Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Exceptionalism, Empire, and the Dark Side of National Greatness
Exceptionalism, Empire, and the Dark Side of National Greatness

Exceptionalism, Empire, and the Dark Side of National Greatness

Is American Exceptionalism really exceptional?

Is American Exceptionalism really exceptional?


In July 2012, I accepted an invitation from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) to present a lecture to its Honors Program. This annual event, which attracts dozens of the most intelligent and engaged undergraduates from a range of American colleges and universities, met in Richmond, VA at the historic Jefferson Hotel. For its theme that year, ISI had chosen the concept of “American Exceptionalism.”

At that time, in the midst of an election campaign, much attention was devoted to debating the meaning and purpose of American Exceptionalism. President Obama had come under fire for stating in a 2009 press conference: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, advanced a vision that used American exceptionalism as a springboard to a more assertive American foreign policy and accused the president of insufficient faith in the relative superiority of the American social and political model. This debate often devolved into the abstract and semantic—all sides used the same terms, and often attempted to read extreme differences into matters of nuance in dealing with specific positive and negative aspects of American history. But it also reflected deeper practical concerns not only about the uniqueness of the American experiment, but about whether the particular history of the United States also imposed a certain responsibility upon Americans for helping to shape the world.

Hoping to encourage the students to look beyond the familiar milestones of American history, my contribution to the program was a lecture entitled: “Exceptionalism and Empire: Britain, France, Germany, and Russia.” I attempted to contextualize the notion of exceptionalism by looking at how other states and societies had defined their place in the world and to ask what those historical examples had to teach Americans in the 21st century. The lectures and conversations during that stimulating week (most taking place in the ironically named “Empire Room”), did not resolve the issue, but demonstrated the value of discussing such fundamental questions in helping students to become engaged and informed citizens.

Debates about American Exceptionalism are older than the Republic, as FPRI’s own Walter McDougall has outlined in a string of distinguished publications. President Obama’s efforts to articulate a patriotism that includes both the positive and negative events of our history and which also expresses his vision for a global future remain controversial; the debate about it is not likely to end anytime soon. Furthermore, the current presidential campaign has seen the success of Donald Trump, who has placed “Make America Great Again” at the center of his rhetoric. Trump’s crusade to return the United States to an unspecified but nonetheless passionately cherished moment of lost greatness swamped the rest of the Republican field and also entranced large numbers of pseudonymous intellectuals, whose favorite outlets carry such names as the Journal of American Greatness and its successor, American Greatness.

All of which has encouraged me to reflect again upon the meaning of national greatness and the value of historical comparisons. Those reflections led me to revisit and revise the text of the 2012 lecture (which was never published) and to offer it here in this season of choosing for the readers of The American Review.

Unexceptional Exceptionalism?

Frankly, the President’s comment that many nations have considered and do consider themselves exceptional did not bother me since it merely expresses a truism. His broader point, which emphasized the concrete elements of the American tradition of which he (and we) can and should be proud, hit the right notes. But the excessive response from his critics highlights something that I consider especially worrisome. We need to be clear: those critics who were so upset by the president’s complex response were really demanding recognition not of American Exceptionalism, but of American Awesomeness. For them, it is never enough just to say that America is different; it is necessary to say it is awesome, better, greater, “yuger.” That latter demand strikes me as dangerous and self-defeating, as it can take a healthy and necessary respect for a nation’s history and traditions and turn it into potentially toxic self-delusion. That worries me not just because it can lead to excessive and expensive adventures abroad, but because it can blind even thoughtful people to historical realities that should encourage restraint and humility; qualities of which even the most exceptional nation can never have enough.

Historians are notoriously killjoys—trust me, never go to the movies, watch the news, or play Jeopardy! with a historian—so let me get this out of the way early. Exceptionalism is not exceptional, though every exceptional state is exceptional in its own way. If we are serious about understanding American exceptionalism and its consequences—however we wish to define them—then we need to approach it in comparative context.

