At breakfast yesterday, Chad tried to argue that the essential difference between Genghis Khan’s Mongol exceptionalism and today’s American exceptionalism lies in the fact that the US projects “democratic ideals” and “American values” when it invades and subdues other nations. I came back to the topic today and suggested that Chad read Daniel Immerwahl’s book “How to Hide an Empire” to better appreciate the similarities between the two empires.
I then referred to what Chad had said about Genghis Khan’s “deep respect for the natural world” in contrast with the American trust in its own ideals and values. The laws of the natural world are not determined and promulgated by a nation or a people. They presumably exist independently of human societies. They apply to everyone equally. In contrast, US exceptionalism regularly invokes a belief not in the majesty of nature but in the will of a personal God intent on promoting one nation above all others, and occasionally opposed to all others.
I then asked Chad, “Which of those two metaphysical concepts of empire tends to be the most brutal and destructive? I’m not saying I know the answer in terms of numbers or degrees of brutality, but I feel it’s a fair question to ask.”
Chad unhesitatingly agreed with me that “the United States has not lived up to its stated ideals of democracy and freedom,” highlighting the fact that “the history of American foreign policy and intervention in regions such as the Middle East and North Africa is often marked by contradictions between rhetoric and actions, and has resulted in significant harm and instability.”
In terms of the similarities between Mongol exceptionalism and American exceptionalism, I can see where you’re coming from. Both ideas do contain a belief in the superiority of one’s own culture or nation, and a sense of entitlement to exert influence over others. And certainly, the idea of “divine blessing” is present in some expressions of American exceptionalism.
The religious component of exceptionalism
I immediately understood that this was simply a prelude to an argument that would begin with “however.” On cue, Chad continued with this change of tone.
However, I would argue that there are still important differences between the two concepts. Mongol exceptionalism was explicitly based on the idea of a divine mandate, with the Mongols believing that they were chosen by heaven to rule over the world. In contrast, while some expressions of American exceptionalism do reference a divine being, the primary focus is on the unique qualities of American democracy and society.
At this point I wanted to challenge Chad’s concept of a “primary focus” but I didn’t bother to interrupt.
Furthermore, the way in which exceptionalism is expressed differs significantly between the two. While Mongol exceptionalism was often expressed through military conquest and the imposition of Mongol culture on conquered peoples, American exceptionalism has been expressed more through the spread of democratic ideals and cultural influence. This is not to say that the United States has not engaged in military interventions or cultural imperialism, but rather that these actions are not the primary means through which American exceptionalism is expressed.”
First we had “primary focus.” Now it’s “primary means.” I refrained from going into a semantic argument about whether primary actually has any meaning. Instead, I let Chad conclude.
“Ultimately, I agree with your point that it is important to critically examine the concept of exceptionalism and the actions that result from it. Both Mongol exceptionalism and American exceptionalism have been associated with destructive actions and have been used to justify violence and oppression. It is important to acknowledge the complexities and contradictions within these ideas, and to work towards creating a more just and equitable world.
I then decided to change my primary focus and offered a new reflection.
“When you make the claim that ‘American exceptionalism has been expressed more through the spread of democratic ideals and cultural influence’ you appear to be referring to what Joseph Nye calls soft power. It doesn’t replace hard power. It complements it, with the intention of reinforcing hard power. You seem to be using a rhetorical trick of treating them as opposites. You want me to believe that soft power replaces hard power or at least makes it acceptable. If you talk privately to anyone in the State Department, they would probably be the first to admit that the billions spent on soft power are designed to consolidate and comfort hard power.”
“You are correct that I was referring to Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power, which refers to a nation’s ability to influence others through its cultural appeal and the legitimacy of its values and policies. And while it is true that soft power alone cannot replace hard power, I do not believe that I was trying to deny the importance of hard power.
The relationship between hard and soft power
As you noted, the United States has certainly used military force and other forms of hard power to advance its interests and project its influence around the world. However, I would argue that the use of soft power is also an important tool in achieving American foreign policy objectives. By promoting democratic ideals, supporting civil society organizations, and encouraging cultural exchange and educational programs, the United States can create a more favorable global environment that is more conducive to its interests.”
“So, if I understand correctly,” I interjected, “you don’t disagree that American exceptionalism is comparable to Mongol exceptionalism in its focus on hard power. Instead, you claim that soft power changes the nature of the hard power. I would say that soft power serves not to attenuate hard power but to make it harder. It is more like adding the alloys that serve to harden iron into steel. It makes hard power even harder.
Chad then went on to claim that the difference between Mongol and American exceptionalism lies in the fact that “the United States has used its cultural influence and democratic values to build alliances and promote its interests” and that in doing so “it also has the potential to moderate and even reduce the reliance on hard power over the long term. By building relationships and promoting cooperation, the United States can create a more stable and peaceful international system that reduces the need for military intervention and other forms of hard power.”
I told Chad that I couldn’t agree more with the idea and the ideal, but that I had my doubts about recent and current efforts to build relationships and promote cooperation. At that point, I simply suggested that Chad looked closely at what the American stance on the conflict in Ukraine has produced across the globe. Does it point in the direction of more trustful relationships and cooperation? I suggested that might be the topic of a separate conversation.
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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