Why American exceptionalism is characterized by bad and good faces.

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WhyAmerican exceptionalism is characterized by bad and good faces.

Americanexceptionalism is a common concept that is shared by observes, notonly from American, but also from other Western countries. Theconcept of American exceptionalism is based on the unique characteradopted by the United States in terms of personal liberty anddemocratic ideals. The term American exceptionalism is a multifacetedconcept that is used to describe different areas in which Americadiffers from the rest of the world (Koh 10). These areas of Americandistinctiveness include the exceptional human right perspectives,judicial exceptionalism, and America’s tendency to exempt itselffrom the international rules and policies that it might havecontributed towards their formulation. The concept of the Americanexceptionalism is still controversial with some scholars arguing thatAmerican exceptionalism can be characterized by both bad and goodfaces while others hold that the United State is exceptional becauseit demonstrates only the good virtues. This paper will provide asummary of different views proposed by Koh and Bromund regarding theAmerican exceptionalism and support the view that Americanexceptionalism is characterized by both bad and good faces.


HaroldH. Koh believes that American exceptionalism has both bad and goodfaces. Koh stated, “The United States differs qualitatively fromother developed nations because of its unique origin, national credo,historical evolution, and distinctive political and religiousinstitutions” (8). Koh (10) argues that the distinctive faces theUnited States can be analyzed on the basis of four factors, includingthe different labels, distinctive rights, double standards, and thementality of the flying buttress. Based on these factors, theAmerican exceptionalism can be said to have two good faces. First,the United States has established an exceptional record of protectinghuman rights more than any other country in the world. For example,American institutions (such as judiciary) have played a significantrole in fighting discrimination of human beings on the grounds of thesocial characteristics (such as race and religion) compared to othernations (Koh 10).

Secondly,the united states have an established record of complying with theinternational conventions even without ratifying the principles. Thisis a unique characteristic of the United States as compared to othernations that ratify and fail to comply with the internationalconventions. Koh also identified two bad faces of the Americanexceptionalism. First, the reluctance of the United States to ratifyinternational conventions has resulted in the development of thementality of the flying buttress, which has in turn given the UnitedStates a false sense of democracy and freedom. Secondly, the tendencyof the United States to apply different labels for other nations isnow perceived to be an annoyance and it is no longer seen asphilosophical attack.

TedBromund, on the other hand, supports the idea that the United Statesexemplifies different virtues in their purest form. The idea ofexemplifying different virtues (such the consideration of humanrights as inherent and separation of powers) in their purest forms isbased on the notion that the United States of America was founded onthose values, but other countries (such as the Great Britain) thatshare some of these virtues evolved with time. Unlike most of thenations of the world, the democratic governance of the United Stateshas been based on liberalism (tolerating the ideas of all peopleirrespective of their socio-cultural differences) since thedeclaration of its independence.

Koh’sschool of that holds that most of the virtues upheld by the UnitedStates were initiated by Americans through negotiations held in ademocratic space, unlike other countries that either derives theirpolicies from other countries or the international agreements. Thismeans that the systems, policies, institutions, and rules governingthe United States are distinct in that they emerged in the purestform. One way that other nations can be assisted to tolerate Americanexceptionalism is by pressuring courts to reevaluate and reinterpretthe free speech norm adopted by the United States to ensure that itdoes not cause problems outside the United States. Bromund states“The world should accept it and the USA should trumpet it” (16).In essence, Koh holds that American exceptionalism is composed of aset of pure virtues that can be tolerated by other nations.

Americanexceptionalism with both bad and good faces

Thegood faces

Americanexceptionalism has both bad and good faces. The United States havedemonstrated it good and bad faces since the proclamation of theconcept of American exceptionalism in the seventeenth century byPuritans (Phillips 2). There are five factors that demonstrate thegood facts of the American exceptionalism. First, the fact thatAmerica is the only nation of the world that have demonstrated thewillingness to invest heavily in ensuring that the entire worldshares the same goodness have made the world view her in theChristendom context. This idea of America taking the example of aredeemer nation dates back to its revolution in the eighteenthcentury and the writing of the first constitution (Phillips 1). TheUnited States has always been enshrouded in optimism and a promiseboth for her citizens and the entire world. Although this isperceived by opponents of the American Exceptionalism as a form ofneocolonialism, it is a way of helping the developing countriesembrace democracy for the good of their citizens. Sellevold stated“The U.S. assumed the right to intervene as a necessary to controland correct the wrongdoings of uncivilized nations” (4). The aspectof going beyond her borders to pursue all that the human raceperceives to be good qualifies the United States to be regarded as anexceptional redeemer nation.

