US Sovereignty and Economic Exceptionalism

The following is an extract from Karine Perron’s chapter, “The International Economic Sovereignty of the United States of America: Integrating the Exception to our Understanding of Empire,” published in Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (Montreal: Alert Press, 2014), pp. 105-120:

Overview: Karine Perron addresses the scope of US capacity to influence and set out rules for international economic policies, rules which it then ignores. By examining cases concerning the IMF, the WTO, and even the overthrow of governments, US advocacy of capitalism, free trade, and democracy, each is contrasted with situations in which the US made exceptions for its own benefit. The significance of US power to decide on “the exception” is discussed by Perron in relation to the strategy of enlargement openly promoted by the Clinton administration and pursued by subsequent US governments. As economic growth has been added to the US definition of national security, exceptions have become a permanent feature of American foreign policy. Using Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty as the power to decide on the exception, Perron argues that this capacity of the US to decide on exceptions regularly in the international economic realm is significant of its international sovereignty, and its intended supremacy. In these respects, Perron is raising some critical points of interest similar to those of Scheppele (2013): with respect to international law, what the US does by erecting itself as an exception is to create a rule from the exception. The US works to distribute this law, and uses its rule to extract and centralize gain. What Perron also does, like Scheppele (2013), is to pay respect to the fact that apart from a brief period when economic globalization seemed to reign supreme, powerful states (such as the US) have proceeded to seize back much of the power they had allegedly lost or ceded.

The Strategy of Enlargement

One might be tempted to believe that the end of the Cold War changed the foreign and economic policies of the US, considering that the “communist threat” no longer existed. Anthony Lake, who was a foreign policy and national security advisor for the Clinton administration, addressed the question of American post-Cold War vision (Chomsky, 1993; Lake, 1993). In his discourse, Lake clearly outlines a vision of the role the US should play in the world. He first reminds us that Bill Clinton, who was President at the time, promised to work towards heightened US engagement internationally, and that his priorities were economic growth, national security, and the promotion of democracy (Lake, 1993). It is interesting to note how these three objectives really come down to one as the discourse unfolds and clearly states what is at stake: “Whether Americans’ real incomes double every 26 years, as they did in the 1960s, or every 36 years, as they did during the late ‘70s and ‘80s” (Lake, 1993). According to Giorgio Agamben, anything that is seen as endangering national security justifies the declaration of a state of exception, and to paraphrase Balladore-Pallieri (as cited in Agamben, 2003) and Schmitt (2005), the notion of exception rests upon the concept of necessity, which is entirely subjective and contingent on what the decision-maker wishes to achieve. Therefore, declaring economic growth to be the main concern of the US’ strategy of enlargement has important implications for national security policies.

Is the leadership of the US extending the definition of exception to the international sphere? When examining US economic policy, it is clear that free trade agreements and international economic policies favourable to American corporations are considered to be of high priority. Moreover, Lake’s discourse clearly states that the most important threat the US faces since the end of the Cold War is lethargic economic growth, and consequently identifies the strengthening and broadening of the community of market democracies, as well as the fight against anti-capitalist states, as the way to achieve economic growth (Lake, 1993). It is irrefutable that economic growth has become a question of national security for the US: both the actions and the discourses of US leaders point to this direction. Following this idea is the fact that the protection of national security, which includes economic growth, is reason enough to install a state of exception that has slowly come to be permanent. Whereas states of exception have been declared numerous times in the past, such as during the civil war, when Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus, and during World War I, when President Wilson assumed even broader powers, there was a shift during the Great Depression when the state of exception was for the first time defended on economic grounds. In fact in his inaugural discourse Roosevelt addressed the economic crisis metaphorically as a war: “I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe” (Roosevelt, 1933). The heritage of installing measures of exception to situations of economic duress was continued by Nixon in the 1970s (Ellwood, 2010), and by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), enacted in 1977 under Carter (Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the United States House of Representatives [OLRC], 1977). The IEEPA has legally allowed the President of the United States, in cases of emergency, to use a series of economic measures that usually would be prohibited:

“Any authority granted to the President by section 1702 of this title may be exercised to deal with any unusual and extraordinary threat, which has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States, to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States, if the President declares a national emergency with respect to such threat”. (OLRC, 1977, Title 50, Section 1701)

The IEEPA has been used against at least 30 countries and groups, on several occasions in most of these particular cases, and many of the measures are still effective today (OLRC, 1977). National security issues and emergencies appear to be extremely recurrent and long lasting for the US.


