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“American Exceptionalism” and “American Primacy”

March 13, 2015

This is all similar to previous posts trying to take apart the fishy use of emotionally loaded yet subtly misleading words like “credibility” (trustworthiness vs effective-when-making-threats), “legitimacy” (according-to-most-people vs according-to-me), “law” (as-in-justice vs as-in-order), “freedom” (tough nut to crack, going to attack this one soon),…

This post applies the same divide-in-two trick to the term “exceptionalism”. Kindergarden level obvious, and pretty much a routine formula by now, but after a couple of glasses of wine I was happy with what I got 🙂


2 recent project syndicate articles, and some comments on them, got me thinking, and a new word/phrase has recently entered my lexicon, when talking about international relations.

The word/phrase, and the first article, was “American Primacy”. This is a replacement for “American Hegemony” and I like it. It is more straightforward, logical, materialist term than “Hegemony”, which carries too much weight with it.

The second is “American Exceptionalism”, same as it ever was. I felt the urge to reply to a comment on that subject, and am reposting the comment below…

While tryting to put my thoughts about “exceptionalism” into words (for the n-th time), but this time with the cleaner “Primacy” in place of “Hegemony”, something just “clicked”.

First the links, then the result.


proj-syn link 1:–nye-2015-03

proj-syn link 2:

Here is the reposted comment:


regarding “exceptionalism” as a highly valued element in US policy…

Ties in to another recent proj-syn article, on American “Primacy”. I think the analysis you get when you go with “Primacy” may be on to something. Being “first” is a good thing, and the task seems to be to maintain that condition for as long as possible. I’m just going to talk about how that comes back to exceptionalism, as a goal — without getting into practical matters that I think might be in the way, like the self-defeating nature of some of the methods that are brought to bear in the name of maintaining Primacy.

Just want to cut up Exceptionalism into smaller bites that can be digested. Apply the rusty old verbal knife. No grace at all. Here we go:

Exceptionalism is a mix of two concepts, called exceptional-as-in-uniquely-blessed, and Exceptional-as-in-exempt-from-the-rules.

Exceptional-as-in-uniquely-blessed is being one of a kind. There’s the messianic element, a “chosen people” element (sorry Israel, you’re not the only ones!). Supposedly, one of the archetypes Americans seek in a President is a Moses-figure, to lead them through the wilderness (according to the man who brought us “The Best Part of Waking Up is Folgers In Your Cup!). It’s about pride and good feelings. This is all nice but is mostly good for PR and rhetoric. Not something that bears on decisions made on a cold materialist level.

Exceptional-as-in-exempt-from-the-rules means having the option, when necessary, to be exempt from norms of social order, on an international level. It is the natural right possessed but hopefully voluntarily forsworn by all judges and legislators: To write and interpret rules to their benefit. This aspect of Exceptionalism is the opposite of the rules-based process.

This is the much more important and toxic aspect of Exceptionalism.

Incidentally, Exceptionalism is incompatible with law-as-in-justice. But Exceptionalism is fully compatible with law-as-in-order.

So returning to the task of maintaining Primacy:

Is Exceptionalism-as-in-being-exempt a value that is useful for maintaining primacy? I’m an engineer, not a political theorist, but I get the impression there was once a day when this was debated in American political and IR thinking, and that day is now several decades in the past. So if we follow the road of “Primacy” as a value, I think in today’s climate that leads us back to exceptionalism, which is the end of that path.

So backing up to the previous fork in the road, when we chose to go down the road of Maintaining-Primacy as the principal goal. The other road… choosing Maintaining-Prosperity as the principal goal. Down the path of Maintainin-Prosperity . . . we might find logic that steers us around Exceptionalism-as-in-being-exempt-from-the-rules.


So next time you hear arguments that take you down the “america first” or “Primacy” path, answer them with “Prosperity”, instead.

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