from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Still Exceptional After All These Years?

October 12, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The replica of the Statue of Liberty is seen in Paris September 11, 2011. (Benoit Tessier/Courtesy Reuters)

Over at Foreign, prominent realist Stephen Walt has a thought-provoking article exposing “The Myth of American Exceptionalism.” His basic point: U.S. officials—and the American public—need to get over their conceit that the United States is a uniquely virtuous nation and an inevitable force for global good. Failure to do so blinds U.S. policymakers, encourages idealistic crusades that lead the country into quagmires and exposes the country to inevitable charges of hypocrisy as it confronts a complicated world. And while the notion of a benevolent American hegemony may be seductive to many Americans, one should not be surprised if others around the world regard the United States with a gimlet eye, given America’s checkered history of meddling in others’ affairs for narrow political, strategic, or pecuniary gain—to say nothing of its insistence on perpetual global military dominance. The notion that the United States is unique among nations, of course, has been a touchstone of U.S. foreign policy from the republic’s founding. Historically, it has been invoked by both Democratic and Republican Presidents alike—from Woodrow Wilson, JFK and Bill Clinton to Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.

But recently it is Republicans who have claimed a monopoly on the concept, blasting the Obama administration—and President Obama himself—for failing to pursue a sufficiently “pro-American” foreign policy. Indeed, GOP presidential candidates have had a field day with Obama’s tepid endorsement of the concept of American uniqueness. (During a 2009 European trip, the President conceded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”) Mitt Romney’s recent, sharp critique of the president’s penchant for apologizing for the United States suggests that the question of American uniqueness will become a recurrent theme of the 2012 Presidential campaign.  Given this prospect, Walt’s assault is a welcome rejoinder and offers some important truths.

The United States is hardly alone in seeing itself as exceptional—or having a unique global vocation. Consider France. Beyond its historical claims to a mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission), France maintains an enduring commitment to la Francophonie. Even despite France’s relatively diminished global status since 1940,the notion of being globally indispensable remains engrained in French political culture.(Indeed, one reason the post-war U.S.-French relationship has been such a prickly Cold Alliance stems from the two countries’ jockeying for similar universalisms.  The American Revolution and U.S. Bill of Rights compete with the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man).

“Among great powers,” Walt reminds us, “thinking you’re special is the norm, not the exception.” That’s certainly true for today’s putative challenger to American hegemony. Under a veneer of Communist Party ideology, today’s Chinese foreign policy is imbued with an enduring sense of national—indeed civilizational—self-importance. It dates back millennia, and depicts the country as standing apart. At times, “Chinese exceptionalism” depicts the country as literally the political center of the world.

Walt seeks to demolish the pillars of American exceptionalism, showing that the United States is neither particularly benevolent nor divinely predestined. He documents historical excesses of America’s global role, from its scorched earth atrocities in the Philippines from 1898-1903 to its controversial conduct in the global war on terrorism. He suggests that “America’s past success is due as much to good luck”—including a fortunate geographical location—“as to any uniquely American virtues.” Walt disputes the tendency of U.S. politicians and academics alike to attribute all positive global trends and outcomes—from the spread of democracy to postwar global prosperity—to U.S. global leadership. He points out that such analysis ignores the downside of U.S. primacy, like lack of progress on climate change. Finally, Walt dismisses the myth that God has somehow granted the United States a special providence, or “mandate of heaven,” to bring freedom, peace and justice to the world.

The Internationalist is inclined to agree that American exceptionalism can be a perilous obstacle to sound foreign policy, but also recognizes that it is part and parcel of American national identity. As such, it is likely to be with us for some time. Notwithstanding the litany of bad outcomes Walt describes, America’s liberal-exceptionalist political identity has at pivotal moments also encouraged the United States to define its national interests broadly­­—and to create a framework of international cooperation within which all countries, not just the United States, might benefit. The most prominent and celebrated example is the flurry of U.S. institution-building after 1945—an effort designed, in the words of historian Anton DePorte, to “Lockeanize a hitherto Hobbesian world.” It is hard to imagine any other globally dominant power during that era exercising such far-sighted leadership. What the United States needs to guard against, always, is invoking American exceptionalism to excuse quixotic and foolhardy behavior, to invalidate deserved criticism, or to justify policies that harm innocents.

Walt’s critique is a bracing wake-up call—a reminder that the United States, for all its great strengths and its capacity to influence the world for good, remains a fundamentally self-interested actor. It is possible to accept much of Walt’s indictment and still believe that the behavior of the United States stacks up quite favorably with that of any great power in world history (an admittedly low bar). But his piece usefully reminds Americans, who are not used to thinking of themselves as ruled by ideology, that we are often prisoners of our political culture. The GOP’s current monopoly on the discourse of American exceptionalism is surely astute politics. Whether it clarifies or obscures the global challenges facing the country is quite another thing.

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