One thing we will notice if we look closely at different nations is that once they consider themselves exceptional, they have a very hard time keeping all that exceptionalism to themselves. At first, they may consider themselves threatened by a hostile world and imagine their first responsibility is to provide a kind of enchanted circle of protection. In time, however, that defensive position shifts—sometimes in response to external threats, sometimes in response to internal demands. Then, that defensive posture becomes an aggressive pose aiming to reshape the rest of the world in the image of the exceptional state. Walter McDougall refers to this shift in American history as the shift from a Promised Land to a Crusader State.

Many writers in the past two decades have discussed the parallels between the American empire and Rome weaving fascinating stories about a virtuous Republic’s rise to greatness before succumbing to imperial decadence. The examples from modern European history that I intend to present also reflect common patterns that we need to consider in greater detail.

England: From Sceptered Isle to New Order

We begin with England. Formerly a semi-barbaric province of the Roman Empire, England re-imagined itself during the Reformation as a specially favored place, threatened by Spanish tyranny and Inquisitional obscurantism. As this story developed, this favored land defended itself thanks to its native creativity and bravery and the divine blessings of a Protestant Wind.

The poet of English exceptionalism was, of course, Shakespeare, who, sunning himself in the glow of Gloriana herself, wrote less than a decade after the defeat of the Armada these immortal words in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands, —

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Those last lines in particular suggest the ultimately defensive nature of English exceptionalism, the idea that the blessed plot could retreat behind its moat and revel in the perfection of the “little world.”

Of course, it never did stay that way. As the Irish can attest, even during Elizabeth’s reign, the English found their own “precious stone” not nearly big enough for them and cast covetous glances upon the stone next door. Within a century, the English, already expanding their empire across the Atlantic and relying on their powerful navy both to secure that empire and to check the rise of possible rivals, were singing James Thomson’s new phrase:

When Britain first, at Heaven’s command

Arose from out the azure main;

This was the charter of the land,

And guardian angels sang this strain:

“Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves:

“Britons never will be slaves.”

Ruling the waves suggested a degree of what later strategists came to call “forward defense.” By this time, the English, despite all of the talk of splendid isolation, considered it not only their right but also their duty to become involved in European and world affairs at times and places of their choosing to check the rise of possible rivals. Those rivals took many forms, from Louis XIV and Napoleon to Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler, all of whom they treated as recurrences of Philip II. In order to thwart such rivals, the English also tried to co-opt others, such as their wayward children across the sea in America.

All the while, of course, the English busily built and defended an extensive world empire upon which the sun would never set. John Robert Seeley famously claimed that the British acquitted this empire “in a fit of absence of mind,” but it is more accurate to say that the British acquired Empire as the natural consequence of their sense of exceptionalism. Somebody needed to control the world, to preserve English power and acquisitions, and they simply could not bear the thought of anyone else doing it.

By 1902, the English had become so attached to empire that they could sing:

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,           

How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?            

Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set.         

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,            

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

We’ve come a long way from that sceptered isle behind its island wall…

France: Enlightened Empire

England’s great rival as it grew into a world power was France, and France also displays the imperial temptation of exceptionalism. Threatened with extinction in the 15th century after English victories at Agincourt and elsewhere, the French monarchy reasserted itself in part thanks to a sense of exceptionalism. Jeanne d’Arc heard divine voices calling her to save France from the invaders and to restore a divinely sanctioned order—a crusade that made her a saint to her fellow Frenchmen and a dangerous witch to her English coreligionists.

After going through its own internal religious struggle during the Reformation and Wars of Religion, France then reasserted itself as a special model of its own, thanks to the Absolutism of Henry IV, Cardinal Richelieu, and Louis XIV. This organization of the state magnified French power and led to triumphs in wars that expanded the size as well as the wealth of France. The more that France imagined itself to be special, the harder it was for French leaders to keep it to themselves. Henry IV was assassinated in 1610 on the eve of a major campaign against France’s Habsburg rivals; Richelieu opened the era of secular warfare when he allied France with Protestant Sweden against those same Habsburgs during the Thirty Years’ War; and Louis XIV spent virtually his entire reign attempting to expand France into its “natural boundaries,” while asserting France’s claim to cultural leadership on the continent and beyond.

