From Exceptionalism to American Universalism

From Baripedia

We are going to look at a number of structural issues and problems relating to American foreign policy in the long term. We have to look at the long term; we will see how this foreign policy is structured, according to what guidelines, how the relationship with the world of the United States was built up gradually from the middle of the 19th century to the present day, and what has existed since the beginning of American history.

Exceptionalism is the idea that there is an American exception that the United States is a particular country with a particular destiny. This is not very original, but it is particularly strong in the United States and important considering the importance of the United States in world geopolitics and world order during the 20th century.

Universalism is the idea that a country has a particular destiny but that this country understands, is aware of the certainty and willingness to be a model for the rest of the world.

This balancing is something that is a structural balancing act in U.S. relations to the world and in the context of U.S. foreign policy. It is a country that, like any other country, has built a foreign policy whose objective is to assert its power and defend its particular interests, and at the same time a foreign policy that goes further than that, of power, great power and superpower. It is a foreign policy that defends national interests but goes further than that, presenting a model, in American foreign policy and the way it is implemented, this model should apply to the whole of humanity in a future embodying the future of humanity.

We will first focus on the notion of exceptionalism, and then on the crystallization of universalism, where this notion of universalism becomes preponderant in American foreign policy, especially as the weight of the United States will increase in international relations. Universalism will no longer only be a discourse disconnected from reality, but a reality with the growing weight of the United States in international relations and finally the dilemma of American foreign policy.

Components of exceptionalism[edit | edit source]

The American Democracy[edit | edit source]

Press drawing (attributed to Benjamin Franklin) which was first published during the French-Indian war during the Seven Years' War, then reused to encourage the American colonies to unite against the British Crown.

American exceptionalism, the certainty of having a particular destiny, manifests itself with a first fundamental element that can be found in the origins of the creation of the United States. It is an element of long duration, a whole series of notions are put in place at this time, especially regarding the conception of freedom and the relation to power. One of the fundamental elements experienced by immigrants in what will become the United States is that they will find a "New World" where the despotism of monarchic regimes and in particular the religious persecutions that were then the rule in 17th century Europe do not exist. Fundamental attachment to freedom is a structural element of the real and lived understanding of the difference between the United States and Europe.

One of the characteristics of the Thirteen colonies is extreme autonomy, each colony had an autonomous history with its own specific organisation, which was a mixture of centralism in order to make the whole thing work and decentralisation, because one of the fundamental elements of migrants was their attachment to freedom and more particularly to individual freedom. The dialectic between centralization and decentralization is still strong in the eastern colonies of the United States.

The third important aspect is that when the Thirteen colonies declare their independence from Britain, the American War of Independence is both a war against England and a war against the monarchy. Finally, in the struggle for democracy, on the one hand, and the construction of foreign policy on the other, are two realities closely linked from the origins of the American Republic. There is the idea that every foreign policy starts with a struggle for democracy.

The U.S. government as it conceived itself from the outset has always had a dual objective: that power is both supposed to defend the country against the colonizer and the idea that it should not be too strong either, otherwise it becomes tyranny to the detriment of individual freedom. This centralized/decentralized couple is a cursor in the American political system that oscillates continuously over time.


If we look at the Checks and Balances system, it is a political system in which each power corresponds a counter-power with its balances. A power must assert power and centralization, and a power must protect the individual from encroachment by the other power. Every time a power is created, a counter-power has been created. The federal states come together to represent their own power and the federal state is unifying. There is always the struggle between the federal state and the autonomy of the federated states. They're a structural couple. The same thing is between the central government and the Congress, which represents the individual against the state. Inside Congress there is the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives: the Senate represents states, and the House of Representatives represents individuals.

The coincidence between empire and democracy is not a contradiction between empire and democracy. The idea of the founding fathers of the American Republic like Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Jay is that they are convinced they have achieved a perfect synthesis. The American Republic is a counterpoint to a Europe under the monarchical rule at this time in history. It is a perfect synthesis between affirmation of power, on the one hand, and respect for individual freedom on the other.

This design will very quickly be designed as exportable. The idea that the United States can, and must, export democracy is present in American politics from the very beginning because precisely the designers of the American Republic believe that they have achieved the perfect synthesis that must become a model for the rest of humanity.

U.S. foreign policy is absolutely not disconnected from what is going on inside. It is necessary to leave the distinction made by the theorists of realistic science that separates domestic politics from foreign policy. In the context of the United States, there is an intimate connection between foreign and domestic policy.

