The Unexceptional Nation: Donald Trump and Making America Great Again

Hilde Eliassen Restad

Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has been operating under the assumption that the world needs U.S. leadership not just because of American military might, or because of the dollar, but also because of American ideals. This foreign policy tradition and its justification in American exceptionalism is opposed by the new American president.


In February 1941, owner of Life Magazine Henry Luce argued in the pages of his own publication that the United States should replace Great Britain as the world leader and rule the world through American principles. In fact, Luce argued, the world was about to enter the “American century” – if only the United States would accept its international responsibility. Luce was in the short term arguing for U.S. entry into the Second World War, but in the long term arguing for a liberal world order. The United States and its western allies set up that order in the waning years of the war. This order, and the prominent role the United States plays in it, has been a cornerstone of U.S. grand strategy since 1945. Twenty-four years short of the completion of the “American Century,” however, the United States finds itself lead by Donald Trump, who has explicitly rejected support for this world order. What now for the United States in the world?

Foreign policy elites in both political parties are deeply worried about what they view as Mr. Trump’s ill-informed, erratic, and counter-intuitive views of diplomatic, economic, and security policy. This is not to say that Trump is the first presidential candidate to challenge the D.C. consensus on foreign policy. This consensus was always more fragile than it was made out to be: the so-called Cold War consensus was challenged significantly in the post-Vietnam period, and while most agreed on U.S. “primacy” after the end of the Cold War, the 1990s were still a decade of divisive foreign policy debate between the Clinton White House and Republicans in Congress.

Yet, Mr. Trump does have the distinction of bringing something entirely new to the table when it comes to the debate on U.S. foreign policy: He does not, he has stated, believe in American exceptionalism. Skipping the irony inherent in the Republican president-elect being anti-American exceptionalism (given the criticism leveled against President Barack Obama by this same Republican party in the past eight years on this very same issue) let us examine, first, what American exceptionalism is, and second, what Trump’s opposition to the idea means.

First, what is American exceptionalism? According the 2012 Republican Party platform, it is “the conviction that our country holds a unique place in human history.” I am inclined to agree with the Republican Party. Elsewhere, I have written that American exceptionalism is usefully defined as the belief in three ideas: 1) The idea that the United States is distinct from the Old World; 2) that it has a special and unique role to play in world history; and 3) that the United States will resist the laws of history (meaning that it will rise to great power status but will not fall, as all previous republics have). The historic belief in these three ideas has important consequences for how the United States relates to the rest of the world. Indeed, these ideas have historically meant that the United States has pursued a vigorous role for itself in the world – first in the Western Hemisphere (“western expansion” being partly inspired by the idea of Manifest Destiny – a kind of 19th century version of the earlier ideas of American exceptionalism that made up the foundational myths of the United States in the 18th century) and later globally.

While the United States initially did not seek to assert U.S. principles in Europe, as Jay Sexton points out in his article, it did seek to take over vast amounts of territory in the Western Hemisphere. With increased territory and power came also the impulse to exert influence over an ever-expanding area of the globe, and indeed finally also to assert American principles in Europe. Woodrow Wilson and his famous quest to teach autocratic European leaders good governance and proper international intercourse was a fitting prequel to the ‘American century’ indeed.

That the United States is distinct from – which really means superior to – the rest of the world because of its political system and its values is the most important part of American exceptionalism, and a belief that many Americans hold.

In Trump’s foreign policy vision, the United States does not lead because it is good; it leads because it gets paid.

Many Americans, but apparently not Mr. Trump. Seemingly, Trump is against using the term American exceptionalism because of political correctness (Yes, I know.) He stated in an interview in April 2015 that it is not polite – in the company of, say, business partners from Germany or China – to say that, “’We’re exceptional. we’re more exceptional.’ Because essentially we’re saying we’re more outstanding than you.” In addition to the bad optics, Trump also does not think the United States currently is more outstanding than the rest of the world, because the world is, according to Trump, “eating [America’s] lunch.”

