The Mythology of American Exceptionalism | Foreign Policy

The Mythology of American Exceptionalism | Foreign Policy

Written By: David Kelly
Published 26 February 2019

This is part one of a two part article mini series focusing on the mythology of American exceptionalism. This article focuses on the mythology of American exceptionalism as it pertains to the US foreign policy. Part two will focus on how the mythology of American exceptionalism can be found in domestic policy.

Think for a moment about social order and hierarchy in American life. These systems of power can be defined clearly in correlation with socioeconomic status.

The United States roughly has five social classes:

  • Upper Class ~ 1% of the population
  • New Money ~ 15% of the population
  • Middle Class ~ 34% of the population
  • Working Class ~ 30% of the population
  • Working Poor & Poverty Level ~ 20% of the population

These social classes are not connected intrinsically with laws of nature. Therefore, they are humankind’s imagined creations. Being an imagined creation, or a social construct in this instance, does not undermine it or make it any less meaningful. Money is a notable example of this concept in practice. The only reason that money holds value is that humankind legitimizes its value through a series of social contracts, which are formal and informal agreements on how society should operate. If everyone suddenly dissolved these social contracts and lost the belief in the value of money, though, what would happen? Almost instantaneously, currency would become worthless.

Consider the difference between American social order and that of India’s.

India has a social order that is based on the caste system. Though India now has laws in place to protect against caste discrimination, caste identity remains highly significant in the case of marriage, for example. In 2005, a survey found that only 11% of women had married a man of a different caste.

The caste system appears to have deep, ancient roots. Over time, the system grew in complexity. Today, there are over 3,000 castes in India, and within them an even greater number of sub-castes. Are there similarities between India’s social order and American social order? Sure. Are there differences? Absolutely. The fact is, both exist and have existed in a functional manner. Is one better than the other? It is reasonable to expect that various arguments could be made for either case. This is not the article for that.

The Fragility of Hierarchies

Hierarchies and social orders are fragile. They emerged out of necessity desperation, chaos, and the need for order. As the human population has increased in size, so too has the size of our societies.  In my article, Money in Politics | How Corporations Became People, I outlined how the creation of corporations was quite possibly one of the greatest achievements in the history of economics. I believe the same to be true of hierarchies and social order in regards to the progression of humanity. It is impossible to imagine a large-scale society organized in a non-hierarchical manner.

The larger the society, the more fragile it becomes. Historically, religion and mythology has served a variety of purposes to humanity, notably to establish legitimacy over fragile societal structures. Using religious institutions to accomplish this task can be seen in Catholicism and Christianity throughout time.

For thousands of years, the Roman Catholic Church controlled the flow of the sacred biblical texts. They controlled the interpretations and the relaying of those interpretations to the general public. We live in a highly secular world in modern times. It was quite the opposite back then. Religion, specifically Christianity, dominated everyday life in the Middle Ages. Whether it was by choice or force, this fact is true.

Martin Luther is the man that began The Reformation. His 95 Theses pinned to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church forever changed the course of not only religion but of cultural history in the West as well. Of his 95 Theses, he had two central beliefs:

  • The Bible is the central religious authority, not the Catholic Church bureaucracy.
  • Humans would reach salvation by their faith rather than by their deeds. At the time, the Catholic Church sold indulgences – “get out of Hell free” cards, in other words – to absolve sins.

Why did kings, rulers, and clerical elites keep the Bible from being published in the vernacular? Doing so would have likely empowered the people to rise up against the oppressive society in which they lived. During the Middle Ages, 85% of people lived as peasants. By controlling, editing, and withholding The Bible in its true form, those in power could wield it as justification their imposed social order.

Religions and mythologies assert that the laws and order of our society are not the creation of man. Rather, they are the ordination of absolute, supreme power and authority. In this paradigm, various fundamental laws are placed beyond the possibility of scrutiny. This ensures a degree of social stability.

Throughout history, social orders have been broken and revolutionized. The French and American Revolutions both took place during the 18th century and forever changed Western culture. In both cases, those subjugated by their monarchies delegitimized them. The French overthrew their monarchy, and the American colonials separated themselves from the British Crown.

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari defines religion as a system of human norms and values founded on a belief in a superhuman order. This functions in two ways, as Harari explains:

  1. “Religions hold that there is superhuman power, which is not the product of human whims or agreements. Professional football is not a religion, because despite its many laws, rites, and often bizarre rituals, everyone knows that human beings invented football themselves, and FIFA may at any moment enlarge the size of the goal or cancel the offside rule.”
  2. “Based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding. Many Westerners today believe in ghosts, fairies and reincarnation, but these beliefs are not a source of moral and behavioral standards. A such, they do not constitute a religion.”

What is American Exceptionalism?

