The ‘Indispensable Nation’ in a Post-American World: American Exceptionalism and President Obama’s Post-American Vision of Hegemony

  • Abstract:

    ‘American exceptionalism’ is one of the distinct features of national identity construction in the United States, proposing the political and social uniqueness, historic difference, and material superiority of the country. Since its emergence as a global superpower at the end of World War II, this ideology of national exceptionalism was used to underwrite an activist US foreign policy, establishing a Washington consensus of liberal hegemony. Under the Obama administration however, this national identity discourse has become a contested ideological battleground between competing visions of exceptionalism and its meaning for America’s role in the world. Donald Trumps’ aggressive nativist nationalism is one of the latest examples in this ongoing conflict over defining America’s ‘greatness’ and the political consequences deriving from it. This paper explores the discursive performance and political significance of American exceptionalism under the Obama presidency, and its consequences for US foreign and security policy. It examines how American exceptionalism represents a key identity construct that is intertextually constituted and reconstituted between the language of political decision-making, the intellectual expertise in America’s strategic community of think tanks and policy experts, and reflections in popular media. A particular focus lies on the 2012 presidential campaign, and how diverging visions of American exceptionalism between Obama and Romney testified to competing ideas for American leadership in world politics, and the enduring effect of this conflict in American politics. The paper will further examine the cases of ‘leading from behind’ in Libya, the American military intervention in Syria, and US reactions to international crises concerning Ukraine and ISIS. The contextualization of these episodes in contemporary, geopolitical discourse reveals how the practice of US foreign and security policy under Obama is shaped by a conflicted and paradoxical vision of post-American hegemony that attempts to bring American exceptionalism in line with a less US-centric international system.