Presidential American Exceptionalism and U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1897

There are a few interesting points that I have come across in my research on how the ideology of American exceptionalism has influenced presidential foreign policy. When I had started my research, I had expected to focus mainly on how much a president emphasized an “exceptional” nature of America; some do it more than others. Furthermore, some presidents argue that the U.S. is absolutely good and can justify almost any action it takes in foreign policy, while others are more inclined to admit U.S. fallibility (think of Theodore Roosevelt vs. Jimmy Carter, for example). What I did not initially anticipate was looking at a second dimension – the degree of unilateralism versus internationalism that a president embraces in terms of their foreign policy ideology. I initially began to consider this when comparing Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush. Both asserted an incredibly messianic conception of America’s role in the world, but they differed fundamentally on how to attempt to implement it. Wilson of course wanted to create the League of Nations; Bush was more willing to embrace primarily American action and was more skeptical of the UN.

Another particularly interesting finding is the uniqueness of the 1970s in foreign policy as it relates to articulations of American exceptionalism. This of course relates to the impact of the Vietnam War on our nation. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, I would argue, embraced a fundamentally unique conception of exceptionalism as compared to other presidents in the twentieth century. They more than any other administration argued for the creation of a pure balance of power, but still referenced exceptionalism in asserting that, over the long run, this would be the best way for America to prevail in ideological competition with the Soviet Union. By contrast, Jimmy Carter came to office wanting to restore morality to foreign policy where he believed it had been lacking, and he admitted American fallibility while pledging more action on human rights. These two visions of exceptionalism both appear in the 1970s I think as a result of the war. Just for background, my paper argues that foreign policy can be conceptualized since 1897 into four essential attitudes towards exceptionalism, which I refer to as messianic Americanism, messianic internationalism, realist exemplarism, and pragmatic moralism. I’m excited to discuss my paper and get feedback from everyone and to hear how everyone else’s projects have gone as well!

Looking forward to seeing everyone again at the Spring Conference!

About johnadearborn

I am a senior political science major at the University of Connecticut.
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