The Iron Click: American Exceptionalism and US Empire
[This essay was published in 2007 in the book Selling US Wars, edited by Achin Vanaik, Olive Tree Press.]
I am so terrifed, America,
Of the iron click of your human contact.
And after this
The winding-sheet of your selfless ideal love.
Like a poison gas.
DH Lawrence, “The Evening Land”, 1923
“The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise… The United States welcomes our responsibility to lead in this great mission…The U.S. national security strategy will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests.”
- National Security Strategy of the United States, 2002
In expounding the doctrine of “pre-emptive war” and expanding the grounds on which the US considers itself entitled to take military action, the National Security Strategy of 2002 was seen as a departure from the past, in most quarters an alarming one. However, while it certainly reflects a more aggressive posture, the NSS echoes themes that reach back to the origins of the US republic. Its unilateralism is not a novelty but an elaboration of long-standing claims. Its underlying assumptions – that the US embodies the “single sustainable model”, that the US is engaged in a global mission on behalf of universal values, that US national interests coincide with the interests of humanity as a whole – reflect an American exceptionalism that is deeply ingrained in popular conceptions of US national identity.
American exceptionalism: the debate
In its narrow sense, the term “American exceptionalism” refers to the theory that the US is an exception to the general laws that apply to capitalist societies, notably in its lack of a mass social democratic, socialist or labour party and the weakness of collectivist ideas and class consciousness. In its broader sense, American exceptionalism envisions the US as unique among nations and societies; it is a country with a special mission and therefore enjoys special duties and prerogatives. The USA becomes not merely a nation-state among other nation-states, but an idea and an ideal.
There’s a vast literature on whether and to what degree US society actually is exceptional, and whether or not this is a good thing. A number of factors have been cited in attempts to explain the US’s ‘exceptional’ characteristics: the moving frontier, the absence of feudalism, the availability of land, slavery, immigration, the multi-ethnic composition of the working class. Clearly, the US is not a society devoid of class conflict or immune to crisis. Equally clearly, the various factors adduced as explanations of American exceptionalism have shaped the manner in which class conflict unfolds and crises are resolved. Like all societies, the US has distinctive features; among advanced capitalist societies it might be said to lie at one end of a spectrum with the Scandinavian countries at the other. The fact that in recent decades European countries have drawn closer to the US economic and social model suggests that this model is less “exceptional” than was previously assumed. To speak of the US as an “exception” implies the existence of a norm or a general law of development from which it qualitatively deviates, and identifying a norm or law of this kind is always problematic. As a perspective on US history, American exceptionalism fetishises differences and downgrade commonalities.
However, what cannot be denied is the presence and power within US society of the tenets of American exceptionalism, at both elite and popular levels. It’s a living, protean ideology. People in many countries believe their own nation is in some way “exceptional”, but this belief has deeper roots and greater resonance in the USA. It has shaped class relations within the US as well as popular views of the USA’s place in the world. It has played a critical role in securing domestic support for international expansion and deflecting domestic conflict. Crucially, American exceptionalism is today allied to unprecedented military power. Unlike other countries, the USA has the capacity to make real its claims to exceptional status. For these reasons, the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements need to understand how American exceptionalism functions and to devise strategies to challenge it.
Strikingly, in the copious studies of American exceptionalism scant attention has been paid to its impact on or expression in the US’s relations with the rest of the world. Seymour Martin Lipset’s American Exceptionalism: a Double Edged Sword, the most widely reviewed treatment of the subject in recent years, contains not a single reference to US foreign policy, armed interventions, colonial possessions, or military spending – the latter being a category in which the USA is most definitely exceptional. This silence is itself a symptom of habits of thought shaped by American exceptionalism.
“Americanism” and missionary nationalism
US nationalism shares characteristics with and performs many of the same functions as other forms of nationalism. As elsewhere, the “imagined community” of the nation helps incorporate and subordinate the mass of the population into a larger entity guided by an elite. However, because of the circumstances of its emergence, US nationalism could not wear the colours of language or ethnicity or make the territorial claims that sustained nationalisms in other lands. Instead, it posi