American Exceptionalism and Human Rights

By Michael Ignatieff | Go to book overview

Chapter 11
American Exceptionalism, Exemptionalism,
and Global Governance

JOHN GERARD RUGGIE

MORE THAN ANY other country, the United States was responsible for creating the post-World War II system of global governance. But from the start, that historic mission exhibited the conflicting effects of two very different forms of American exceptionalism. For Franklin Roosevelt, the key challenge was to overcome the isolationist legacy of the 1930s and to ensure sustained U.S. engagement in achieving and maintaining a stable international order. Old-world balance-of-power reasoning in support of that mission held little allure for the American people—protected by two oceans, with friendly and weaker neighbors to the north and south, and pulled unwillingly into two costly world wars by that system's breakdown. So Roosevelt framed his plans for winning the peace in a broader vision that tapped into America's sense of self as a nation: the promise of an international order based on rules and institutions promoting human betterment through free trade and American-led collective security, human rights and decolonization, as well as active international involvement by the private and voluntary sectors. For Roosevelt's successors, countering the Soviet threat reinforced the mission and in many respects made it easier to achieve. This first form of American exceptionalism— pursuing an international order that resonated with values the American people saw as their own—became the basis for a global transformational agenda whose effects are unfolding still.1

Earlier versions of this chapter were presented at the Bucerius University Program on
Global Governance in Hamburg, Germany; the Kennedy School's Carr Center for Human
Rights Policy seminar on American Exceptionalism; a conference on American Unilater-
alism at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University; the Yale Law School Globaliza-
tion Seminar; and the University of Toronto Law School Workshop on Law, Globalization
and Justice. I am indebted to Cary Coglianese, Michael Ignatieff, Kal Raustiala, Frederick
Schauer, and Anne-Marie Slaughter for their helpful comments; to Jason Scott for biblio-
graphical assistance; and to the Kennedy School Initiative on Corporate Social Responsibil-
ity for research support.

1 I have discussed Roosevelt's strategy of engagement and its legacy at length in John
Gerard Ruggie, Winning the Peace: America and World Order in the New Era (New York:

-304-

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