It was the French Revolution, however, which especially marked French Exceptionalism. Shaped by their interpretation of Enlightenment thought, the Revolutionaries initially imagined France as an island of new thinking in a sea of obscurantism. When Revolutionary France declared war on Austria and Prussia in 1792, France’s initial posture was completely defensive. The revolutionary anthem embraced during the first months of war, the Marseillaise, called on the “children of the fatherland” to rush to arms and march on to fight off invaders “so that their blood can water our fields.” After the surprising French victory at Valmy that September, however, which offered the chance to go on the offensive, Revolutionary France dropped its defensive pose and embraced the mission to expand and spread the benefits of revolution. Victory at Jemappes in November 1792 was just the beginning, and by the time the Revolution had been co-opted by the military dictator and future Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the Marseillaise was associated with expansion and conquest. Indeed, when writing his 1812 Overture, Tchaikovsky drowned out the Marseillaise with God Save the Tsar to symbolize Russia’s deliverance, turning the revolutionary anthem on its head as a hymn to monarchy triumphs.

France took it upon itself to spread the legal, linguistic, and cultural attitudes of the Revolution wherever its armies marched. Such expansion was not merely an accident but the inevitable responsibility of the French sense of their self. By the 19th century, as France embarked on a course of overseas empire, the French were especially enthusiastic to claim a special cultural responsibility, a Mission Civilisatrice, designed to share what they considered to be the French inheritance with a world that would only be enriched by it. This mission would lead France not only to claim and cling to colonies, but also to embrace the idea that a colony could be absorbed into Metropolitan France, as they tried to do with Algeria, with violent and tragic results.

The succeeding centuries have seen French fortunes rise and (mostly) fall, but that basic sense that la Grande Nation has a distinct destiny and must share that destiny with the world has shaped every French leader, from historical titans such as de Gaulle to the pale reflections that are Jacques Chirac, Nicholas Sarkozy, and François Hollande.

Indeed, the French example is and remains the most like our own American example. As two children of Enlightenment thinking and its revolutions, both France and the USA have essentially grown up believing that there is no distinction between their particular values and universal values. Such an attitude creates a taste for meddling and an occasionally exasperating self-regard. That Paris and Washington often clash in how to work with the rest of the world is proof not how different we are, but how similar.

Russia: The Third Rome?

France’s rise in the 19th century provoked two other large cultures to action and to develop their own sense of exceptionalism.

The first was Russia. Already having developed its own historical narrative about shaking off the “Tatar yoke” and defending Christianity against the Asiatic hordes, Russia was uncertain about its place in the larger world. Leaders such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great had hoped that selective embrace of western ideas would make Russia modern and strong, and they pursued aggressive expansion of Tsarist power at home and imperial conquest abroad. But it was the mystic Alexander I, in the wars against Napoleon, who tried to formulate a specifically Russian vision of conservative stability and engagement with Europe, heavily flavored with Orthodox religiosity. Alexander’s Russia was the architect of Napoleon’s defeat, though the Hundred Days and Waterloo robbed Russia of its role as the Corsican’s conqueror. Alexander also joined with Metternich of Austria in creating the Holy Alliance as a vehicle for preserving the postwar order. Alexander’s vision faltered on his own odd personality and his early death, and he bequeathed a mixed legacy to his successors. After the failed liberal Decembrist revolt in 1825, Nicholas I and subsequent conservative Tsars rejected the liberal ideas of the West and adopted a more defensive posture toward the outside world, but continued to believe that Russia had a special mission. As the “third Rome,” Russia imagined itself as the defender and cultivator of Christian civilization, which encouraged imperial wars against the Turks in the south and expansion into Siberia in the east. By the mid-19th century, conflicts between Slavophiles and Westernizers marked differences within the Russian elite, though both groups could be motivated to expand Russia.

Viewed from this perspective, the Bolshevik Revolution is less of a break in Russian history than a change in emphasis. The USSR reflected the same tension between defensiveness and expansionism that Russia had experienced since Peter the Great. Once the Red Army had secured victory in the Russian Civil War, the USSR positioned itself as the leader of a world revolution whose universal and specifically Russian elements were always closely interwoven. George Kennan’s iconic 1947 essay on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” was neither the first nor the last work to point out this basic imperial continuity in Russian policy, which transcended particular regimes. Elements of that continuity persist into post-Cold War Russia, whose current leader also asserts the natural rights of Russian power and willingness to impose Russian will on those states within a Russian-defined “near abroad.”

