Theses Bachelor's

Power and Moral Purpose: The Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism in US Foreign Policy

Paiva, Juliet

The United States of America has viewed itself as exceptional since its inception. American exceptionalism encompasses the belief that the country is different from and inherently superior to all other nations. Presidential rhetoric, which draws on the idea of American exceptionalism continuously across time and partisanship, offers a glimpse into how the concept operates and interacts with external forces. By distinguishing between claims of material and moral superiority as two key themes of exceptionalist rhetoric and examining how US presidents utilize this idea during pivotal moments for America’s role in the international system, this paper seeks to explore the interaction between power and moral purpose through the notion of American exceptionalism in US foreign policy. I examine presidential rhetoric around the ends of four major wars—World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. After victory in a major international conflict, where the previous international order is significantly transformed, the president offers visions of American exceptionalism to justify the nation’s leading role in reorganizing that order. In cases with an American victory in the war, we see a higher proportion of American exceptionalist rhetoric with a material focus before the war ends. After the war ends, rhetoric with a moral emphasis increases significantly. The one defeat case study I examine does not produce the same findings. On this basis, I propose that there is a necessary interaction between power and moral purpose exemplified after victory. The increased employment of moral rhetoric is made possible by victory, which validates previous claims of material superiority. American exceptionalism harnesses power and moral purpose into one guiding idea in moments when a new international order is emerging, resulting in the concept's continuous use over time by US presidents.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Snyder, Jack Lewis
B.A., Columbia University
Published Here
May 2, 2023