As an American, I'm often called upon to explain our country's foreign policy, and one thing that I usually struggle to explain is the concept of 'American Exceptionalism.' Inevitably, this is one of fundamental pillars which I want to try to convey to whomever I am speaking with, because without an understanding of how Americans see themselves and our world, I cannot begin to explain why we have acted as we have, and why so many people believe strongly in America's foreign policy choices. I think our national myth (using myth in a rather anthropological sense) of 'American exceptionalism' is crucial to that self-image - and I've finally heard a definition of it that I think captures the essence of this idea:
"The mythic narrative goes like this: a nation, providentially set apart, in the New World, and wanting nothing more than to tend to its own affairs grudgingly responded to calls that it assume the mantel of global leadership in order to preserve the possibility of human freedom."
This is the definition given by Andrew Basovitch speaking on the November 3, 2008 at the Carnegie Council. (He is the author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism").
He goes on in that same discussion to claim that this mythic narrative has become detrimental to our ability as Americans to see the world as it truly is and ourselves as we truly are, arguing instead that America "became a great power because it sought power and succeeded spectacularly in acquiring it." The purpose of the distinction is to enable us to see how the expansion of freedom within the US in the latter part of 20th century was the result of a policy of expansionism that led to abundance, which in turn expanded access to freedom.
Anyway, it is an interesting argument, and if I could get my hands on his book, I would read it... Ah deprivation of English language books.