Secondly,the power and the progress of the United States are based on clearlydefined ideals that are well comprehended by all Americans. The fourbasic ideals governing the progress of the United States as a nationinclude liberty, unyielding hope, democracy, and opportunity(Sellevold 5). Most importantly, these ideals have been promotedduring the entire history of the United States by the top leadership,including the presidents. In addition, the U.S. constitution waswritten by the founding fathers who entrenched the principles ofliberty, opportunity, and democracy in the constitution. Apart frommaintain these ideals in writing, the United States have practicedthem to-date to an extent of being regarded as the world’s symbolof democracy, unyielding hope, opportunity and the freedom of allpeople. These ideals have also allowed the United States to adopt thevalue of tolerance, which has in turn resulted in the establishmentof a cultural society that lives in harmony. Leading the nation withthe principles that are both in writing and in the hearts of thepeople is an exceptional feature that characterizes the Americanexceptionalism.

Thebad faces

Althoughthe United States have received a lot of praise for beingexceptionally good, there are some factors that demonstrate her beingexceptionally bad. The U.S. departure from what the human raceconsiders to be moral portrays her as an exceptionally bad nation.Throughout its history, the united States have engaged in activitiesand operations that are destitute of moral content compared to anyother country. Some of the key aspects of the American life thatleads to the description of the United States as one of the countriesthat have deviated from moral principles include the abuse ofindividual ownership of guns (second amendment), harassment of terrorsuspects in Guantanamo Bay, and the use of capital punishment(Phillips 2). In addition, there are some aspects of the Americanlife that lack moral content, but they cannot be regarded as beingimmoral practices. For example, the act of spending amountsequivalent of military budgets of between 15 to 20 countries in themilitary operations is an exceptional feature of the United Statesthat lacks moral context (Phillips 2). Moreover, the principle offreedom of all people has paved way for groups that are considered inthe rest of the world as immoral to be given rights to practice theirimmorality. For example, lesbian and gays are protected by the law,which makes the United States exceptional by being the first countryto protect the two groups through its legal and judicial system(Jacobs 4).

Thebelief in the American superiority, which is founded on the culturaland religious constructs of the first settlers, has resulted inunwarranted killings and invasions. The founding fathers of theUnited States used their cultural and religious constructs to pursuethe mission of building a city on a hill, which set the precedencefor the subsequent leaders. The subsequent madders and invasion ofother countries by the United States have been attributed by thebelief that America is exceptional superior, the city on a hill. Forexample, the murder of Pequot women the their children by thePilgrims, mass murder in Vietnam and Korea, the killing of Sioux ofGeneral Custer, and invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq are some of thenegative products of the belief that the United States is the city ona hill. Jacobs stated, “For some reasons, the United States systemis not subject to the same contradictions and influences as those ofthe rest of the world” (3). This indicates the American’s beliefthat their system of democracy and economic superiority cannot beinfluenced by systems used in the rest of the world.


TheAmerican exceptionalism is characterized by both bad and good faces.The concept of the American exceptionalism, which was conceived bythe puritans, has been promoted throughout the history of the UnitedStates through constitution and the presidency. Although it has beenargued that the American exceptionalism is comprised of a set of purevirtues, it is evident that the American way of life has bothexceptionally bad and good aspects compared to the rest of the world.Some of the good faces of the American exceptionalism include the useof clearly defined ideals (such as liberty, democracy, opportunity,and unyielding hope) and serving as a redeemer nation. For example,the U.S. democracy is unique in that all people are given the rightto express themselves irrespective of their social characteristics.However, the American exceptionalism has some bad faces, includingthe engagement in activities that lack moral context (such as theprotection of gays and lesbians through the legal system) andjustification of killings and invasion of other countries.


Bromund,Ted. “American Exceptionalism and its Enemies.” The New LedgerFeatures – Politics Monday, May 25th, 2009

Jacobs,Ron. “American Exceptionalism: A Disease of Conceit.” July 21,2004. http://www.counterpunch.org/jacobs07212004.html

Koh,Harold Hongu. “America’s Jekyll‐and‐HydeExceptionalism.” Ed. Michael Ignatieff. American Exceptionalismand Human Rights. 111 ‐143.

Phillips,Dennis. “Is America an Exceptional Nation?” 26 November 2008.http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2427919.htm

Sellevold,Martin. “A Look at American Exceptionalism.” AustralianRationalist Number 65: 45‐48.