Democratic platform swaps ‘American exceptionalism’ for ‘indispensable nation’

Last week, the GOP made the first ever reference to "American exceptionalism" in a party platform, using the buzzy term as the title for the document’s foreign-policy section and defining the concept as the "conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history." Speakers at the Republican convention hammered home the ...

David Greedy/Getty Images
David Greedy/Getty Images
David Greedy/Getty Images

Last week, the GOP made the first ever reference to "American exceptionalism" in a party platform, using the buzzy term as the title for the document's foreign-policy section and defining the concept as the "conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history." Speakers at the Republican convention hammered home the theme to contrast their vision of American greatness with President Obama's alleged declinism. 

The Democratic platform released on Monday evening appears to fire back, but without using "American exceptionalism" or some variation of the phrase once. Instead, the platform declares:

We also understand the indispensable role that the United States must continue to play in promoting international peace and prosperity.

Last week, the GOP made the first ever reference to "American exceptionalism" in a party platform, using the buzzy term as the title for the document’s foreign-policy section and defining the concept as the "conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history." Speakers at the Republican convention hammered home the theme to contrast their vision of American greatness with President Obama’s alleged declinism. 

The Democratic platform released on Monday evening appears to fire back, but without using "American exceptionalism" or some variation of the phrase once. Instead, the platform declares:

We also understand the indispensable role that the United States must continue to play in promoting international peace and prosperity.

"Indispensable" isn’t just a throwaway adjective here. In 2008, the Democratic platform used the word to describe Social Security, Europe, and the United Nations, but not America. This year, the phrasing invokes the Clinton administration’s description of the United States as an "indispensable nation" well before American exceptionalism became a staple of political discourse. Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal and historian James Chace coined the term in 1996 to encapsulate the idea of "liberal internationalism" in the post-Cold War world. Here’s how Blumenthal described the moment of inspiration:

We were able to describe the concept of the United States as the guarantor of stability as the sole superpower within the framework of multinational institutions, but I was intent on boiling it down to a phrase. Finally, together, we hit on it: "indispensable nation." Eureka! I passed it on first to Madeleine Albright, at the time the United Nations ambassador, and then to the president.

And here’s how Bill Clinton used the phrase in 1996, in a speech explaining the rationale behind NATO’s intervention in Bosnia:

The fact is America remains the indispensable nation. There are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression, between hope and fear. Of course, we can’t take on all the world’s burden. We cannot become its policemen. But where our interests and values demand it and where we can make a difference, America must act and lead.

Obama has made sure to emphasize his support for American exceptionalism ever since he landed in hot water for saying he believed "in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." But in major speeches — such as his State of the Union address in January and his graduation address at the U.S. Air Force Academy in May — he’s used the "indispensable nation" formulation instead.

As this week’s convention progresses, it’s worth keeping an eye on how the Democrats describe America’s role in the world in light of GOP attacks. Will they employ different language than the Republicans? And, if so, will they make the case that the words amount to anything more than another way to say that America is a very special place?

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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