Interestingly, this indicates that Trump’s definition of American exceptionalism is different from most. Whereas many Americans think of the United States as exceptional because of superior values and institutions, Trump ranks the United States in terms of relative material worth. The United States will only regain its exceptional status once it has “eaten” everyone else’s “lunch.” This is an unusual definition of American exceptionalism, in that it denotes American exceptionalism as something that is measured in dollars. The United States is only exceptional as long as it is the richest country in the world that can (therefore) dictate the conditions of economic intercourse to all others.

It is important to note that questioning American exceptionalism is a good thing. Believing one to be better than all others is not necessarily a healthy belief or the wellspring of prudent policies. Indeed, I would argue that Trump is correct in asserting that telling everyone else that you are better than they are is not a smart strategy. Similarly, debating U.S. foreign policy is healthy and necessary.

In Obama, the constant public reckoning with the American national identity as exceptional had perhaps its most nuanced debater-in-chief. In his Farewell Address, Obama explained that what American exceptionalism means is not that the United States is perfect, but that it has shown a capacity for change – to improve that which needed improving. It is a more limited understanding of American exceptionalism than that of the rhetoric of most modern presidential candidates, but the validation is still there. Not so with Donald Trump.

Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has been operating under the assumption that the world needs U.S. leadership not just because of American military might, or because of the dollar, but also because of American ideals. Unbelievably, Trump has resuscitated a long-dead debate over whether the United States should aim to steer international politics in a desirable direction or not. This is not the overblown and misunderstood debate over “isolationism” and internationalism – the attraction and popularity of isolationism prior to the Second World War was always much less than most people think. Rather, going against both political parties and their foreign policy consensus since 1945, Trump is negating the soft power of the United States in arguing for a conditional and material role for the United States in the world.

Is this the end of Luce’s ‘American Century’?

Ironically, putting “America First” may end up diminishing the United States. In Trump’s foreign policy vision, the United States does not lead because it is good; it leads because it gets paid. For instance, NATO is not a community of like-minded allies who share certain values and principles; it is a transactional organization hinging on membership dues. If you pay below a certain rate, the United States may not come to your aid should you get invaded by, say, Russia (a completely randomly chosen example). The United States is not so much the moral leader of the “free world” as it is a New York mafia boss running a protection ring for European affiliates. Pay up, Baltics, or get swallowed up by the Eastern European mafia boss.

In this, Trump is entirely at odds with his own political party. How Trump – in many ways a typical European-style right-wing populist – came to appeal to a certain segment of Republican voters in direct opposition to its party leadership is the topic for another essay. The point is that hardly any prominent Republican in Congress agrees with Trump’s foreign policy agenda. Thus, the next few years of U.S. foreign policy will not only be a fight between President Trump and the GOP in Congress on the one hand, and Democrats on the other. Rather, one assumes the most significant disagreement will come to pass between the White House on the one hand, and Senate Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsay Graham on the other, who are strongly committed to primacy and therefore jealously guard U.S. unipolarity against encroachments from challengers such as Russia and China.

So, is this the end of Luce’s “American Century”? Or have we have been here before? The election of Ronald Reagan does have some similarities to the presidential election of 2016. Just like Trump, Reagan was seen as a lightweight with dangerous rhetoric on foreign affairs. That is not to say Reagan was anything like Trump, but rather to say there have been a multitude of personalities among the 44 presidents through U.S. history, and not all of them have had the intellectual depth of a Woodrow Wilson, the commitment of a Teddy Roosevelt, the moral clarity of an Abraham Lincoln, or the personal integrity of a George Washington. Still, the republic has not only survived, but also thrived.

That is not to say that an erratic, potentially ethically compromised, and ill-informed president cannot hurt the position and interests of the United States. He can. But if anything, the next few years will tell us just how strong the institutions, norms, and values that Americans are so proud of actually are. The republic will be tested, and with it, its position in the world. U.S. allies will have its back, but enemies will do what they can to deepen the damage. We can only wait and see what happens.


Hilde Eliassen Restad is Associate Professor of International Studies at Bjørknes University College in Oslo, Norway. She is the author of American Exceptionalism: An Idea that Made a Nation and Remade the World (2014). She holds a Ph.D. in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @hilderestad

The Unexceptional Na…

by Hilde Eliassen Restad time to read: 9 min