wilderness and barbarism” by deploying “the farmer’s plow”, whereas Russia was “civilization clothed in all its arms” that advanced “with the soldier’s sword.”
Indeed, military might does lie at the heart of the Russian master narrative of exceptionalism. As with its American counterpart, there are countless ways it can be rendered. But a reasonable representation of it goes something like this:
From the moment Alexander II led Russia to the gates of Paris in 1812, thereby ending Napoleon’s campaign for European domination, Russia has always been Europe’s unappreciated savior. Never was that more true than during the Great Patriotic War, where Russia not only endured sacrifices far greater than other nations, as millions died fighting for the motherland, but also all but single-handedly defeated the Nazis. The self-sacrificial valor of the Russian people is rooted in values and culture that transcend the soulless materialism of the modern West. Russia must put an end to Western revisionism that fails to appreciate Russia’s great moral and military contributions to international stability. Russia must proudly proclaim the heroism and spirituality of its people, and demand the recognition and praise that is due them from the West, so that Russia can again be admired for the great nation it is.
Russia’s exceptionalism narrative centers on the combination of Russia’s martial accomplishments and the deep spirituality and stoicism of its people. That Americans and Europeans so often depict Russia as a land of cruel political oppression and rapacious elites only underscores for Russians the failure of vain and shallow outsiders to recognize how their unique capacity for self-sacrifice forms the basis for both their victories in war and their great cultural achievements. In contrast to Westerners’ supposed tendency to “read Russia out of Europe”, Russians see themselves as a bridge between East and West, and as serving a unique role in saving Europe from itself—an idea they share, interestingly enough, with the United States. After decades of American political rhetoric casting Russians as “godless” Communists, many Americans today may be surprised to find that many Russians attribute the country’s accomplishments to its profound spirituality. The Russian narrative of exceptionalism reveals, ironically enough, that today the United States and Russia are similar in being among the few great powers whose sense of exceptionalism is rooted, at least in part, in a passionate religious sensibility.
Appreciating Russians’ sense of their own exceptionalism can help the United States avoid needless misunderstandings and reduce friction in government-to-government relations. This does not mean that conflicts of interest between Russia and the United States do not exist, nor, certainly, is there anything particularly spiritual about the current Russian regime. Still, there is leverage to be gained against that regime by communicating directly and through “track two” channels to the Russian people, if we know how to do it.
Indeed, a real “reset” in bilateral relations, as opposed to a staged one, can start with U.S. leaders and interlocutors acknowledging the attributes and contributions that Russians believe make them great. In the same way that many Americans tend to bristle when foreigners (or even other Americans) question our exceptionalism narrative, so Russian patriots will do the same if they sense that an interlocutor undervalues them. Likewise, expressions of appreciation for Russia’s integral role in European culture can help build rapport between Russia and the United States. That may not be a panacea for advancing negotiations over issues of mutual concern ranging from counter-terrorism to nuclear stockpile reductions to conflict resolution in places like Kosovo or Syria. But the absence of such goodwill will harm those efforts.
China, as the world’s most populous country, and arguably the oldest continuous civilization on earth, naturally sees itself as nation unlike any other. China’s master narrative of exceptionalism emphasizes the country’s role as the lodestone of regional and world history, and how other countries ought to (but fail to) respect and defer to China. Its summary exceptionalism narrative goes something like this:
China is an ancient and proud civilization that has played a central role in world history for more than five thousand years. Blessed with great ingenuity, the Chinese gave the world paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. The Middle Kingdom was also a force for peace, symbolized by Admiral He’s voyage to India and Africa. Starting with the Opium War of 1841, however, Western and Japanese imperialist aggression led to a century of chaos and humiliation—a dishonor that ended only when Mao’s Revolution enabled China to “stand up.” To restore China’s unique and historic place on the world stage, China must focus on long-deferred economic growth and stability. China can then take on a greater role in the world and resume its rightful place as a dominant power at the center of the East Asian regional order.
What is most visible in the Chinese exceptionalism narrative (particularly as it has been promoted by the Chinese Communist Party since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre) is the deep-seated sense of injury and humiliation that many Chinese feel toward the outside world, particularly toward Japan and the traditional Western great powers. Although resentment is a common element of many postcolonial master narratives, China’s narrative focuses not so much on imperialist oppression as on the degradation China experienced, which underscores the belief that this humiliation marked a dramatic and unnatural deviation from China’s otherwise pre-eminent role in world history. It speaks not in the voice of a weak victim of injustice, but rather in that of a strong and proud man aggrieved.
