American Exceptionalism Is a Concept Thesis

Pages: 6 (1870 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 6  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: American History

American exceptionalism is a concept that has been shrouded in controversy since the arrival of the first British pioneers and settlers. The ideal of exceptionalism was born as a result of the Puritan view that the colonialists were on a God-given mission to create a perfect community on a proverbial "hill." This began a cultural paradigm that still prevails today, for better or for worse; the paradigm that the United States is "special" in comparison with the rest of the world. Not all critics agree with this assessment, however, and some, such as Ron Jacobs and Martin Sellevold are decidedly negative on the exceptional nature of the United States and its citizens. Others, such as Harold Hongju Koh and Dennis Phillips, have a more balanced view, acknowledging that American exceptionalism is valid and acceptable to a certain degree, but not in an all-encompassing way. On the other side of the scale, critics such as Ted Bromund and Alexis de Tocqueville disregard all criticism to the contrary and promote American exceptionalism in all its forms and dimensions.

Harold Hongju Koh, as mentioned above, acknowledges that "American exceptionalism has both good and bad faces" (13). In explanation, he distinguishes between four different paradigms of the concept, while finally addressing the positive side of exceptionalism. According to Koh, American exceptionalism can be classified in the groups designated as "distinctive rights," "different labels," "the flying buttress mentality," and "double standards" (9).

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According to Koh, the first label, distinctive rights, has been promoted much more strongly in the United States than anywhere else in the world. While this promotes equality, it could also be viewed in a negative light in terms of hate speech under the umbrella of free speech. The law does however prohibit actions that could infringe upon the rights of others. Even thought freedom of speech and religion is promoted, these are not allowed to the extent where it creates a conflict with the rights of other citizens.

TOPIC: Thesis on American Exceptionalism Is a Concept That Has Assignment

The "different labels" paradigm, according to Koh, sets the United States apart from other countries on a semantic level, but not as such on the level of attached meaning. Koh designates this as little more than an annoyance in terms of having to explain to the rest of the world the synonymous terms being used for issues such as "torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment."

The "flying buttress" mentality, according to Koh, relates to the policy trend of compliance without ratification. This mentality supports complying with certain conventions without as such subjecting them to critical evaluation or formally ratifying them. This, according to the author, provides the country with the appearance of compliance while also promoting the "illusion of unfettered sovereignty" (10). Although this is a negative facet of exceptionalism, it is more an internal, domestic problem than in terms of affecting the global arena.

More problematic than this, according to Koh, is the use of American power and wealth for the promotion of a double standard. Under this paradigm, American exceptionalism requires that different standards apply to itself than to the rest of the world. As examples, Koh mentions issues such as "the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, and declining to implement orders of the International Court of Justice with regard to the death penalty (10).

Importantly, Koh supplements his discussion of the above four aspects of American exceptionalism by a focus on its more positive aspects. According to the author, the one area of true American exceptionalism is the country's "exceptional global leadership and activism" (11). Koh notes that this leadership has promoted a global focus upon the values of democracy and human rights. Furthermore, it is also important to realize that a lack of American leadership in these areas have resulted in atrocities and chaos at times.

Koh concludes by noting that American exceptionalism should be acknowledged as both good and bad; it has true value in terms of global leadership, although the concept can be abused by promoting a double standard in the country's relationship with the rest of the world. He notes that the paradigm of American exceptionalism as either good or bad is a matter of perspective and use; in other words, the term and its meaning are fluid.

Ted Bromund, in responding to Koh's views, disagrees entirely with the fluidity concept. According to this author, American exceptionalism is both true and good. To substantiate this claim, Bromund notes that the United States is the "oldest and most stable capitalist liberal democracy" in the world (16). The author also cites various instances in which the United States was the first in the world to accomplish various feats, such as rebelling against a colonial power, the nation's foundation upon the belief in the inherent and God-given rights of man, and the basis of the government upon the consent of the people. As such, the United States was the first to acknowledge the role of citizens in creating and maintaining a democratic Constitution (17).

While all this is true, I believe that Bromund's response to Koh is both somewhat harsh and disregarding of the full extent of Koh's argumentation. Bromund for example claims Koh's argument as stating that "all American exceptionalism is bad" (18). Surely this does not acknowledge the full range of Koh's statements. As mentioned above, Koh notes that exceptionalism is negative to a certain degree, but also directly states that it has both good and bad aspects. Bromund's claim in this regard is therefore completely discredited when based upon the textual evidence of Koh's writing.

Another interesting claim by Bromund is that Koh accuses the United States as a "serial abuser of children" (19). This also is somewhat removed from the truth of Koh's statements, which only in passing referred to the American tendency to comply with ratification when it comes to children's rights and conventions against the use of children for child labor and military recruitment.

While the truth of Bromund's statements regarding the exceptional achievements of the United States can certainly not be denied, his idealistic blindness for the more negative aspects of such exceptionalism is to be regretted. Indeed, I believe that both Koh and Bromund could benefit from integrating their views. American exceptionalism, especially in terms of free speech, is not entirely as negative as Koh claims. However, there is certainly a negative aspect in terms of the double standard mentioned by Koh, to which Bromund appears to turn a blind eye.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1) appears to share Bromund's blindly idealistic sense of American exceptionalism as both good and indisputably true. The author also bases his views of American exceptionalism upon the observation of the nation as a practical one in terms of other nations and ideals. According to De Tocqueville, the country and its people are successful because they rely upon themselves and their needs rather than upon others to supply in those needs.

Perhaps in response to this blind idealism, some critics are exclusively negative about American exceptionalism. Ron Jacobs for example addresses the similar views to that of Koh in terms of the double standard. According to Jacobs (3), this exceptionalism concept is used to exempt the United States from its global responsibility to the rule of law and the regulation of human rights and global economics. Indeed, the author appears to imply that American exceptionalism is a sense of superiority used as a license for the United States to do as it pleases.

In this regard, the author mentions facts that are equally grounded in history as those mentioned by Bromund. Jacobs for example mentions atrocities such as the murder of Pequot women and children, as well as the mass murder of the Sioux people, and more recently, the murder of Korean and Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers. Indeed, this is the very double standard that Koh mentions. On the one hand, American exceptionalism is praised on the basis of the country's notable and laudable accomplishments, while on the other, the same sense of exceptionalism is criticized for the atrocities it instigates. In this way, the very concept of American exceptionalism appears to hold inherent contradictions and double standards.

Jacobs's views are interesting in terms of his acknowledgment of American attempts to redress issues of superiority-driven atrocities. He for example mentions the American drive towards securing rights for women, homosexuals and people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Although these are inherently good endeavors, Jacobs use even these to substantiate his argument towards the negative view of exceptionalism. Indeed, he notes that these simply substantiate the American ideal of superiority as opposed to an acceptable sense of exceptionalism. The author appears to indicate that struggles for equal rights and the like are used merely as beacons to prove the superiority of the nation and to provide license for further atrocity.

The author's paradigm is most clearly stated in his final paragraph: "American is not a better country than any other…the only thing that sets us apart is our wealth. The only reason we… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "American Exceptionalism Is a Concept" Thesis in a Bibliography:

APA Style

American Exceptionalism Is a Concept.  (2009, October 21).  Retrieved December 2, 2021, from

MLA Format

"American Exceptionalism Is a Concept."  21 October 2009.  Web.  2 December 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"American Exceptionalism Is a Concept."  October 21, 2009.  Accessed December 2, 2021.