We’re So Exceptional

Sara Terry
Widows praying during the dedication ceremonies for a planned memorial to the more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were massacred in July 1995, during the Bosnian war, by Serb forces in Srebrenica, July 11, 2001. The memorial was completed in 2003.

Affirming belief that America is an exceptional nation has become a test of patriotism in American politics. Standing up for America’s right to make its own rules and live its own unique destiny has become an obligatory part of campaign rhetoric at a time when China is on the rise and the American economy is struggling back to its feet. Barack Obama learned this to his cost in 2009. When asked by a Financial Times journalist whether he believed in American exceptionalism, Obama replied that he believed in it “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” True, he went on to say that America’s “unmatched military” and its democratic practices were “exceptional” after all. But his implying at first that America was not really so special was a gift to the Republicans and they duly pounced, with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich both trumpeting their belief in America’s unique and predestined role of leadership in the world.

Exceptionalist rhetoric is more than a language game for politicians trying to win support from an anxious electorate traversing the dark wood of possible imperial decline. Exceptionalism also influences the practice of American policy, nowhere more so than in US approaches to international law and justice.

Law, after all, constrains power, and the United States, like any great power, is likely to support a law-bound international order only if it ties up the power of its competitors more than it constrains its own. Other great powers have subscribed to this realist calculus in advancing international law. America is exceptional in combining standard great-power realism with extravagant idealism about the country’s redemptive role in creating international order. Since Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership in setting up the United Nations and the Nuremberg trials, the US has promoted universal legal norms and the institutions to enforce them, while seeking by hook or by crook to exempt American citizens, especially soldiers, from their actual application.1 From Nuremberg onward, no country has invested more in the development of international jurisdiction for atrocity crimes and no country has worked harder to make sure that the law it seeks for others does not apply to itself.

Although I’m not sure he’d see it this way, this is the story that David Scheffer tells in All the Missing Souls. He was Madeleine Albright’s expert on war crimes issues while she was ambassador to the UN between 1993 and 1997. When she became secretary of state, Scheffer served as the first US ambassador for war crimes throughout Clinton’s second term. He was…

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