Writer Ian Tyrrell states that American exceptionalism is a mythology that involves believing that the United States follows a path in history that is different from the laws or norms that govern other countries. Mythology is simply the broader term of religion, which also encompasses rituals. The United States is not just a bigger and more powerful country, the United States is an exception. America is the chief bearer of freedom, liberty, and morally superior to “Europe.” Never mind the extreme differences within Europe, or the fact that the world is far larger than just America and Europe; America vs. Europe is “the crucible in which American exceptionalist thinking was formed.”

There is much debate and characterization from where American Exceptionalism was derived and who coined the phrase. Some believe that the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville invented it in the 1830s. Others believe that Werner Sombart, a German socialist of the early 1900s coined the phrase. Astoundingly, it was actually Joseph Stalin who gave the mythology its name. Ironically, both the Democratic and Republican parties endorse an insult created by a notorious Soviet leader.

Shining City on a Hill

In 1630, John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, delivered his famous A Model of Christian Charity sermon, in which he referred to “city on a hill.” Winthrop gave the speech upon the Arbella as it was approaching New England. To inspire the Puritan travelers, he stated that the whole world would be watching as they built a new life in the New World. Their life in New England would essentially be a story for the whole world to view, judge, and speculate.

Over 200 years later, Ronald Reagan promoted the image of the United States as a shining “city on a hill,” referencing Winthrop’s speech.

Ronald Reagan did more than quite possibly anyone to promote the mythology of American Exceptionalism. Reagan and his loyal followers, however, wrongly attributed the original phrase. Winthrop was never referring to any nation when he gave the sermon. Instead, he was referring to their small community of English Protestants.

George W. Bush also gave speeches in the aftermath of 9/11 in which he declared that Islamic terrorists hated American freedoms.

Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber — a democratically elected government. They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

Islamic terrorists desired to kill Americans because they envied our exceptionalism. George Bush rallied the country behind this mantra. On September 22, 2001, his approval rating reached 90% in a Gallup poll. This was, and still remains, the highest approval rating of any president in the history of Gallup polls. To give some context, the highest approval rating that Donald Trump has ever received was 45.5% on January 23, 2017, three days after taking office.


Bush’s statements regarding the reason that Al-Qaeda struck America lack any real sense of objective truth. By simply learning the history, we can uncover some possible motives hidden beneath American exceptionalist propaganda.

In 1979, the U.S.S.R invaded Afghanistan. The Islamic mujahideen provided a resistance against Soviet oppression. The mujahideen were armed and advised by the United States. This became a de facto proxy war between the Soviets and United States, who were each looking to expand their sphere of ideological influence during the Cold War. The Soviet and Afghanistan conflict was one of fifty-six Cold War proxy wars in which the United States either fought or provided support.

During this conflict, a privileged Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden decided to give up his comfortable life at home to join the fight alongside the mujahideen. When Soviet troops began to evacuate in 1989, the United States became fearful of “blow-back” from the Islamists that they had trained and armed. Pakistani intelligence informed bin Laden that he was among a group of men that were being targeted for assassination by the CIA. Bin Laden returned home and felt that the mujahideen had been exploited and even cheated by the Americans.

Letters sent to the media following the 1993 Al-Qaeda bombing of the World Trade Center brought Israel into the picture. In addition to the way that the United States turned its back on the mujahideen, bin Laden was enraged by America’s unconditional support for Israel. The group that sent the letters under the name Liberation Army, fifth battalion demanded that the United States stop all interference in the Middle East, end aid to Israel, and cut ties with the Jewish state.

In 1998, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, another top al Qaeda leader, resettled their headquarters in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan. Upon establishing their presence there, they announced the formation of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders. The series of attacks launch by the group on United States targets reached its apex on September 11, 2001.

Terrorists did not attack America because they hated our freedoms and exceptional way of life. Though for a majority of my life, that was the story with which I was indoctrinated. Bin Laden launched attacks against America, because from a young age, he felt betrayed and invaded by America and the West as a whole.

Under President Trump, little has changed in the way of American foreign policy. President Trump has asserted on various occasions that the profits of defense contractors supersede the lives of journalists. This was the case with the murder of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, who was major critic of the current Saudi regime, ended up dead after a supposed interrogation conducted by Saudi intelligence operatives in Istanbul, Turkey.

America does not judge foreign powers based on their commitment to upholding human rights. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. The United States consistently aligns with foreign powers that support the economic interests of the nation and its top corporations, regardless of their human rights records. Yet with the situation unfolding in Venezuela, Vice President Mike Pence stated that the current president, Nicolas Maduro, is a “dictator” with no rightful claim to power.  

To the untrained eye and ear, Pence’s statement could make sense. If Maduro is indeed a dictator, America should liberate the Venezuelan people from the dictatorial rule of Maduro. This is simply not America’s motivation for intervening in the coup. How do I know this? The United States provides military assistance to 73% of the world’s dictatorships.

