Paul Pillar describes “Jeffersonian exceptionalism”:
There are two basic dangers in foreign policy as Jeffersonians see it. One of them, in Mead’s words, consists of “those things that foreign countries may do to us that threaten our liberties directly.” From much discourse today one might conclude this is the only type of danger. But “there are also, perhaps more dangerous, the things we may do to ourselves as we seek to defend ourselves against others, or even as we seek to advance our values abroad.” There is much recent history that could illustrate that second danger, from warrantless wiretaps to Abu Ghraib. And besides the damage we can do to ourselves, there is also the problem of picking fights and postulating threats in a way that needlessly encourages others to damage us. “Define your interests as narrowly as possible,” advise the Jeffersonians, “and you will have the fewest possible grounds for quarrels with others.”
Naturally, I agree with the Jeffersonian view described here, and I understand why advocates of restraint and prudence in foreign policy would want to reclaim exceptionalist rhetoric from interventionists and hegemonists, but I’m not sure that this is possible. In practice, most advocates of American exceptionalism in its weaker and stronger forms are not referring for the most part to our form of government, our political principles or the different social structure that has developed in America. They are referring to an idea of American economic, political and military supremacy in the world, all of which informs their conviction that America is the “greatest country in the history of the world,” and related to this is the belief that the U.S. therefore has the right and obligation to propagate its values everywhere.
Pillar refers to these as the “trappings” that have been built up around “core concept of America indeed being a special place,” and argues for stripping them away and leaving only the core concept. If that is possible, I can see the value in doing so, but what if it is no longer possible? Haven’t advocates of American exceptionalism as it is commonly expressed today set aside what made America so exceptional and different from other nations in the past (among other things, our neutrality, non-interference, minding our own business) so that they can embrace the “trappings” of being a great power? Isn’t it the “trappings” that matter most to these advocates, even if it means sacrificing constitutional government and our distinctive political principles?