American Exceptionalism Is a Dangerous Myth


An American soldier stands before a burning oil well in Rumayla, Iraq, on March 27, 2003. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Donald Trump has done more to elevate the left’s critique of U.S. foreign policy than any politician in modern memory.

As a presidential candidate, the mogul told Republican primary audiences that George W. Bush had lied the United States into Iraq; that said war had done a “tremendous disservice to humanity”; and that America could have saved countless lives by investing $5 trillion in domestic infrastructure instead. As commander-in-chief, Trump has suggested that there is no moral distinction between the U.S. and other great powers; that American foreign policy in the Middle East is largely dictated by the interests of arms manufacturers; and that the U.S. judges foreign regimes by their utility to American economic interests, not their commitment to human rights.

But if Trump’s descriptions of geopolitics echo Noam Chomsky, his prescriptions owe more to Attila the Hun. The president does see the invasion of Iraq as a criminal waste — but only because the U.S. failed to expropriate the region’s oil fields. He does imply that, in the eyes of the American state, Raytheon’s profits count more than journalists’ lives —but he sees that as a good thing. And when Trump suggests our country isn’t “so innocent,” he isn’t imploring neoconservatives to hold America to higher moral standards, but rather, to hold foreign autocrats to lower ones.

In other words, the Trump presidency can be read as an object lesson in the virtues of hypocrisy. Having a global hegemon that preaches human rights — while propping up dictators and incinerating schoolchildren — is bad. But having one that does those things while preaching nihilism is worse; not least because even a nominal commitment to liberal values can function as a constraint against their violation. Trump’s distaste for the whole “shining city on a hill” shtick has, among other things, enabled the Pentagon to tolerate higher levels of civilian casualties in the Middle East, the Israeli government to accelerate settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, and the Saudi crown prince to take a bonesaw to international law.

It’s understandable, then, that many liberal intellectuals are eager to revive the national myths that Trump has busted. Such thinkers concede that Trump has highlighted flaws in the triumphalist, Cold War narrative about American global leadership. And they acknowledge the necessity of rethinking what “leading the free world” truly requires of the United States. But they nevertheless insist that America’s self-conception as an exceptional power — which is to say, as a hegemon whose foreign policy is shaped by universal ideals (as opposed to mercenary interests) — isn’t just a beneficent fiction, but an actual fact. And that compulsion is unfortunate; because it will be difficult for liberals to realize their vision for America’s exceptional future, if they refuse to grapple with its unexceptional past.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, former Hillary Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan presents one of the more compelling cases for making America exceptional again. Against Dick Cheney’s arrogant, unilateralist approach to world leadership — and Trump’s nihilistic disavowal of America’s international obligations — Sullivan offers a call for restoring the U.S. to its former role as a benevolent hegemon, one whose global supremacy is legitimated by its demonstrable commitment to spreading peace, democracy, and shared prosperity.

Crucially, Sullivan recognizes that this restoration is contingent on sweeping reform. He acknowledges that, in recent decades, U.S. foreign policy has often betrayed both its putative ideals and the concrete material interests of ordinary Americans — thereby inviting the cynicism of young idealists, and the xenophobic resentment of aging nationalists. Further, policymakers have habitually overreached militarily, while grossly underinvesting in cybersecurity, diplomacy, foreign aid, and other forms of soft power.

To rectify these errors, Sullivan argues that America should strive to build (and/or fortify) multilateral institutions of global governance; shape its geopolitical strategy around the interests of working people (by, among other things, cracking down on tax havens and international corruption); shift resources away from military pork and toward diplomacy, development, and technology; and exercise more humility when contemplating foreign intervention.

And yet, while Sullivan’s prescriptions for U.S. foreign policy are broadly consistent with those of progressive darlings like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, his description of American grand strategy, pre-Trump, is as delusional as that of the median neoconservative.

Sullivan argues that the case for American leadership rests on the existence of American exceptionalism, which he defines as “the idea that the United States has a set of characteristics that gives it a unique capacity and responsibility to help make the world a better place.”

That America has such a responsibility should not be controversial. For anyone who subscribes to universalist values (or those of Spider-Man), the notion that the world’s wealthiest nation has an obligation to concern itself with the well-being of global humanity is self-evident. But whether America has proven itself uniquely qualified for this task is less clear.

