Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law

Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law

Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law

Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law


Since its founding, the United States has defined itself as the supreme protector of freedom throughout the world, pointing to its Constitution as the model of law to ensure democracy at home and to protect human rights internationally. Although the United States has consistently emphasized the importance of the international legal system, it has simultaneously distanced itself from many established principles of international law and the institutions that implement them. In fact, the American government has attempted to unilaterally reshape certain doctrines of international law while disregarding others, such as provisions of the Geneva Conventions and the prohibition on torture.

America's selective self-exemption, Natsu Taylor Saito argues, undermines not only specific legal institutions and norms, but leads to a decreased effectiveness of the global rule of law. Meeting the Enemy is a pointed look at why the United States' frequent--if selective--disregard of international law and institutions is met with such high levels of approval, or at least complacency, by the American public.


We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth….
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its
defense…. Let it be said by our children’s children that when
we were tested … with our eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s
grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and
delivered it safely to future generations.

—Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 2009

In January 2009 President Barack Obama took office “amidst gathering clouds and raging storms,” with, among other things, the United States “at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” According to U.S. officials, this so-called war on terror is being fought not only to secure the physical and economic well-being of the American people but also to preserve and extend freedom and democracy throughout the world. in his acceptance speech, Obama emphasized the “enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope,” and his inaugural address assured his worldwide audience that America was again ready to lead the world in realizing these values. Similarly the National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS), a 2002 policy report of the Bush administration, stated that the aim of the U.S. international strategy “is to help make the world not just safer but better. Our goals on the path to progress are clear: political and economic freedom, peaceful relations with other states, and respect for human dignity.”

The aims described by both Barack Obama and George W. Bush correspond to the foundational principles and goals of international law—international peace and security, fundamental human rights, and the global rule of law—clearly articulated in the un Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous multilateral treaties. Nonetheless, as the nss

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