Germany from Kultur to Genocide

Which brings us to France’s other rival, Germany. In a way, Germany was born to consider itself exceptional. It was a German philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder, who first explicitly developed the idea that every individual culture had its own unique Volksgeist. That was Herder’s way of reacting to the universalist claims of French Enlightenment thought, using its principles to develop the idea that the Germans—indeed, every people—were different from other peoples, and thus each nation should cultivate its own identity and also govern itself. The French may have invented the idea of modern nationalism to serve their revolutionary purposes, but the Germans were the first culture to shape it both retrospectively and prospectively developing a historical narrative to impose coherence on a scattered collection of territories with no natural boundaries. Thus, various past leaders whose Germanness was, at best, notional, from Arminius to Frederick the Great, were absorbed into a nationalist narrative that made the creation of the German empire the inevitable product of historical logic, irrefutable in the eyes of scholars who had themselves created it in the first place.

German nationalism offered, in AJP Taylor’s famous phrase, two faces: to the West, it offered the eager face of the mimic and aspirant, attempting to measure up to the cultural trendsetters across the Rhine. To the East, however, the Germans offered the cold sneer of cultural superiority, justifying centuries of conquest and dominance over allegedly inferior cultures of the East. By the 20th century, as the German Empire emerged as a powerful state in its own right, German opinion leaders tired of the earnest mimic pose and complained of the encirclement of Germany by envious inferiors.

This new attitude crested during the First World War. Novelist Thomas Mann was the most distinguished of thinkers who attempted to explain this by distinguishing authentic German Kultur, with its deep appreciation of art, community, and history, and the shallow, materialistic Zivilisation of France and Britain. Mann’s Reflections of an Unpolitical Man [Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen] was a five hundred-page extrapolation of this attitude. He began with a particular target in mind, his own brother Heinrich, whose leftist politics and Francophilia had led him to embrace the French cause in the war. Mann denounced the generic type of Zivilisationsliterat who had lost his cultural roots without naming Heinrich and attempted to develop a political vision that was culturally conservative, elitist, and also patriotic. Mann labored on his bloated essay for much of the war. By the time it came out, however, Imperial Germany was on its last legs, and Mann himself felt ambivalent about his conclusions. The book has thus remained something of a curiosity.

More famous is the literary expression of Mann’s internal debate. He used the themes of his Reflections to splendid effect in his monumental novel The Magic Mountain, which he had neglected as he wrote Reflections, but took up again after the war, publishing it to great acclaim in 1924. In the novel, which is suffused with tragic irony and affection for a European civilization about to plunge into the abyss of war, Mann humanizes the conflict between Zivilisation and Kultur by portraying it as a struggle between Settembrini and Naphta over the soul of his everyman hero, Hans Castorp. Unlike in Reflections, however, Mann’s sympathies appear more evenly divided in the novel between the cosmopolitan Italian and the gloomy failed Jesuit, and even tend to favor the former. In the end, Settembrini the Zivilisationsliterat is less a mortal threat than a slightly annoying but generally pleasant clown, while the Kultur-obsessed Naphta is a gloomy, self-hating, and ultimately self-destructive prig.

Mann himself came to rue many of his previous positions on the relative superiority of German Kultur when they came out of the mouths of the Nazis, whom he abhorred as barbarians. Mann’s discomfort was magnified by his realization that “Brother Hitler” had built a following among the Germans by telling them things about their special destiny and their cultural distinctiveness that they had already heard elsewhere and wanted to believe. Although Mann may not have phrased things the same way, when one considers the German embrace of national exceptionalism and its extreme results, we are left with AJP Taylor’s famous observation: “…it was no more a mistake for the German people to end up with Hitler than it is an accident when a river flows into the sea, though the process is, I daresay, unpleasant for the fresh water.”

