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Exceptionalism, Nationalism, And American Foreign Policy

The articles by Ian Dougal and Minxin Pei both concern how the United States’ sense of identity influences its foreign policy. Both authors are foreign (Dougal is British, Pei a native of China working in the United States) and bring a critical understanding to exceptionalism and nationalism, which they use to mean essentially the same thing. However, while Dougal dissects the components of American exceptionalism and how they guide foreign policy, Pei takes a more concise and considerably more sharply critical stance, arguing that America’s sense of nationalism has negative consequences for American standing abroad.

Dougal defines exceptionalism as the essence of American identity and claims it is important to understanding American foreign policy. He argues that American exceptionalism is predicated on its sense of uniqueness and virtue, which thus entitles it to lead the rest of the world and to believe that its actions are always well intentioned and justified.

Based upon a set of shared ideals and positive beliefs about the United States and its role in the world, American exceptionalism is quasi-religious and incorporates a strong moralistic element, which fosters the belief that whatever the United States is justified and for the greater moral good. In addition, he continues, it is also paternalistic, frames those who disagree with the United States as “evil,” and considers action on its own behalf imperative – to the extent that it seeks crusades and solicits approval from the American public as well as other nations.

These notions are all central to the United States’ sense of itself and inform a foreign policy that claims to be unique, morally upright, justified in its actions, and does what is best for the world. Dougal’s analysis is largely neutral, including commentary by both proponents of this identity-guided foreign policy (such as George Shultz, secretary of state under Reagan) and critics (like cultural historian Loren Baritz).

Not until his third tenet, that the United States considers itself an agent of good, does Dougal start to become more critical of exceptionalism’s logic, adding that this aspect can be misleading and often incorrect, and that it is “open to political abuse . . . [by] unscrupulous policymakers. ” He becomes steadily more critical by commenting that the fifth tenet – that the United States assumes its actions are unconditionally good for the entire world – involves “a certain naive arrogance” and that it lets the United States engage in “egotistical and self-delusory” behavior.

However, he does not launch an attack on American foreign policy – instead, Dougal dissects its components and demonstrates how its proponents explain them, as well as how critics react. His paper is not a denunciation, but a call for academics to look for closely at how American identity informs its foreign policy. In contrast, Pei offers a much sharper critique of American foreign policy, which (like Dougal) he believes stems from Americans’ self-definition and sense of identity.

Writing over a year after 9/11, Pei is clearly influencing by a view of the attacks as evidence of a long-overdue backlash against American treatment of other nations, and particularly its intolerant attitude toward other nationalisms. Though he uses the term “nationalism” instead of “exceptionalism, Pei depicts it as essentially the same set of ideas guiding both American identity and foreign policy, though Americans do not consider it nationalism because they equate that term with more repressive European and Asian notions of the same thing.

As he claims, “American nationalism is hidden in plain sight,” obvious to everyone but Americans themselves, who consider the term taboo but nonetheless loudly practice its hallmarks. Pei’s central argument states that American nationalism prevents the United States not only from admitting that it embraces nationalism, but also from properly understanding and tolerating nationalist movements in other countries. The United States’ sense of unique mission and moral propriety lead it to view other nationalist movements as enemies, especially when they are not avowedly capitalist (as in the cases of China, Cuba, and Vietnam).

As evidence, he offers the Vietnam debacle, in which American policy experts mistakenly believe the Vietnamese wanted to spread communism throughout southeast Asia; in truth, he maintains, Vietnamese nationalism was deeply rooted and aimed only at freedom from foreign domination. In addition, it has carried into the war on terror, in which the “you’re either with us or against us” mentality has persisted. American nationalism ultimately has three consequences when applied to foreign policy, Pei claims – anti-American resentments, backfiring and failure of policies, and other nations’ belief that the United States is hypocritical.

He concludes by stating that the United States’ nationalism, a positive thing at home, has a mixed legacy abroad – while some nations admire American power and idealism, others find it overbearing and broad resentment is the lamentable result. These two authors approach the subject shrewdly and look beyond common assumptions about the United States’ sense of mission, inherent goodness, and unquestionable justification. However, their intentions differ sharply. Dougal, writing before 9/11, offers a model for analyzing the various components of American identity and issues a call for other scholars to explore the idea farther.

Pei, writing in the more strident political climate since the attacks, offers a more concise analysis of nationalism’s parts but concentrates more on its effects – particularly how American nationalism’s blindness to how other nations perceive it harm America’s image abroad.


Dougal, Ian. “Defining American Exceptionalism. ” Paper delivered at the APG Annual Conference, Lancaster University, Lancaster UK, 3-5 January 2001. Pei, Minxin. “The Paradoxes of American Nationalism” Foreign Policy (May-June 2003), 31-37.

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