A modern laboratory[edit | edit source]

When one analyzes American exceptionalism there is also an intimate relationship to modernity which is important to understand which is structural from the outset becoming very important in foreign policy in the twentieth century and present from the seventeenth century. What will become the United States is being conceived and perceived by Europeans as a laboratory of modernity.

Religious freedom is absolutely fundamental. Those who emigrate to the United States are multi-religious people and dissidents. In the United States there are people with very different religious beliefs. The only way that the future "Americans" have in order to continue living together is not to impose a state religion. The first to do so was Pennsylvania in 1684, which was the first state to introduce religious tolerance as a principle. Many philosophers of the Enlightenment will see the United States as a laboratory of freedom because the idea of religious freedom and tolerance is an innovative initiative that will structure the thought of the Enlightenment in Europe.

Postcard photo of the Rexall Train.

The use of technology is early, immoderate and permanent in order to enhance the territory. The Americans, from the creation of the United States, will soon conquer a huge territory with a relatively small population. To develop the territory as it lacks arms, the machines will be developed. Very quickly, the development of the territory, natural and agricultural resources will be based on the construction of highly developed machine tools. There is a strong technological dimension, there is the idea that Americans are able to tame nature. The American relationship to modernity is a fundamental element of American exceptionalism.

The theme of modernity will be repeated throughout the course, especially after the Second World War. There is a dimension to bring modernity to countries that do not have it. Modernisation theories developed in the 1950s. The idea of modernity is absolutely central to the construction of American exceptionalism.

A chosen people: the "Manifest destiny"[edit | edit source]

This work, painted around 1872 by John Gast entitled American Progress, is an allegorical representation of "Manifest Destiny". In this scene, an angelic woman (sometimes identified as Columbia, the personification of the United States in the 19th century, carries the light of "civilization" to the west with the American settlers, wiring the telegraph in her furrow. Native Americans and wildlife flee to the darkness of the wild west.

The "Manifest Destiny" is the idea that the American population, immigrants are dissidents emigrating with the certainty of being an elected people carrying the future. The expression "New World" is not only a geographical reality but the idea of building a new society in general.

The inhabitants of what will become the United States will think of themselves as an elected people embodying the future of the world. This thesis will crystallize as a founding element of American political culture and thus become a guideline for American foreign policy. In the mid-19th century in the years 1840 - 1846, the United States expanded westward, there is a huge territorial expansion, there is a good one in the American power that is being done at that time. This is the time when there is beginning to be the conquest of foreign markets and in particular the Chinese market. There is a real commercial exception, in order to develop the territory which is becoming more and more enormous, special technical devices are needed, particularly in the field of communications with the construction of railroads linking east to west.

This is interpreted by the American people and the intellectual milieu as the exceptional and a divine appeal calling for the destiny of the United States. The United States is the only modern democracy where the president still swears on the Bible. All these signs appear as a divine sign with an exceptional destiny awaiting the United States.

John O' Sullivan's idea of Manigest Destiny, formulated by John O' Sullivan in 1845, was taken up by Walt Whitman and Ralph W. Emerson[4][5]. They develop the idea that the United States is an exceptional country with an exceptional destiny to conquer American territory and possibly more, while spreading the principles of American democracy to the rest of the world, which at that time was also based on racial distinctions.

The crystallization of the exceptional destiny was made in the years 1840 - 1850 with the speech of the Manifest Destiny which remains theoretical since in 1845 the United States is not yet a great power. In fact, it will be characterized by the conquest of a huge territory and the sharing of the benefits of democracy.

Permanent conquest of the border[edit | edit source]

Theodore Roosevelt with Richard Harding Davis in Cuba, 1898.

Territorial conquest, on the one hand, and the creation of a national identity and nation-building are two things that happen at the same time. The concept of national identity cannot be dissociated from the conquest of territory, both processes come at the same time.

The process of forming the American national identity is concomitant with conquest and substantial to the construction of identity. It is a discourse and a practice that migrants will adopt by constantly pushing back the border. Migrants have an extremely strong relationship with the idea of Manifest Destiny. When migrants arrive in California or the central west, they find large areas of fertile land that they will transform and exploit.

They're pushing the border back to the Pacific. By the 1890s, when the United States was declared unified, the next step became the rest of the world. Specifically, American foreign policy is only a continuation of the process of American conquest. At the end of the war against Spain, Theodore Roosevelt had these words: "the Americanization of the world is our destiny".

