American exceptionalism has always been a vital issue. This term refers to the Americans’ perception of themselves as a unique nation with specific ideals of democracy, civil rights, and liberty. For years, various scholars have been arguing whether the theory of exceptionalism has a right to exist, and whether it may have negative as well as positive aspects. However, considering the recent academic debates, it is possible to state that American exceptionalism can be viewed as both good and bad phenomenon.
Harold Koh, though accepting American exceptionalism as an important social concept, argues that it is a highly controversial issue. He points out the principal flaws of American exceptionalism that make it a complicated problem demanding close attention of the authorities. Some legal or social spheres, in which exceptionalism is frequently displayed, can be subject to serious argument. Koh illustrates his hypothesis by an American free speech tradition: a particular free speech tradition sometimes can cause problems abroad, for example, discontent can occur when a hate speech is spread in the Internet (Koh, 2003). Among the most painful problems of American exceptionalism the scholar lists, “in order of ascending opprobrium: distinctive rights, different labels, the ‘flying buttress’ mentality, and double standards” (Koh, 2003). Koh states that these controversies can weaken America’s moral authority and cause significant international disagreement (Koh, 2003). The scholar is also unsatisfied with the transnational legal processes that have become a part of American legal activity. Transnational legal processes concern chiefly international treaty practices, such as ratification, non-ratification, ratification with reservations, or the non-self executing treaty doctrine. In Koh’s opinion, these practices are applied inconsistently, and the Supreme Court should urgently reinterpret them (Koh, 2003).
Ted Bromund, on the contrary, is an active supporter of American exceptionalism. He states that Americans were the first nation to achieve many things, such as liberal democracy, freedom of movement, equality of values and others (Bromund, 2009). In Bromund’s opinion, Americans can justly consider themselves as an exceptional nation since the USA is historically unique (Bromund, 2009). Bromund disagrees with Koh on the point of the problems that exceptionalism is likely to trigger. He writes that the opponent’s arguments are naive. As an example, Bromund cites the issue of double standards in legislation and treaties: the USA refuses to sign some international treaties not because of the so called double standards, but because the other parties of the treaty are “far less law-abiding.” This might be a sufficient reason for the U.S. not to agree with the treaty conditions (Bromund, 2009). He also refutes Koh’s interpretation of double standards, since different approaches to the political matters are inherent in any self-government, and this normally does not result in significant problems that Koh was discussing. Thus, Bromund is opposed to criticism as well as to the dismissive treatment of American exceptionalism that, in his opinion, have become an inseparable part of the modern USA politics because of the elite that came to power with Barack Obama (Bromund, 2009). The main problem currently should be the revival of American exceptionalism since the elite and the government are fundamentally opposed to it.
American exceptionalism is not a new phenomenon, and, as most historical issues, it naturally has both advantages and disadvantages. The main problems of American exceptionalism date back to the false conviction of the first settlers that “were conducting a special errand into the wilderness to construct a city on a hill in the name of their heavenly father. This is no accident” (Jacobs, 2004). This belief resulted in extreme methods of American colonization, such as unjustified violence against the local population (for instance, murders of Pequot women and children or mass killings of the Sioux at the order of General Custer). These facts reveal the dark side of American exceptionalism. The disadvantages of exceptionalism include also such controversial issues as strengthening of the military basis, capital punishment, poverty, health insurance void, abuse of the Second Amendment, Guantamo Bay and others (Jacobs, 2004).
Another problem is that, initially, the conception of American exceptionalism was founded upon the USA system of democracy, some of its religious and cultural constructs as well as on its political and economic superiority. However, nowadays America’s wealth is the main reason for the belief in its exceptionalism, and one may remark that this is not a sufficient ground to justify the exceptionalism theory. As Ron Jacobs (2004) says, “America is not a better country than any other. Its citizens are as venal and as great as any others in any other part of the world.” Thus, the idea of exceptionalism can sometimes become an inhibitor that can prevent America from achieving some important political and social goals. To support this statement, one can cite Jacob’s work proving that if America does not accept itself as a the same part of the world as any other country and abandon the myth of its exceptionalism, all democratic movements and a struggle against wars or racism will be doomed to a failure (Jacobs, 2004). To achieve its goal, a country should be free of prejudice and form an objective idea about itself.
However, the conception of exceptionalism had positive results as well. As an example, one can describe the idea of the USA as a “redeemer nation” that, as Benjamin Franklin put it, implied the creation of a secular state that would be free of the corrupted European politics (Phillips, 2010). In the modern world, the positive aspects of American exceptionalism can be further developed. They include the antiwar movement, the propagation of democratic ideals, political correctness, the struggle for equal rights of women, sexual minorities and so on. Tolerance, democracy, and overall freedom of speech and movement are the principal reasons why Americans have a right to be considered as an exceptional nation. As a Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palinclaims that Americans have always been and still are a beacon of hope. She underlines that the nation is not perfect, but it can still represent a perfect ideal (Phillips, 2010).