The United States claims that the reason for intervention in Venezuela is to protect the people against the aggressive, dictatorial rule of Nicolas Maduro. On the other hand, as this situation continues to unfold in Venezuela, the United States has been supporting a genocide of types in Yemen.

It should be noted that the involvement in Yemen, as with many other current foreign conflicts, is unconstitutional. In December 2018, the Senate rebuked Trump’s support of Saudi Arabia when it voted to end United States support of the Saudi-led coalition.

Why has the Trump Administration turned its attention to Venezuela? Perhaps the answer can be found in the country’s vast oil reserves; Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. Trump has stated in the past that George W. Bush lied the United States into the Iraq war.  Donald Trump is correct in this position. The Bush Administration did falsely state Saddam and his regime possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” to justify an invasion and subsequent acquisition of oil among other resources.

In the same breath, Trump remarked on numerous occasions that Iraq could have not been a total waste if the U.S. exploited them for their oil.

In 2016, he told Matt Lauer at a campaign forum, “it used to be, ‘To the victor belong the spoils.’” He went on to say, “now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victor. But I always said: take the oil.”

He quite literally tweeted this in 2013:

While Americans may see themselves as human rights champions policing the world, the rest of the world does not seem to view the country in this manner. A Gallup International survey in 2013 showed that the United States is overwhelmingly viewed as the biggest threat to world peace. 24% of respondents stated that they viewed America to be the biggest threat to maintaining peace throughout the globe. Australians chose America as the biggest threat to world peace over Iran or North Korea. Let that sink in for a moment.

Map Credit: Joe Hammer

One must ask why the United States has come to be viewed as the biggest threat to world peace. Perhaps it is the inherent distrust that has been built through decades of indirect and direct regime change of governments throughout the globe. Take Latin America for example. During the Cold War, America was involved in regime change in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela during the Cold War. Often times, overthrowing democratically elected leaders like Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970.

It is not hard to see why the Venezuelan government is denying “humanitarian aid” from the United States to enter their country. While American media and politicians choose to lambast the Venezuelan government, it is important to understand the historical context. The point man on Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, was involved in human rights atrocities across El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. The United States is implementing the same strategic playbook that Abrams and the Reagan administration used throughout the 1980s in Latin America. No price or body count was too high to stop the spread of Soviet influence throughout the world.

The intentions of the United States in Venezuela are quite clear to anyone that understands the neoconservative history of those like Elliot Abrams or John Bolton. John Bolton recently appeared on Fox Business Network and stated that it would be a “big difference” if “US oil companies invest in & produce oil in Venezuela.” As previously mentioned, Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. Former FBI acting director, Andrew McCabe, stated in his new book that as early as 2017 Trump brought up Venezuela and stated, “That’s the country we should be going to war with,” according to McCabe’s recounting. “They have all that oil and they’re right on our back door.”

Yet, as this taking place, the American media and political establishment continues to, as Noam Chomsky states, manufacture consent. Virtually all media channels and politicians on both sides of the aisle love to talk about what a horrible dictator Nicolas Maduro is. Is Maduro a great leader? The facts point to no, he is likely not. However, we must remember that the United States has implemented crushing sanctions on the Venezuelan government. It is easy to see why the Venezuelan government is skeptical of the supposed humanitarian aid that the United States has tried to send to the country. Any logical individual would offer aid, but also remove the crushing sanctions that aim at bringing the Maduro regime to its knees. The Venezuelan government has also stated that a U.S. cargo plane from Miami tried to sneak weapons in the country for use by Maduro enemies.

This is the same exact playbook that was used in countless United States interventions throughout the 1980s in Latin America, 1990s in Haiti and Indonesia, and the early 2000s in Iraq. In recent times, the same can be said of Syria and now Venezuela. The fact that Nicolas Maduro and Bashar al-Asad are not perfect individuals is not debatable. There is substantial evidence that both are unsavory characters. But what about the rest of the dictators that the US government and military supports? Remember, the United States supports 73% of the world’s dictatorships.

We are responsible for what we do. It is hard for anyone to believe that the United States government cares one iota about Venezuelan citizens while citizens in Flint, Michigan still do not have clean water. It is easy to see why the international community is skeptical of American intentions in “liberating” the Venezuelan people from Nicolas Maduro’s administration while the United States continues to arm Saudi Arabia, who is committing a genocide in Yemen.

An exceptional nation does not manufacture consent of its citizens to go fight interventionist, regime change wars throughout the globe. An exceptional nation should respect the sovereignty of other nations. Can you for one moment imagine if China declared the election of Donald Trump illegitimate because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote? Imagine if China then said it would “leave all options on the table,” with possibility of intervening militarily in the United States to bring the leader to power that the majority of United States voters elected. There would be absolute outrage, as there should be. The United States, like Venezuela, is a sovereign nation and should be left to resolve its problems internally, seeking international help when necessary.

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