American Exceptionalism and Human Rights

By Michael Ignatieff | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
American Exceptionalism: The New Version

STANLEY HOFFMANN


I

Each nation tends to see itself as unique. Two, France and the United States, consider themselves as exceptional because—or so they claim—of the universality of their values. One only, the United States, has tried to develop foreign policies that reflect such exceptionalism. Whereas France and most of the European powers have tended, or been forced, to practice balance-of-power politics for their protection and for the creation of minimal order in the international jungle, the United States has had much leeway to be original. The main component of its exceptionalism has been, for more than a century after its independence, its geographically privileged position: far enough away from Europe and Asia to be able to be safe and uninvolved, yet capable of expanding into contiguous territories easily and without much of a contest. A second component was its institutions: it grew into being the greatest representative democracy, with greater participation of the public and of the legislative branch in foreign affairs than occurred anywhere else. Finally, American principles turned geography and institutions into guidelines for behavior: a distaste for the rule of force that characterized European diplomacy and colonialism, the repudiation of aristocracy and its wiles, enshrined in a sacred text, the Constitution, which served and still serves as the glue that amalgamates all the ingredients of the melting pot. (France, with its vast number of constitutions, could use only its language and culture as the glue of Frenchness.)1

The sense of special mission imparted by these components left ample room for contradictions and complexities. The lofty feeling of democratic superiority and universal relevance was perfectly compatible, in practice, with a pursuit of national interest and advantage that was just as fierce as elsewhere—indeed geographical position and political faith facilitated

1 See S. Hoffmann, Gulliver's Troubles (New York: McGraw Hill, 1968), pt. 2.

-225-

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