We are different: American exceptionalism and international norms
Over the past couple months, President Barack Obama has been touching on a certain theme, namely that Americans are different than the rest of the world’s people, that somehow, Americans are special. In short, America is exceptional.
In explaining the U.S. intervention in the Libyan civil war, for example, Obama said on March 28,
To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.
After committing the United States to war in Libya, the President then ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
In responding to skepticism that naturally followed after the U.S. allegedly killed bin Laden and then dumped his body into the sea — without allowing any outside independent observers to confirm that it was him — President Obama said that his decision “is something that makes us different.”
CBS reporter Steve Kroft asked Obama if it was his decision to dump the body at sea, and Obama replied that it was actually a joint decision.
“We thought it was important to think through ahead of time how we would dispose of the body if he were killed in the compound,” said the president.
Obama went on: “Frankly we took more care on this than, obviously, bin Laden took when he killed 3,000 people. He didn’t have much regard for how they were treated and desecrated. But that, again, is somethin’ that makes us different. And I think we handled it appropriately.”
It is interesting and revealing that the President of the United States is comparing his own actions against those of an internationally wanted terrorist. We took more care in killing bin Laden, says Obama, than bin Laden did, when he killed 3,000 Americans.
But of course, the U.S. can’t show the pictures of a dead bin Laden in order to quell the growing doubts about his death, because that would be barbaric, and in fact, not showing the pictures “makes us different,” it makes us special, or exceptional.
American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is somehow different from other nations. Stemming from its emergence from a revolution against illegitimate monarchy, and developing a unique ideology based on liberty and equality, America has long used its underdog status to justify whatever it wants to do.
As Michael Ignatieff puts it in American Exceptionalism and Human Rights,
Since 1945 America has displayed exceptional leadership in promoting international human rights. At the same time, however, it has also resisted complying with human rights standards at home or aligning its foreign policy with these standards abroad. Under some administrations, it has promoted human rights as if they were synonymous with American values, while under others, it has emphasized the superiority of American values over international standards. This combination of leadership and resistance is what defines American human rights behavior as exceptional, and it is this complex and ambivalent pattern that the book seeks to explain.
Thanks to Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, the United States took a leading role in the creation of the United Nations and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. …
The same U.S. government, however, has also supported rights-abusing regimes from Pinochet’s Chile to Suharto’s Indonesia; sought to scuttle the International Criminal Court, the capstone of an enforceable global human rights regime; maintained practices–like capital punishment–at variance with the human rights standards of other democracies; engaged in unilateral preemptive military actions that other states believe violate the UN Charter; failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; and ignored UN bodies when they criticized U.S. domestic rights practices.
What is exceptional here is not that the United States is inconsistent, hypocritical, or arrogant. Many other nations, including leading democracies, could be accused of the same things. What is exceptional, and worth explaining, is why America has both been guilty of these failings and also been a driving force behind the promotion and enforcement of global human rights. What needs explaining is the paradox of being simultaneously a leader and an outlier.
Lately, the U.S. has been more of an outlier than a leader. Through unlawful drone attacks, through commando raids that violate nations’ sovereignty, through ongoing indefinite detentions of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, the USA has proved time and again that its concern over the niceties of international law runs only skin deep.
International law matters only when the United States can use it to its advantage, which is what really “makes us different.” The law doesn’t apply to us, in other words.