In bringing up the Nazis, I realize I have just violated Godwin’s Law, but in this case, it is unavoidable. For the Nazis took ideas of exceptionalism and imperialism to their logically illogical conclusions. The greatest temptation for a people that considers itself exceptional is to conclude that it is superior, and that superiority justifies spreading the word to other peoples—even imposing this allegedly superior system on them and removing those people who stand in the way. Indeed, as Mark Mazower’s monumental work, Hitler’s Empire, has demonstrated, the Nazis essentially applied the lessons European powers had perfected in their overseas empires to their European empire. By forcing Western Civilization to recognize the barbarous implications of their conquests, the Nazis delivered a fatal blow to justifications for empire.

Concluding Reflections

Each of the nations mentioned in this essay embraced and emphasized exceptionalism to serve their purposes. As they grew in power and had the opportunity to use their power, each of them fell prey to the imperial temptation. That led to moral dangers and also the practical danger of what Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch,” as the insatiable demands for more security over an ever greater area drained their coffers, encouraged their rivals, and hastened their demise.

Although the bases for each nation’s exceptional claims varied in their religious, philosophical, and political accents, and in the level and scope of violence, the familiar pattern endures. They all began as embattled havens and refuges and eventually became heralds and crusaders. Ultimately, these cultures found themselves driven to expand and thus share the permanent benefits of their exceptionalism. Exceptionalism and empire are deeply related: of course empires think they are exceptional, otherwise they never would have gotten into the empire business in the first place.

We know enough of our own American history to feel a bit uncomfortable about stories of nations becoming increasingly expansionist, and even more so when we see how so many proud empires ended in ashes and tears. We should be uncomfortable, and we should heed these lessons before it is too late, if it is not already too late.

I am not a believer in inevitability, and my final thought is not that exceptionalism must lead to empire and violence. (There is always the counter-example of Switzerland, for example, which has used its own relative isolation and remoteness as a way to preserve its exceptionalism.) But I am a firm believer in the power of cautionary tales. What we learn from studying the impact of the imperial temptation is both how hard it is to resist and how necessary it is to try to resist it. That is the challenge powerful states face.

To end on a slightly hopeful note, allow me to make two final cultural references. The first comes from one of my favorite films, Lawrence of Arabia—itself a gloriously imperfect meditation on empire. In a pivotal early scene, Lawrence rejects the fatalism of his desert comrades after one man falls off his camel in the night and is lost in the desert wastes. Lawrence wants to go back and rescue him. His friends tell him not to bother because his fate is sealed, or as Sherif Ali puts it: “It is written.” Lawrence rejects the philosophy behind this passive construction as well as his friend’s advice and rides back to rescue the man anyway. When Lawrence returns with the man, both of them worn out and near death, Lawrence manages to croak to Sherif Ali, “Nothing is written.” Nations, like individuals, should not be in a hurry to surrender to fate and toss aside our freedom of choice. We still have the ability to write our own destiny.

The second comes from the notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, published posthumously with his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon. One of the last entries is the simple phrase, “Action is Character.” Those are words to live by.

Peoples and nations can call themselves whatever they want, can imagine themselves as redeemers, crusaders, conquerors, and defenders. What they call themselves really does not matter nearly as much as how they behave. A nation that calls itself peace loving and conquers its neighbors is a bully and a conqueror; a nation that calls itself a defender of freedom but allows freedom to be trampled is a fraud. The history of any nation is the history of its choices, its actions. Ideas matter, visions matter—they reflect the aspirations of a people and offer a possible road map for the future. But even the loftiest sentiments mean nothing if they do not find expression in actions.

We have seen many examples of nations who allowed pride and self-regard to lead them to destructive and self-destructive adventures. What we have not seen enough of yet are peoples and states proud enough of their accomplishments to be self-sufficient, yet restrained enough to resist the imperial temptation—strong enough to articulate a vision for peace and justice and humble enough to accept the limits of their vision. This election, and the years to come, offers Americans the chance to face that challenge again.

A nation that could somehow manage that delicate balance between pride and humility, between the desire for greatness and the awareness of responsibility, would be truly exceptional. Indeed, it would be pretty awesome.