The Problem with ‘American Exceptionalism’

Deepanshu Mohan
5 min readOct 21, 2023
Source: WSJ (online)

This article is written exclusively for a news platform on invitation… Published link shall be uploaded here

Reported recently, the UN Security Council (UNSC) on Wednesday failed to adopt a Brazil-led draft resolution that would have called for humanitarian pauses in the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict to allow full access for aid to the Gaza strip after the US vetoed the text.

The US, a permanent member of the UNSC and a close ally of Israel, said it is disappointed the Brazil- led UN resolution makes no mention of Israel’s rights of self-defence.

It failed however, to take into consideration the atrocities unleashed by Israeli forces in/across Gaza, in retaliation to the Hamas’ attack, that have caused a humanitarian crisis of un-imaginable magnitude and proportions on the civilians living (and now fleeing) Gaza.

The UN resolution would have also called for humanitarian pauses to allow full, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, and encouraged the establishment of humanitarian corridors and other initiatives for the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians.

Following the vote, Brazil’s Permanent Representative at the UN Sérgio França Danese voiced deep regret over the failure of the Council to act and adopt the resolution to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In a recent article, this author explained the normative and existential issues concerning both, the limitations of international law, its applications, and, the circumscribed (often selective application of) international justice architecture to deal with concerns tied to an applied understanding of ‘justice’ and ‘sovereignty’.

Scholars like Thomas Nagel, Hobbes, Amartya Sen, and John Rawls saw through these existential concerns with international law, which are now playing out-in perhaps the most brutish, violent form in a world, marred by conquest and conflict.

The US’ own outlook to foreign policy, it’s pre-defined paradoxical outlook has often been studied under the broader ambit of applied ‘American Exceptionalism’ which suggest a number of confrontational features in America’s foreign policy outlook.

While the discretionary use of American exceptionalism is not to be understood as a “unified body of thought,” it is usually described along the lines of “an unwavering belief in the uniqueness of the United States and a commitment to a providential mission to transform the rest of the world in the image of the United States”.

Five Criteria of an Exceptionalist Foreign Policy Outlook

As argued by Nymalm and Plagemann in a recent paper here, “An exceptionalist foreign policy (may) consist of five criteria: a mission to “liberate” others in the pursuit of a universal “common good,” a sense of being free from external constraints, the need to have an external enemy in a hostile world of “universal threats,” and perceiving oneself as an innocent victim.”

Correspondingly, American exceptionalism is often equated with unilateralism or even exemptionalism, namely the belief that the United States is not bound by rules and norms governing the “unexceptional rest.” Exemptionalism thus legitimizes the transgression of international law, for example through interventions made by the US like the Iraq War in 2003.

Exceptionalist discourse also expresses a peculiar link between a state’s foreign policy and its self-understanding as a unique society or civilization that is related to some form of higher order revelation or spiritual or otherworldly character.

This link, according to Nymalm and Plagemann, is peculiar because it establishes uniqueness as a foundation for, first, a conviction of moral superiority over virtually every other society, based on which the self-ascribed exceptionalist state pursues an allegedly universal common good in its foreign policy conduct.

Second, exceptionalism based on uniqueness implies the belief in an exceptional state’s disposition as impossible to be replicated by others.

The interplay between ‘uniqueness’ (or particularity) and ‘universality; is what constitutes the paradox of exceptionalism: A unique insight into supposedly universal values and their foreign policy implications is derived from a particular civilizational or spiritual heritage, political history, and/or geographical location.

In this understanding, the impossibility of replicating the exceptional state makes the realization of these values (like peace, democracy, individual rights) contingent upon the exceptional state’s success in foreign policy.

In other words, the universal global good is dependent on the unique and particular history of the exceptionalist state. This is central to explaining Nymalm and Plagemann’s thesis in their research published here.

Now, in the current context it is important to realise that the US’ reasons for vetoing the Brazil-led UN resolution may find its own justification rooted in voicing support for its ally-Israel and its right to self-defense. However, a resolution that provides a representation to the ‘humanitarian cause’ from what’s unleashed by a country (Israel), all in the name of ‘self-defense’, decimating civilian houses, city-infrastructure, bringing an entire city to ruins, causing hundreds to be dead and thousands to be turned refugees, is hard to fathom.

Source: LiveMint (Online)

It also speaks of the American hypocrisy and double standards of Washington which supports one war (Russia-Ukraine) and garners alliance support from allies on humanitarian grounds (for the Ukrainian cause) while splitting its focus wide open -and divergent in another scenario. That’s the world we are living in.

Lousi Charbonneau, the UN director of Human Rights Watch, criticised a cynical use of the American veto that brought down the resolution anchored by Brazil and other countries.

“In so doing, they blocked the very demands they so often insist upon in other contexts: all parties to comply with international humanitarian law and ensure that vital humanitarian aid and essential services reach people in need. They also blocked condemnation of the Hamas-led October 7 attack and demand for the release of the hostages. In light of the council’s deadlock, UN member countries should ask the General Assembly to take urgent action to protect civilians and prevent large-scale atrocities and further loss of life”, observed Charbonneau.

It is about time that one takes a closer look at the paradoxical -and insidious nature of ‘exceptionalism’ evident in American foreign policy interventions, and like so, undertaken by other industrially advanced nations, when it suits their own interests and foreign policy strategic goals.

The cause and lives of Palestianians, unfortunately, as Noam Chomsky once argued, has often remained ‘less relevant’ to the cause of the powerful and wealthy nations (including the US), as their land, space, doesn’t promise any wealth or nature resource endowments, which only allows other nations (like Israel) to brutalise, occupy without fear or punishment/sanction from their more powerful allies.

This questions our own collective conscience and understanding of ‘justice’-what it means for those who are powerless, and apathetically ignored at the cost, expense of ‘exceptionalism’, ‘moral superiority’ by a hegemonic force that builds its moral, foreign policy structure around projected values (peace, justice, democracy, and freedom) aligned to its own narrow, self-interest.



Deepanshu Mohan

Associate Professor of Economics & Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University…