It’s also important to note what is not in China’s narrative: the notion that China should be a model for others to emulate. When some American observers worry about a “Beijing Consensus” or a “Beijing model” geared toward aggression, they are projecting one interpretation of America’s exceptionalism narrative onto the Chinese. On the contrary, Chinese exceptionalism depicts China as so unique (and superior) that no other people could possibly hope to emulate China’s accomplishments. Only another 5,000-year-old civilization with a billion people could possibly hope to do so, and there aren’t many candidates for that role.
Understanding China’s exceptionalism narrative yields important insights for U.S.-China bilateral relations. It helps to explain Chinese sensitivity to perceived slights or provocations by foreigners, such as pro-Tibetan demonstrations in France during the Olympic torch relay in 2008 or the ongoing dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The Chinese react badly to the perception that they are being scolded or bullied, for example by being lectured on human rights issues or the need to revalue their currency. That reaction also showed through clearly during the EC-2 incident of April 2001, for example.
This is not to suggest that we should not broach these issues with the Chinese, only that we must take into account China’s sense of exceptionalism when we do. A line that encourages China to assume the responsibilities worthy of a great and powerful nation is, in general, more likely to resonate with Chinese audiences than is a hectoring about the need to follow rules dictated by Western intellectuals and governments. On the other hand, should we ever want to antagonize Russian and Chinese audiences—and in certain cases of alliance management with third parties we might want to—it’s useful to know the most efficient way to do it.
What goes for U.S. dealings with great powers also goes for most other countries. Consider two countries that the typical American reader might be surprised to learn have vibrant exceptionalism narratives of their own: Venezuela and Yemen.
The independence struggles and political turmoil of 19th-century Latin America barely register in the consciousness of most people outside the region. For many in Latin America, however, the “Bolivarian revolutions” deserve the same esteem as the American, French, Russian or Chinese revolutions as heroic events that changed the course of world history. Nowhere does this legacy resonate more strongly than in Venezuela, where Simón Bolívar was born and launched his series of revolutionary wars of colonial independence. Venerating Bolívar forms the core of Venezuela’s exceptionalism narrative, which would go something like this:
After 300 years of colonial oppression, Simón Bolívar in the early 1800s led Venezuela to a triumphant victory over the Spanish, before going on to liberate Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Peru. Since then, Venezuela’s vast oil riches have enabled it to serve not only as the vanguard of Latin American independence, but also as a model of mestizaje (mixed race) racial tolerance and harmony. Today’s Venezuela must honor Bolívar’s legacy and fulfill the nation’s destiny to be a leader in shaping the region’s future. By uniting behind a courageous leader, the nation will reclaim its glory, gain the respect it deserves, and guarantee liberty and prosperity for both Venezuela and the rest of Latin America.
The Venezuelan exceptionalism narrative articulates feelings of responsibility for sister Latin American republics, support for democratic yet paternalistic relations between state and society, and views of the military as a legitimate political actor. While the U.S. media often depicts Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as a sort of sinister clown, understanding these features of the Venezuelan master narrative can help make sense of many specific pronouncements and policies that the Chávez regime has promulgated over the past decade: It helps explain why many Venezuelans forgive his involvement in attempted coups in the 1990s; why he has chosen to support fellow “revolutionary” regimes in Cuba and Bolivia; and why he has continued to spend his country’s oil windfall on building a paternalistic (and inefficient) welfare state.
Indeed, Chávez has explicitly invoked Venezuela’s exceptionalism master narrative to justify his support for the “socialist transformation” of other Latin American countries, ranging from the 2004 creation of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the 2005 PetroCaribe initiative, and the 2011 founding of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). As we write, a 17-story mausoleum for Bolívar himself is being erected in Caracas, at a projected cost of $78 million.
In sum, Venezuelan exceptionalism encourages a sense of national mission for Venezuelans, and outsiders need to take this seriously if they want to understand underlying Venezuelan beliefs and public policies, the better to engage with present and prospective leaderships in Caracas. Recognizing Venezuela’s autonomy and its perceived leadership role in Latin America can help encourage Venezuelan participation in regional and international counternarcotics regimes, humanitarian operations and other initiatives. While most U.S. messaging is likely to be reflexively rejected by staunch Chavistas, broader Venezuelan audiences nonetheless may welcome U.S. messaging that emphasizes themes of Venezuelan independence and regional leadership. That will come in handy, perhaps, once Chávez is gone.
