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.)
Provincialism: Public indifference to what is beyond water’s edge is a given that must be appeased by all administrations. It is as if only the United States has domestic politics. This view has two effects. The more important one is that we do not devote enough effort to understanding countries and how we might better influence them; thus, it is easier to invade them.
The second result of this inward-looking posture is that other countries need to meet our domestic political demands. There are countless times that U.S. ambassadors threaten foreign governments with some heinous action by Congress if they don’t sign up to our latest demand. I have done it myself.
Domestic politics should and will play a role in any democracy, and governments have to do some things that make them squirm. Squirming is better than losing power. But sometimes broader national interest should take precedence.
U.S. foreign policy is a wondrous thing. It has done much good and some very bad—the latter is quickly forgotten. None of this brief discussion is meant to deny that there is much that is indeed virtuous and impressive in U.S. foreign policy. Humanitarianism, democracy and human rights are a real and desirable part of American foreign policy, even when they may be mismanaged or tainted by hypocrisy.
Rather, this look at the assumptions behind U.S. policy is a small reminder: in today’s world, power can be elusive. Our efforts must be advanced with greater wisdom and understanding of the world we live in. Our relevant agencies must get a better handle on that need. In short, we have to stop always listening to ourselves. Only then can we can act with understanding and not simply try to use overwhelming force because we believe we are—and have always been—the good guys.
That is no easy order.
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a member of The National Interest's advisory council.