“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…. I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”
and then again the other day:
"Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “ But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.” He added: “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
So basically it means a self-perceived superiority that allows them to do whatever they want, by whatever method, to people of other nations, even if it means breaking international treaties and laws, because they are right.
By definition, the US is exceptional in many ways. They are hegemonic, both militarily and economically, although their economic hegemony is now challenged by the likes of China and, increasingly, India.
Throughout much of American history, American society has stauunchly defended the right to personal liberty. The US was founded by those who escaped European tyrany. But through the second half of the 20th century and beyond, state and citizen security has frequently trumped liberties.
Americans view themselves as exceptional and the moral beacon of light in a sinful world. Christian Americans largely view the US as being destined by God to be Ruler of the Free World, and there to defend Jews from non-Judeo-Christian interests.
But American power is in decline and their ability to influence, and influence outcomes, has been significantly compromised.
Before you relish in the prospects of a post-US hegemony world, think about who could replace the US as world leader. I don't think it is likely that the next hegemonic leader will pursue justice and fairness. Rather, they'll likely exploit their position of power just like the US did.
Comparative to the US, would China or India help Canada satisfy its interests? I'm not too sure about that.
"American Exceptionalism" goes back quite a ways but for those who pay attention to the Foreign Policy "establishment", its a key term in their discourse.
Presidents must always claim the "American Exceptionalism" ground, and even though Obama never truly deviated from that script, his timid little steps outside the neocon lines had THAT crowd claiming he denied "American Exceptionalism" on his international "apology tour", and this was basically a sign that Obama was not really on board with being a Real American. Of course if you paid attention even to Candidate Obama, it was clear he was 100% on board with American Exceptionalism.
So it's a bit of a litmus test to be a respected member of the establishment. Those that take issue with the concept and challenge it are relegated to the fringes of discourse (see: Chomsky, Herman, Hofstadter, etc)
But I think actually the concept itself is dangerous for America, because the "American Exceptionalism" idea is essentially the foundational brick for their foreign adventurism, it is their version of the British "civilizing mission"....
Bacevich's takedown of David Brooks posted yesterday in Salon was brilliant, but to give you a real flavour of "American Exceptionalism" in the foreign policy establishment, not many better than Brooks to embody it. The Iraq War:
"represents what the United States is on earth to achieve. Thank God we have the political leaders and the military capabilities to realize the ideals that have always been embodied in our founding documents.”
Its a quasi-religious, foundational element in their national mythology. And the problem with it is it paves the way for the neo-imperialist agenda (as long as it can be shaped into a form that satisfies the requirement that America can portray itself as heroic and "saving" civilization). Brooks and so many others honestly believe the "American Exceptionalism" myth, even in the face of the biggest foreign policy disaster of a generation (Iraq), coming on the back of another failure (Vietnam) that together should put the lie to American's perception of their own invincibility and power to shape the world.
Even now in Syria they think they can bend things to their interest - based more on the power of this myth than anything else. To me, this is the biggest thing that drives America to war: way more than oil, way more than money, way more than PNAC, the rothschilds or the Bilderbergers put together! It is the grease on the wheels of the war machine...