The Western press often depicts Yemen as a failed state and terrorist haven, an incipient combination of Somalia and Taliban-era Afghanistan, as it covers the campaign against al-Qaeda’s local franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Some of this picture rings true; Yemen faces a combination of dire demographic, economic, environmental and political challenges. But it is important to understand Yemen’s sense of itself as exceptional. Here is what the Yemeni narrative sounds like:
For thousands of years, Yemen flourished as a religious beacon among uncivilized peoples. Yemen’s tribes converted to Islam in its earliest days, and even the Prophet said that wisdom, faith and understanding all come from Yemen. For generations after, pious Sunni and Shi‘a alike honored their deep Islamic roots, sharing mosques, praying side by side, practicing tolerance toward each other and living peacefully alongside Yemenis of other faiths. Since the 1970s, however, a radical perversion of Islam has infiltrated Yemen’s stable Muslim communities, inviting strife and division, and threatening to destroy centuries of progress in Islamic thought. Yemenis must stand against this extremist threat that originates from outside Yemen and imperils Yemen’s Islamic heritage. By rejecting radicalism that attempts to pit Sunnis against Shi‘a, Yemen will safeguard the religious peace that provided Yemenis with stability for generations and showed the way to other Muslims.
This self-portrait of Yemen contrasts sharply with the Yemen of today’s news coverage and political analysis. Yemen is not some fringe backwater of the Muslim and Arab worlds, but is rather at the heart of both as an exemplar of religious heritage and tolerance. Many Yemenis see themselves as superior to other Muslim countries, arguing that since the time of the Prophet Yemenis have followed a pure form of Islam untainted by outside influence—and, interestingly enough, that goes both for the Sunnis in the southern and southeastern parts of the country and for the Zaidi Shi‘a in the northern hill country. In this context, the historical coexistence of Shi‘as and Sunnis in Yemen serves as evidence that Yemenis appreciate religious tolerance. While many Yemenis believe their particularly Islamic heritage makes Yemen exceptional, adherents to this narrative also see Yemeni Islam as vulnerable to foreign attack.
Most Yemenis know their country is a wreck right now, but they also overwhelmingly believe that outsiders have done this to them, particularly Saudi outsiders. That is an extremely important datum if we want to gain the cooperation of Yemeni authorities and the Yemeni people in matters that affect U.S. security interests. If we fail to understand and acknowledge the history, tradition and beliefs that lead Yemenis to view themselves as unique, we will only hurt ourselves. Yemenis will appreciate U.S. acknowledgment of their country as tolerant and pious, set apart from other Muslim countries by virtue of its pluralism and intra-Islamic diversity. Indeed, communications that emphasize Yemen’s history of ecumenical tolerance may help draw Yemenis away from supporting AQAP, Salafism and other “foreign” versions of Islam.
While the details of the Yemeni and Venezuelan narratives of exceptionalism may surprise most American readers, the fact that these two countries have such narratives is itself unexceptional. Like it or not, we live in a world of exceptionalisms. Thus, on the one hand, where U.S. actions or words are at odds with local narratives of exceptionalism, we should expect adverse reactions not dissimilar to the ones that many Americans summon up when a foreign leader or critic casts doubt on our cherished beliefs. Where we present our wishes and objectives in ways that fail to acknowledge how others see themselves, we should expect misunderstandings, gaffes, skepticism and myriad gratuitous problems.
On the other hand, understanding the world of exceptionalisms offers tremendous opportunities, particularly during the oft-neglected “gardening phases” of diplomacy. The right question to ask is not whose narrative of exceptionalism is right, but rather: How are the presiding narratives of exceptionalism abroad likely to color how leaders and citizens react to us? By making the asking of this question a routine step in crafting U.S. policy, U.S. foreign policy leaders will be much better positioned to anticipate and shape our country’s evolving image as a global power.
1. See Godfrey Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009) and Stephen Walt, “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”, Foreign Policy (November 2011).
2. See Robert Legvold, “The Three Russias: Decline, Revolution, and Reconstruction”, in Robert Pastor, ed., A Century’s Journey: How the Great Powers Shape the World (Basic Books, 1999).
3. See Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, “In Search of a Master Narrative for 20th-Century Chinese History”, China Quarterly (December 2006).
4. See Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (Columbia University Press, 2012); and Stephen M. Walt, “The Myth of Chinese Exceptionalism”, Foreign Policy (March 6, 2012).
Nils Gilman is the director of research at Monitor 360, an international and government affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Washington. Michael Grosack is a senior manager at Monitor 360. Aaron Harms is a partner at Monitor 360 and leads Monitor 360’s work on master narratives.