Here is how Sullivan makes the case:

From the republican ideas of the Founders—in particular, from their notion of interdependence—flows an attitude. Alexis de Tocqueville called it “self-interest rightly understood.” Today, we might call it positive-sum thinking.

This attitude guided America’s grand strategy after the Second World War, as the U.S. rebuilt vanquished foes, protected the sea lanes, and responded to natural disasters halfway around the world. For centuries, European states waged war with grim regularity. The fact that the major powers have not returned to war with one another since 1945 is a remarkable achievement of American statecraft. Meanwhile, China’s extraordinary development was the result not of failures in U.S. foreign policy but of its successes. The U.S. maintained the security that helped drive remarkable economic growth across the Asia-Pacific region.

He then contrasts America’s enlightened, positive-sum approach to leadership with the crass imperialism of other great powers:

At some level, most of the world knows that America’s positive-sum approach is valuable and unusual. At a gathering of Asian nations in 2011, I heard the Chinese foreign minister address the issue of Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea this way: “China is a big country, and other countries here are small countries. Think hard about that.” This is China’s way, and Russia’s way. It generally has not been America’s way.

That is, it wasn’t until Trump came along. He treats foreign policy in simple terms: us against them.

Now, Sullivan is no arrogant Chenyite; he acknowledges that the “story” of American exceptionalism is “incomplete.” There have always been “the mistakes, the complexities, the imperfections — things like covert regime change across Latin America, support for brutal dictators, the invasion of Iraq, and the tragedies (despite the best of intentions) of Somalia and Libya.”

But what if “things like covert regime change across Latin America” weren’t deviations from “the American way,” but expressions of it? Sullivan doesn’t entertain the question. In lieu of an explanation for how a great power uniquely committed to republican values came to organize so many authoritarian coups against republics, Sullivan offers a single quote from Reinhold Niebuhr: “Hypocrisy and pretension are the inevitable concomitants of the engagement between morals and politics.”

This is a means of evasion, not an argument. And it is utterly insufficient for countering the copious evidence disputing Sullivan’s narrative. For one thing, if Trump introduced zero-sum thinking into American grand strategy in 2016, how does one account for George Kennan’s authorship of the following quote, in a State Department “policy planning” document, circa 1948?

[W]e have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

The history of American foreign policy over the past seven decades has been more consistent with Kennan’s summation of national purpose than Sullivan’s. More specifically, U.S. foreign policy has more consistently reflected the economic interests of American capital than it has the ideals of republicanism — which makes intuitive sense. Generally speaking, one would assume that a government’s policies would reflect the interests of whoever controls said government. And when State Department wonks like Sullivan analyze the intentions of foreign nations, they avail themselves of this basic insight. American exceptionalism is rooted in the improbable notion that the the United States is uniquely unbeholden to the logic of power.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that America is unexceptional in this respect. Let’s say that our nation’s foreign policies are shaped, above all, by the material interests of those who enjoy the most power over our government. And let’s further stipulate that all American corporations, combined, invest more time and money into trying to influence public policy — and enjoy more intimate access to D.C. policy-makers — than do human-rights activists.

From these (highly plausible) premises, one would expect the U.S. to pursue a foreign policy that prioritizes the interests of corporate America over the promotion of democracy or human rights. Or, put differently: One would conclude that, in its glory days as “leader of the free world,” America’s primary beef with Communism wasn’t that it threatened the civil liberties of Eastern Europeans (or Southeast Asians, or Cubans), but rather, that it threatened the prerogatives of American capitalists.

It is much easier to reconcile the historical record with this theory, than with the opposite one. As the critic George Scialabba has observed:

In the nineteenth century, as Henry Cabot Lodge acknowledged, the United States compiled “a record of conquest, colonization, and expansion unequalled by any other people.” Its record in the twentieth century was no less execrable. The idealistic Woodrow Wilson made war on both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, killing thousands, in order to block constitutional rule and fortify the position of international investors and domestic elites. In the 1920s and 1930s, the US military occupied Nicaragua and Honduras for the same purpose. In the 1950s the US organized the ouster of a moderate democratic regime in Guatemala, likewise in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, resulting, both times, in horrendous violence and retarded development. In Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, and Argentina in 1976, the US instigated or welcomed the overthrow of democratic governments by murderously repressive (but investor-friendly) military juntas. In the 1980s the US orchestrated fanatically bloody insurgencies and counterinsurgencies throughout Central America, invariably against movements or governments with more popular support than the US client.