The permanent conquest of the border is a fundamental element of American expansionist policy. The rest of the world is a territory potentially open to American conquest. Somehow, if we continue with reasoning, there is no break between U.S. domestic policy and foreign policy. The world is only a potential garden of American politics, the border between the United States and the rest of the world is a permeable conception.

A World Country[edit | edit source]

Immigrants at Ellis Island, New York.

Most of the immigrants are English and Dutch but the United States quickly became a kaleidoscopic country with a diversification of migrants through series of waves that would largely populate the country. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was a country of immigration. On the other hand, the great wave is between 1890 and 1920 with up to 1 million immigrants a year.

Very quickly is integrated the component that the United States is a condensed of humanity because people come from everywhere. It is a "world country" better able to understand the world. The American political and social synthesis must take into account influences from various systems and countries. The United States manages to bring people from different backgrounds together. The United States is exceptional because it is a "world country", a compendium of people who can serve as a model for the future of humanity. The discourse of the Destiny Manifest has deep and powerful inks that form part of the doctrine in concrete elements.

The crystallization of universalism[edit | edit source]

The end and the means[edit | edit source]

Satirical drawing representing the monopoly of society in the 1900s.

There is a time when universalism is crystallizing as it matures in its discourse and implementation. On the universalist dimension, the important moment is the 1890s because it is the time when the country is unified and there is an additional stage of achievement, the population is more and more important, finally, there is a country that becomes an extremely important economic power. Already before 1914, the United States was the world's leading economic power in terms of industrial production, surpassing Great Britain, Germany and France combined.

The economic power is major with an important and protected internal market, while the American market is not very open to European products. This highly protected market allows huge industrial groups to establish themselves. It is an extremely concentrated economy with large groups that have the characteristic of being fairly rapidly monopolized on the American market and having very quickly global ambitions, particularly with the ambition of conquering foreign markets as early as the end of the 19th century. Standard Oil Company holds a monopoly on the domestic oil market and 90% of the world market. The decade of the 1890s is absolutely fundamental.

A multiplicity of actors[edit | edit source]

Universalism comes from different backgrounds, there is a multiplicity of actors. American foreign policy is made by many different actors. Universalist discourse from different origins is the product of diverse and varied actions from different backgrounds. The construction of American foreign policy is not only done with the impetus of the state, which would do everything. The American state is only one actor among many. The American state is the receptacle of a multitude of lobbies permeable to a whole series of external stresses. The international programme is not just the result of the deliberations of a small number of administrators. This discourse can be found in a whole series of internationalizing groups.

When we speak of "American messianism", the United States is a country of missions where there are many Protestant missions that will preach the Anglo-Saxon gospel there. It is an important element of the early 19th century with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which coordinates Protestant missions around the world. At the beginning of the 20th century there were more than 1000 different missions in China and more than 600 in Japan under a power strike force. They are evangelistic missions, but they also advocate the export of the American model. These different missionary movements have ambiguous relations with the American government, which often let go, endorse and sometimes protect missionaries, as in the Boxer Revolution of 1900 in China.

There are also a host of associations and organizations that Ian Tyrrell calls "Moral Reformers", which are associations with specific goals such as promoting youth physical and moral education through the YMCAs or abstinence from drinking through the New York Society for the Abolition of Vice. All these associations are planned in a whole series of countries from the years 1870 - 1880. The YMCA is one of the most dynamic companies that has set up subsidiaries in many European countries.

Manufacturers began to conquer world markets at the end of the 19th century. They are also grouped in associations such as the American Manufacturers Export Association founded in 1909 or the American Chamber of Commerce created in 1912. They are industrialists competing against each other on American soil, but when it comes to going outside, they play together. At the end of the 19th - beginning of the 20th century, these associations aim to operate on a global scale. It is a pragmatic industrialism with the idea of conquering world markets dominated by Europeans.

Original Rockefeller Foundation logo.

Philanthropists are often industrialists who have made a fortune in their field of activity, such as Rockefeller and Carnegie, who create philanthropic foundations that will operate in a variety of parts of the world by funding research centres, organizing health campaigns and at the same time promoting American modernity. Philanthropic foundations are implementing global policies with the first major immunization campaigns. Philanthropists are a category that works around the world. The motto of the Rockefeller Foundation suggests a global and universalism project that is becoming clearer:"to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world".