…the US strategy of enlargement and of economic growth heavily relies on declarations of exceptions, whether official or not. US action within the IMF and the influence it has over the policies of the organization, as well as its power to impose structural adjustment programs on other countries while itself disregarding the measures advocated by the IMF, give an idea of how the US can both set the rules and break them. The same can be said about American leadership’s relation with the WTO: simultaneously advocating for the principles of the WTO, and using force to open up select markets to American exports, and yet disrespecting the WTO’s decisions when they are not to its advantage. The enactment and multiple uses of Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 and of IEEPA of 1977 only reinforces how large the scope of what constitutes national security and measures of exception can be for the US. When other options have failed or have been deemed not to resolve the problem swiftly enough, declassified documents prove that overthrows have been executed in order to protect and expand American corporate interests.

The primary purpose of this chapter was to show US exceptionalism when it comes to neoliberalism, that is, by sidestepping neoliberal prescriptions whenever convenient while upholding them globally. Neoliberalism is advocated and enforced solely if it is to the advantage of US corporations. The rules can and will be broken whenever they do not serve US corporate interests. Official statements barely, if at all, disguise this reality, as demonstrated by Lake’s discourse, in which he both advocates international rules and subtracts the US from them: “But for any official with responsibilities for our security policies, only one overriding factor can determine whether the US should act multilaterally or unilaterally, and that is American interests” (Lake, 1993). In Political Theology, Schmitt (2005) discussed sovereignty in these terms: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” (p. 5) It is a question of who appropriates for oneself the power to decide what constitutes order and safety without being significantly challenged (Schmitt, 2005). For the US, order and safety necessitate market economies and democracy, as well as American leadership, which Lake believes is desired and appreciated throughout the world (Lake, 1993). This leadership consequently entails that the US sets out the rules, but is also legitimate to derogate from them when it judges it necessary. The information provided in this chapter leads us to the conclusion that the US is sovereign, since it shows little hesitation to decide on undertaking exceptional measures on economic grounds, and has furthermore made exceptions a recurrent practice.

While the discussion of this chapter was limited to the economic aspect of exceptions and US hegemony, it could be extended to the political and military realms. Lake’s discourse can be used as an interesting starting point, since it specifically addresses the idea that the US is the dominant power in the contemporary world, and mentions its unrivalled military might, while in the same breath argues that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is one of the major threats the world faces (Lake, 1993). He clearly states the aspiration to expand the scope of US influence and the intention to engage militarily in other countries’ intra-national ethnic conflicts (Lake, 1993). “American exceptionalism” is more than an overly proud and arrogant self-reflection (Hongju Koh, 2003). US hegemonic ambitions are barely hidden and the idea of an American empire is now endorsed and advocated by a number of influential writers (Boot, 2001/10/15; Kaplan, 2001; Ignatieff, 2005). The power of the US to frequently decide on exceptions in the international economic realm is a significant feature of its international sovereignty; this type of sovereignty should be understood as integral part of the meaning of contemporary empire.


Agamben, G. (2003). State of Exception. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Boot, M. (2001/10/15). The Case for American Empire. The Weekly Standard, 7(5).

Chomsky, N. (1993). The Clinton Vision. Z Magazine, December.–.htm

Ellwood, W. (2010). No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization (3rd ed.). Cornwall, ON: New Internationalist Publications.

Hongju Koh, H. (2003). On American Exceptionalism. Stanford Law Review. 55(5) 1479–1527.

Ignatieff, M. (2005). American Exceptionalism and Human Rights. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kaplan, R. (2001) Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Lake, A. (1993). From Containment to Enlargement. Washington, DC: John Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.

Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the United States House of Representatives (OLRC). (1977). Unusual and Extraordinary Threat; Declaration of National Emergency; Exercise of Presidential Authorities. Washington, DC: United States Code Annotated.

Roosevelt, F. D. (1933). Inaugural Address. College Park, MD: The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Scheppele, K. L. (2013). The Empire’s New Laws: Terrorism and the New Security Empire After 9/11. In G. Steinmetz (Ed.), Sociology & Empire: The Imperial Entanglements of a Discipline (pp. 245–278). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Schmitt, C. (2005). Political Theology, Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism

Edited by Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2014

Hard Cover ISBN 978-0-9868021-5-7
Paperback ISBN 978-0-9868021-4-0