Carr Center Looks
at the Paradox
When a report comes out exposing the latest human
rights abuse around the world, many Americans are outraged. They
write letters to the editor and call for international intervention.
Shouts of freedom! and fair treatment! are
But does the United States practice what it preaches?
Yes, say some, proudly pointing to the worlds oldest Bill
of Rights. America is an exceptional country, they say, a
model to be followed.
But others disagree. America refuses to sign accords
embraced by other countries the Mine Ban Treaty, for instance.
And other than Iran, its the only country in the world that
executes juveniles. The United States, they contend, is a hypocritical
nation that believes its more exceptional than any
Exceptional. Same word used by both camps but
with very different connotations.
Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for
Human Rights Policy, believes both uses are valid. So in order to
dive into the debate, he launched the American Exceptionalism
project with seed funding from the Norman and Rosita Winston Foundation.
Based on a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 book,
Democracy in America, the project is looking at the uniqueness
of American human rights culture (the positive side) and Americas
habit of exempting itself from human rights obligations (the negative
What makes America distinctive is its rights
culture, says Ignatieff, noting the countrys coveted
free speech laws and strong leadership by people like Eleanor Roosevelt,
whose work on the 1948 United Declaration of Human Rights was considered
seminal. The United States is an exceptional leader, but its
also increasingly out of step with international human rights standards.
This paradoxical struggle, as he calls
it, certainly isnt a new one.
Theres been an argument about American
exceptionalism from the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony,
he says. In 1630, John Winthrop, the first governor, called the
new nation a shining city on a hill. President Washington
noted American exceptionalism in his farewell address. More recently,
President Bush pledged in his 2001 inaugural speech to build a
single nation of justice and opportunity.
The Carr Center is coming into the debate 350
plus years later, Ignatieff jokes.
A collection of essays based on the lecture series
is due out next year.