How American Exceptionalism Dooms U.S. Foreign Policy

Five ways in which unfailing belief in American virtue causes problems for Washington's international dealings.

With each passing year, America has more trouble making foreign policy. One reason for this is embedded in our nation’s DNA—and hence left mostly unexamined.

We are burdened by traits developed from our origins as a state and from years of dominating the international scene. In an increasingly changing world, one where we must be nimble and insightful into problems with both friends and adversaries—and one in which the use of force is becoming less feasible—these traits have become a serious burden to fashioning and executing a realistic, effective foreign policy.

These built-in difficulties to the making of U.S. foreign policy emanate primarily from one source: the widespread public belief, reiterated endlessly by our government and political parties, that the United States is uniquely virtuous in word and deed. This axiom derives from our historical democratic perspective and overwhelming power since World War II. Today, it assumes that we are the greatest force for good in the world and that the use of our power can be unbounded since it is profoundly moral. American politicians who do not affirm this are unlikely to prosper. This belief is not without some truth, but it holds great danger in an age where power is diffusing but American mythology remains strong.

This faith in our unique virtue causes us to believe that we have not only the capacity but also the inherent latitude for action that no other country possesses. We are the white hats, the famous city on a hill, and our cause is invariably just, particularly when we use force. We can if necessary also override our own laws, engage in all sorts of secret activity—including even targeted assassinations—to protect our democratic system or further our perceived interests. There are always voices expressing opposition in specific instances, but inevitably a story of American virtue triumphs: we invaded Iraq not only because of its supposed holdings of weapons of mass destruction; we were freeing the people of Iraq and were sacrificing our citizens for this noble cause.

This belief in our unique virtue generates other attributes of our foreign-policy making. Here are a few of the most obvious ones:

Amnesia: The past is mostly absent in American foreign-policy thinking, certainly in general public awareness. History begins today, particularly when the countries are weak, authoritarian or evil. They are bad and deserve to be changed, even by force, whatever their history. Indeed, willful blindness reigns once the U.S. government decides to go to war.

Any region will do, but today the Middle East is our biggest example of forgetfulness. It affects almost every country of that region, even as these other nations are intensely preoccupied with history in explaining their poor states.

Our previous interventions—overt and covert—are not a cause for policy uncertainty or caution because we are seeking virtuous ends or our security is in danger. But our definition of security, despite all moral reassurances, is heavily influenced by domestic politics.

Sometimes this amnesia occurs within the same decade. A recent example is the public resurgence of the neoconservatives intellectually responsible for the most destructive decade in U.S. foreign policy in our lifetime.

Preaching: Our unique virtue has made us the world’s greatest teacher and preacher of first and last resort. We have a well established, heavily funded private sector making sure the government does not forget America’s unique calling.

Mr. Obama is very much in the game because of his eloquence. His recent sermon at the UN to the Arab world was greeted with huge applause by the U.S. audience, although it gave little indication of what he planned to do in the Arab world. Even his Republican opposition welcomed its general avoidance of history; in fact, the GOP extolled it.

Rules-Based Foreign Policy: The United States constantly reminds many countries, particularly China, that if they want to be part of the international community they must play by the rules. These are norms that we have largely formulated and instituted. Indeed, they are usually good rules.

Still, only one country—the United States—can be exempt from the rules because of its virtue. We insist on all sorts of exceptions to economic rules in order to satisfy our domestic politics, but it is simply unthinkable, for example, for the Koreans to do the same; until they follow the rules, we won’t play.

China, the greatest rule breaker in the U.S. rule book, has not invaded any country since 1978, and then it was for three weeks. It is hard to remember all the times we have invaded countries—or just bombarded or attacked them incessantly with drones—covertly or overtly, without any international benediction.

The United States is allowed to violate its own rules, as long as it serves our security and other interests as every administration defines them.

It’s All About Us: If something goes wrong, we assume it is because the United States did not act or has no backbone or was afraid to show its unique virtue and power—or, in the latest jargon, insists on “leading from behind.” Failure to show this kind of determination is the reason for all the bad things happening in the Middle East. This is a common theme of those who believe we are failing to manage that region properly: we should know that Arab countries are waiting for our lead and love our involvement. (Of course, sometimes this is true, as in the case of the Syrian opposition.)

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