Identity Crisis in U.S. Foreign Policy: Discourses of Greatness and Exceptionalism after 2008
By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the United States had to face a number of interrelated crises: the economic and financial crisis of 2008-09 coincided with the military overexpansion resulting from interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. These developments culminated in a crisis of foreign-policy identity: the notion refers to a situation in which well-established conceptions of a country’s role in the international system are questioned, and new conceptions are created and reproduced. For the U.S., this manifested in a challenge to the unipolar leadership role that had been widely accepted in the post-Cold War era. Surprisingly, this did not lead to the disappearance of discourses of “American exceptionalism” and “greatness.” On the contrary, these ideas gained even greater significance in the foreign-policy debates of the 2010s, although their precise meaning was the subject of intense contestation. What explains this resurgence of exceptionalist rhetoric, and how can we characterize the different themes that appeared in these debates? The article introduces a new theoretical framework for understanding discourses of U.S. exceptionalism, and briefly examines the discourses of the Obama and the Trump presidencies. This analysis can highlight how the use of certain terms may accompany decisive changes in U.S. foreign policy, and how especially the presidency of Donald Trump signals a shift in the understanding of U.S. national role conception.