Paul Pillar

Jeffersonian Exceptionalism

The American exceptionalism that has become an unchallengeable part of political discourse in the United States has taken on substantive trappings that are not at all intrinsic to the concept that America is indeed an exceptional place. Those trappings include a sense that some principles and rules of international relations somehow do not apply to the United States. They often include an attitude that the United States can do right but no wrong. There is often a disdain for any need to understand, much less to accommodate, the interests, perceptions, and feelings of non-Americans. There is a tendency to see the United States as an indispensable player in sundry matters around the globe. And there usually is the belief that because American values and institutions are superior to anyone else's, they are readily applicable to non-Americans, who will readily accept and understand them.

The politically unchallengeable aspect of exceptionalism makes it a tool to use (more often by the Right than by the Left) against anyone arguing for careful foreign policies that pay due regard to conflicting interests and to limitations that apply even to the United States. Use of the tool puts the opponent on the defensive. It would be political poison to be suspected of not believing fully that the United States is exceptional.

The trappings ought to be stripped away from the core concept of America indeed being a special place. Robert Merry has discussed the importance of distinguishing exceptionalism from the idea that American values are univerally applicable. I have described how some of the attitudes and beliefs that accompany the version of exceptionalism commonly expressed today have underlain trouble that the United States has gotten itself into overseas.

Fortunately there is a version of exceptionalism that has long standing in American political thought, that views American values and institutions as just as special as anyone else views them, and is not burdened with the unhelpful latter-day trappings. This version is at the center of the American political tradition that Walter Russell Mead, in his splendid book Special Providence, labels as Jeffersonian. Jeffersonians, writes Mead, “believe that the specific cultural, social, and political heritage of the United States is a special treasure to be conserved, defended, and passed on to future generations.” Foreign policy has much to do with that conservation and defense: “To capitalize on that rare and precious opportunity to build a free country was the highest aim of Jeffersonian domestic policy; to preserve that sanctuary and that revolution has been and remains the highest aim of Jeffersonian statecraft in international relations.” As for universality, Jeffersonians believe that the United States could better serve the cause of democracy beyond its borders “by setting an example rather than imposing a model.”

The Jeffersonian importance on taking extra care to preserve the special phenomenon of American liberal democracy leads to appropriate caution in determining what the United States should and should not try to accomplish abroad. There are two basic dangers in foreign policy as Jeffersonians see it. One of them, in Mead's words, consists of “those things that foreign countries may do to us that threaten our liberties directly.” From much discourse today one might conclude this is the only type of danger. But “there are also, perhaps more dangerous, the things we may do to ourselves as we seek to defend ourselves against others, or even as we seek to advance our values abroad.” There is much recent history that could illustrate that second danger, from warrantless wiretaps to Abu Ghraib. And besides the damage we can do to ourselves, there is also the problem of picking fights and postulating threats in a way that needlessly encourages others to damage us. “Define your interests as narrowly as possible,” advise the Jeffersonians, "and you will have the fewest possible grounds for quarrels with others." 

Advocates of prudent foreign policies that reflect such advice need yield no ground to self-declared tub-thumping exceptionalists of today. They just have to dig down deeper into American political traditions and remind people of what has long been at the core of what makes the United States genuinely special.