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American Exceptionalism: GOP Presidential Hopefuls Versus President Obama

By       Message Thomas Farrell     Permalink
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Anti-communist hysteria during the Cold War led the government of the United States to project a conceptual framework in which communism was envisioned as a worldwide threat to freedom and democracy. But even countries with authoritarian governments that were not characterized by freedom and democracy could be enlisted in the worldwide struggle against communism, provided that they were officially anti-communist. Of course in reality communism was not as monolithic as it was imagined to be, as the differences between the former Soviet Union and China showed.

As a result of the eagerness of many anti-communist Americans to fight against imagined monolithic communism, the long-standing American sense of American exceptionalism was expanded during the Cold War to include the anti-communist struggle against worldwide monolithic communism.

But when the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, this collapse of the "evil empire" that President Reagan had referred to did not necessarily lead to the collapse of the expanded sense of American exceptionalism that the anti-communist struggle had produced during the Cold War, especially not in movement conservatism.

More recently, under President George W. Bush, Islamist terrorists were substituted for communists as the new evil-doers to be feared. In this way, he revived the expanded sense of American exceptionalism from the Cold War as he declared a general war on terrorism and declared actual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

During the Cold War, anti-communist hysteria in the United States had led to wars in Korea and Vietnam in the effort to combat the spread of communism in those countries. In a similar way, anti-terrorist hysteria led President Bush to start wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just as the United States used the expanded sense of American exceptionalism to lead the anti-communist wars in Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War, so too President Bush used the expanded sense of American exceptionalism to lead the anti-terrorist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it turns out that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, he was undoubtedly a brutal dictator in Iraq.


Next, I want to turn to the question that Edward Luce of the FINANCIAL TIMES of London asked President Obama regarding American exceptionalism and his response. The exchange occurred in a news conference during the question-and-answer session following a presentation by President Obama in Strasbourg, France on April 4, 2009. My source for the following quotations from the exchange is the transcript posted by the White House.

Let's start with the question from Edward Luce: "Thank you, Mr. President. In the context of all the multilateral activity that's been going on this week, [at] the G20 [and] here at NATO, and your evident enthusiasm for multilateral frameworks, to work through multilateral frameworks, could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy? And if so, would you be able to elaborate on it" (I've added the bracketed material here and substituted commas for the dashes used in the White House transcript because the dashes will not survive the translation program used at

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The White House has posted President Obama's extemporaneous response as four separate paragraphs:

"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

"And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

"Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or [in] recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or [in recognizing] that other people may have good ideas, or [in recognizing] that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

"And so I see no contradiction between [on the one hand] believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and [on the other hand] recognizing that that leadership is incumbent [on], [and] depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

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Not bad for extemporaneous remarks, eh? (I have added the material in brackets here.)

Here's the URL for the entire transcript posted by the White House: http:click here

Let me set forth two comments that I would like to make. (1) President Obama says, "And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world." Because the Christian right likes to claim to be Christian and claim that President Obama is a Muslim, despite his explicit claim to be a Christian, let me suggest that President Obama could quote the following passage from Christian scripture in support of his view of American exceptionalism in this sentence: "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48 NRSV).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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