Exceptionalism and Exemption in US Nuclear Policy

In his 19th century writings on the emergence of American democracy, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville stated that, “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” From its origin story to its role as a key player on the international stage, America certainly appears to be unlike any other nation. Its relative youth paired with its almost disproportionate amount of global political power puts it in a unique position compared to its counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are still many factors that would make it seem rather unexceptional.  The United States was not the first country to fight for independence, and it certainly will not be the last. It did not provide the world with the great gift of democracy; we have the ancient Greeks to thank for that. And due to centuries of imperialism, it is not the first global superpower. So what is it about America that makes so many people regard it as exceptional?

In exploring the internal origins of American exceptionalism, it is helpful to look towards the nation’s engagements overseas. Since World War II, American foreign policy has had an intense focus on arguably the greatest existential threat of our time – nuclear proliferation. The advent of the nuclear bomb didn’t just grace the United States with unprecedented power. It also produced a treacherous international landscape where one country could decimate another in a matter of seconds. Since its success in creating the atomic bomb, America’s non-proliferation strategy has remained exceptionally one-sided. When the French developed their own nuclear capacity, joining the ranks of the Americans and the British, a nuclear arsenal became a marker of global status—particularly among Western countries with colonial holdings. Nuclear power was not just a means of ensuring national security, but a way to establish international prestige.

However, when Israel, a country without colonial assets, began to develop its own nuclear power, the United States responded with condescension. They asked the French—who were helping jumpstart the Israeli nuclear program — to halt to halt their efforts. Despite the regional concerns that might warrant an Israeli nuclear program, eliminating other countries’ capacity for nuclear power ultimately took precedence over ensuring Israel’s national security.

This one-sided approach to nuclear policy continues to this day, with the most recent examples involving Iran and North Korea. For many Americans, the debate surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program has long been dominated by talk of its elimination rather than its regulation.  In an age when the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and France all have nuclear weapons, what authority does the U.S. have to dictate what other countries may and may not develop their own weapons?

North Korea initially agreed to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1985. This pact was crafted to address the expansion of domestic nuclear programs around the world, and while noble in its intentions, there is a lot of criticism as to whether or not it has been fair or effective. Many would argue that it created an imbalance of power, where developed countries that already had nuclear weapons were at the top, and those that didn’t (such as North Korea) were barred from ever doing so, and thus left in a vulnerable position below their peer nations. Citing international security as an important basis for the treaty, the local interests of developing countries were overlooked since the possession of nuclear weapons is essential to the establishment of modern sovereignty. Given the history of colonization in North Korea by Japan, and its relatively recent creation as a country, its standing as a sovereign state may be more important than the interests of powers that either enabled or were complicit in the colonization of its people.

Nevertheless, the threat that North Korea poses to the United States cannot be ignored. Neither can we examine America’s response to nuclear proliferation in North Korea and fail to ask why it is that we hold ourselves to a different, perhaps an even lower standard than other nations. The United States has consistently discouraged other countries from developing nuclear weapons whilst refusing to give up its own nuclear weapons, citing concerns for national security against hostile nations. Those same nations that are discouraged from developing their own nuclear programs may view the US as a hostile state from which they need protection. And given the dispersion of nuclear power globally, the U.S.’ response to the increasing likelihood of nuclear power in developing, non-Western countries contains echoes of imperialist tendencies.

So America is, indeed, exceptional. American elections are a topic of global discussion, and an American declaration of war often means powers across the globe will be sending troops in support. But this exceptionalism is not natural; it is a fabrication of its own. America is exceptional because it holds itself to a standard different than that to which it holds the countries around it. America is exceptional in its unique role as chief defender of liberty around the globe, just as it is exceptional in the role it has played in usurping the leadership of governments that do not align with its definition of freedom. America does not naturally derive the label “exceptional” from its peers as a result of an impeccable record of moral behavior. Its exceptionalism lies in its refusal to play by the rules that it expects all other countries to adhere to; its exceptionalism lies in its hypocrisy.