In the 1890s, the military, which became a major lobby in the U.S. federal administration, demanded an increase in American firepower, and in particular in naval power. The military power at the end of the 19th century was measured by the strength of its navy, which is why the military demanded an increase in the tonnage of the American navy. There is concomitant lobbying by the military and industry, which also allows the state to increase its geostrategic potential, giving it the capacity to be present in a wider variety of operational theatres.

Opinion-makers and especially journalists are in the golden age of the written press. They are important in relaying a discourse to promote the fact that the United States is an important power and that its policy must develop on a global scale.

Statesmen formalize the decision-making process and implement a policy that gives concrete expression to universalism. From the end of the 19th century onwards, American political leaders had a formalized global ambition.

Entering the arena of powers[edit | edit source]

The "Council of Four" at the Peace Conference: Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson.

At the end of the 19th century, the United States, which was a regional power until the 1890s, entered the arena of the great powers with the war against the Spanish Empire ending and the beginning of a first American colonial empire with Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. The clash with Spain marks the entry of the United States into the world of the great powers.

The next stage of entry into the arena of the great powers was the Corolar Roosevelt to the Monroe doctrine in 1904. It is a question of reserving America for the United States and reserves the right to intervene on the American continent as a whole in the event that civilization is threatened. Roosevelt will theorize the possible and ultimately the right to intervene in the affairs of the entire American continent.

Roosevelt was to mediate the Russian-Japanese war in 1904-1905 because Roosevelt was worried about the Japanese expansion, but this intervention was unsuccessful. It will mingle with a conflict that is outside the American natural influence zone. The second mediation and the Moroccan crisis of 1905 - 1906 which was a crisis between European powers affirming the fact that the interest of the United States also goes outside the American continent. The United States is potentially interested in areas outside its area of national influence. There is an expansion of potential intervention zones in the United States. The First World War from this point of view is an important turning point.

The First World War was the first intervention by American soldiers outside American territory, playing a decisive role in the victory of the Agreement against the Central Powers. In 1918, the arbitrator for the Versailles Conference was Wilson. The Americans are the arbitrators of peace and creditors of the world holding half of the world's gold stocks. The United States is increasingly asserting itself on the international scene.

The Dilemmas of United States Foreign Policy[edit | edit source]

The central issue is that the United States is acquiring a growing military, economic and diplomatic power with an imbalance in relation to the other powers. The question is to manage the balance between rising powers and traditional powers. From the point of view of the American conception, it is the difficult articulation between the respect of the founding principles of the American Republic and the power politics itself that can and indeed goes in contradiction with these principles. How to remain a democratic power when you become a superpower. That is the dilemma in the United States.

Imperialism and Freedom[edit | edit source]

Portrait of Jefferson, painted by Rembrandt Peale, 1805.

Imperialism and freedom may appear intellectually contradictory but in the spirit of the American vision these terms are not. U.S. leaders have the certainty of having built a perfect political synthesis is a major element in the justification of U.S. foreign policy. For Jefferson, the United States is the "Empire of Freedom". There is a democratic regime that is being built notwithstanding the limits of this construction, it is an exception in early 19th century Europe dominated by monarchies and, on the other hand, imperial expansion. For Americans, there is no contradiction between imperialist extension and the freedom regime.

The United States will rapidly develop a specific expansionary policy. The big idea is to oppose the colonial powers. In American history, there is a visceral opposition to colonialism, explained by the fact that the United States is an emancipated colony of England. The other point is that once the United States becomes strong and powerful enough, there are voices within the United States that they also have the right to an empire. There is a lobby that developed at the end of the 19th century in favour of the creation of an American colonial empire which was created with the Spanish defeat in 1898.

The voice of the American imperialists with the discourse of a European-style colonialism will soon be in the minority. The idea of different expansionism will be advocated not according to the European colonial model but to develop a specific expansionism not based on military presence but the fund of expansionism will be to create zones of economic influence in particular. In the U.S. report and in American foreign policy, the economy is a major component of power politics. You have to find another way to make your power felt.

The space that the United States deserves must be consistent with respect for the founding principles of American democracy. This is the specificity of American expansionism, which sees itself as an "Empire of freedom". One of the major threads of American foreign policy and democratic expansion but also the fact that the spread of democracy is fundamental to the principles of American foreign policy. The one who theorized this doctrine is Wilson with the idea of "making the world safe for democracy".

