Let’s not call it exceptionalism.
I do appreciate what Mark is trying to do. The stereotypical American exceptionalist wants to argue that the transcendently unique ideals of the U.S.A.’s founding justify a broader range of actions in dealing with other nations, whereas Mark wants to say that the our historically unique ideals should actually limit what we allow ourselves to do. In other words, the United States should spend more time living up to its ideals and less time trying to make the world safe for them.
But I have a few (possibly pedantic) objections to this attempt to capture the term “exceptionalism.”
First, by what standards does one judge American ideals to be good? If the judgment’s made on a particular religion or ideology or theory of justice, then that theory should hold broadly, not just for the United States. But if American ideals are good simply because they’re American, then we’re edging close to nationalism.
Second, exceptionalism has to do with a special mission. The culture that developed American exceptionalism was a Protestant one. Those early exceptionalists judged American ideals as good by the standards of Protestant morality — but they believed in God’s providence as well, and they saw in the United States a divine purpose, though they clashed over what that purpose was. “City on a hill” rhetoric comes from Biblical references to Jerusalem as a city that God has chosen to be an example to the other nations. From some perspectives (e.g. mine), it is mildly to severely heretical for Christians to substitute America for Jerusalem (which is why this aspect of Presidential speechmaking tends to make me want to pull my own hair out in chunks).
In the twilight of America as a distinctively Protestant culture — roughly, the generation or so after World War II — the Cold War made possible a new justification for the American mission. The idea seems to have been that the special virtues of the United States led inexorably to leadership of the free world. History itself vindicated American ideals by thrusting us to previously unimaginable levels of wealth and power, and eventually to a global hegemony.
The problem with the latter account is the degree to which it depends on Europe destroying itself twice over in thirty years in wars that left our territory basically untouched. Which is to say: the U.S.A. got its hegemony by carefully taking advantage of others’ mistakes, not by some special historical dispensation.
Mark’s version of exceptionalism — living up to our highest ideals — is something that most countries can do. There’s nothing specifically American about trying to figure out what’s best about your country and judging it in light of that. I think we should reserve the phrase “American exceptionalism” for the belief that the United States has, for whatever reason, a special mission in the world that other nations don’t have.