The USA claims an exceptional role in world affairs, uniquely defining its national interest as more or less synonymous with that of the international community as a whole. Its liberal advocates concur: ‘America’s national interest … offers the closest match there is to a world interest’ (Emmott, 2002, p.10). It is the only country with an ‘ism’ attached to its name (Prestowitz, 2003).
Why does the USA claim such an exceptional international role?
To answer this, we need to go back to the historical development of the USA itself. The formation of the USA was a result of the networks of trade, people, settlement and ideas that circulated in the Atlantic economy, linking north-west Europe, the Americas and Africa during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After thirteen colonies gained independence from Britain in the American Revolution of 1776, the subsequent development of the USA was in part an indirect continuation of that process of European expansion into the non-European world – both globalising and imperial.
At the same time, however, US expansion was defined as anti-colonial rather than colonial, republican rather than monarchical, the New World rather than the old European order. Unlike the major European states, the USA became a major power more or less without a formal empire. Rather, independence cleared the way for westward expansion and settlement, and ‘the whole internal history of US imperialism was one vast process of territorial seizure and occupation’ (Stedman Jones, 1972, p.217).
It was only by presenting this ‘internal colonialism’ as an expansion into uninhabited or freely alienated lands that the American ideology of ‘exceptionalism’ could take root. Yet among the overwhelmingly European majority of the population, such an idea did strike a deep chord. The ideology of exceptionalism encompasses two sets of ideas:
- That the USA is uniquely fortunate in having escaped the patterns of historical development characteristic of the old order in Europe, and in being able to create anew a society based on security, liberty and justice.
- That it is an exemplary power, representing a model that is universally applicable to the rest of humankind.
In this way, the USA has been able to present its national interest as simultaneously unique and universal, as entirely consistent with a form of cosmopolitan internationalism.
The consolidation of the sovereignty of the Union after the Civil War of 1861–65 and the development of the national market, based on federal transfers of land to private ownership, laid the basis for the later development of a mass society: the USA pioneered the culture of mass consumption as well as the consumption of mass culture, both of which were based in mass production, or what foreigners simply called Americanism. [Americanism. Americanism refers to the combination of mass production, a culture of mass consumption and the mass consumption of culture pioneered by American capitalist society.]
The age of mass destruction followed shortly after as the USA led the combination of the mass production of high-explosive weapons and massive increases in the mobility of their means of delivery. This is what a ‘superpower’ originally meant, defined by William Fox (1944) as ‘great power plus great mobility of power’.