This questioning will reappear with the fall of the Soviet Union which will lead to an imbalance between freedom and expansion posing a contradiction between imperialism and freedom. There is a strong tension between these two poles, it is a particularly strong tension throughout American history.

Isolationism and Interventionism[edit | edit source]

The United States has been constantly oscillating since the 19th century between being centered on its national interests or defending and fighting for universal principles or judged such. The concept of isolationism is based on the idea that there is a radical separation between Europe and the United States. The discourse emerges that European interests and American politics are different from American interests. There is the idea of creating a "New World" and moving away from European politics. This does not mean not interfering in world politics, but they want Europeans not to interfere in their affairs.

Isolationism is also based on a concrete reality that the distance between the heart of global politics, which is Europe and the United States, is several thousand kilometres long, making the United States a nation sheltered from European conflicts. To keep safe, the idea is that in all European conflicts, the United States is neutral and does not enter into any alliances that could take them on board in European conflicts.

Isolationism manifests itself in particular during the French revolutionary wars where the United States refuses to intervene even according to the principle of democratic solidarity. The Monroe doctrine aimed to draw a watertight boundary between the two continents. On the other hand, military conflicts must be avoided as much as possible. The fact that American diplomacy is oriented towards zones of influence and economic expansion is to avoid being embarked on military conflicts while a foreign policy based on the economy allows for freer hands.

The isolationist idea was gradually defeated from the beginning of the 20th century onwards because gradually Roosevelt became involved in European crises and American intervention in the First World War was a step forward in breaking with isolationism. If the United States rejects the League of Nations, this does not prevent it from being involved in European affairs, especially financial affairs. The Second World War was a massive intervention alongside the allies with military and economic potential invested in this conflict. During the Cold War there was a blatant break with the isolationist principle. When we look at the enormous system of alliances set up by the United States during the Cold War, it shows that the United States is gradually breaking away from the isolationist element with an increasingly strong interventionist element.

The isolationist dimension does not disappear altogether. Since the 1900s, an isolationist trend has been returning. The First Golf War marked the continuation of the interventionist dimension, but then there was a return to an isolationist policy. The minimal intervention in Yugoslavia, the gradual disengagement of the United States from most UN peacekeeping operations from 1994 onwards, shows a gradual return to isolationism. However, both trends are still present but periods of time will change the balance without a trend disappearing.

Between idealism and realism[edit | edit source]

On the one hand, there are great moral principles of foreign policy and, on the other hand, there is an emphasis on American national interests. These two poles are extremely important.

With Wilson, there was the idea of rebuilding international relations on a new basis with the idea of promoting democracy and freedom while breaking with diplomacy as thought by Europeans. Once the United States becomes a regional and then an international power, the United States will not hesitate to intervene to protect its national interests.

There is a cohabitation between these two elements. If we take Wilson's case, he has a policy of using force in Latin America. This oscillation between these two poles is permanent at Wilson's, also during the Cold War, where, on the one hand, there are the principles of the defence of democracy and then the pretext of dictatorships to stem Communism as in Asia and the support for dictatorships in South America. Since the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the 2000s, the neoconservative movement has emerged, which wants to spread democracy in the world by using war. The United States plans to reconfigure the Middle East and the Middle East, including through war.

Unilateralism and Multilateralism[edit | edit source]

Should we conduct our foreign policy alone or negotiate and take into account the views of others? These are two tensions that highlight the tension between unilateralism and multilateralism in military and economic terms. Between the end of the 19th century, when the United States set up ad hoc arrangements and the Cold War period or set up extensive systems of alliances, this is a case in point.

From an economic point of view, on the one hand, the interests of the United States will be pushed forward with the demand for liberalization of the world market and, on the other hand, try to set up multilateral negotiations and negotiating areas. After 1945, the United States attempted to establish international economic multilateralism with multilateral agreements, as well as GATT and NAFTA.

This tension can also be found from the point of view of law or since the 20th century, the United States has been in favour of the establishment and development of an international law and is reluctant to implement this international law from the moment it opposes its interests. The United States is also a pioneer in setting up an international system and at the same time inclined to leave these international organizations when they no longer correspond to their interests, as was the case with their departure from UNESCO in 1984, which was reinstated in 2004. Since the end of the 19th century, there has been an oscillation between going it alone and dialogue between partners.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]