Scialabba’s litany is limited to the Western hemisphere. But the same pattern can be discerned in America’s activities the world over: Given the choice between supporting democratic governments that threaten the interests of major American corporations and investors — and authoritarian governments that don’t — the U.S. has almost invariably opted for the latter.

To be sure, every foreign policy adopted by the U.S. is not a mechanical translation of the aggregated interests of American capital. Beyond the fact that many policy question bitterly divide corporate America — and that there are many well-funded, noncorporate lobbies that exert significant influence over American foreign policy — there is also always contingency in human affairs. Policy-makers have agency, and, as we’ve seen over the past two years, unusual individuals sometimes make policy. Corporate control of American grand strategy isn’t an absolute rule; but it is the path of least resistance.

Acknowledging this reality does not require one to deny America’s various contributions to global well-being. It doesn’t even (necessarily) refute the notion that America has been a more benevolent hegemon than previous imperial powers. Our nation’s many crimes do not erase the past decades of peace in Europe, or poverty reduction in Asia. That American foreign policy is principally driven by corporate interests is not inconsistent with the idea that it has produced some positive-sum outcomes. The Marshall Plan created highly profitable markets for American exporters and investors; it also helped birth unprecedented prosperity in Japan and Western Europe.

But the fact that American exceptionalism is a myth does have important implications for anyone who wishes to bend reality in its direction. Put simply, if one wishes to reform an institution, it’s best not to begin by wildly misconstruing how it works.

To appreciate this point, consider the following passage from Sullivan’s Atlantic piece:

Jennifer Harris, a former State Department colleague, posed an arresting question when I spoke with her recently: How is it that the domestic economic agenda of the Obama administration could be so different in its values and priorities from President George W. Bush’s—so much more focused on the needs of working people—while its international economic agenda was nearly identical? The answer is that both political parties came to treat international economic issues as somehow separate from everything else.

Sullivan’s answer is neither accurate nor an answer. Both parties do not treat “international economic issues” as “separate from everything else” — rather, the Democratic Party behaves as though it is (almost) as unaccountable to working-class constituencies in the foreign policy realm, as Republicans are in the domestic one. And it is. The fine details of trade agreements and investment pacts — which are negotiated unilaterally by the Executive branch — are much less visible to the public than are the fine details of major legislation debated by Congress. An administration official bartering with other diplomats in some foreign capital is insulated from popular influence and scrutiny to much a greater degree than a Democratic senator is, when negotiating with Republicans (even as the latter is also quite insulated from popular influence and scrutiny). But multinational corporations have the resources (i.e. lobbyists) to keep a watchful eye on all dimensions of policy-making. If a White House’s posture in trade negotiations compromises the interests of American patent holders, they will raise holy hell; if it compromises the interests of all non-superrich Americans — by neglecting to make “stopping plutocrats from stashing 10 percent of all global wealth in tax havens” a top-tier priority — virtually no voters will even notice.

Sullivan’s call for reorienting U.S. foreign policy around the interests of working Americans is constructive. But his failure to recognize America’s unexceptional characteristics jeopardizes that project. If the default setting of American foreign policy is to pursue its enlightened “national” interest, then recentering U.S. grand strategy around progressive economic principles is a simple task: Make a persuasive argument that it is in America’s national interest to raise the median worker’s wages, and a new consensus will take shape. By contrast, if America’s default setting is to safeguard the interests of its most powerful individuals and entities, then durably reorienting foreign policy in the manner Sullivan prescribes will require drastically shifting the balance of power between capital and labor within the United States. If liberal elites adhere to an exceptionalist understanding of the American state, they will miss the central importance of domestic economic reform to any progressive reorientation of foreign policy.

And that is not all they will miss. The exceptionalist narrative is most dangerous for the way it implies that assertions of American power on the world stage should be presumed well-intentioned, until proven otherwise. If the consensus view among liberal elites circa 2003 had been that American foreign policy is typically shaped by the mercenary interests of corporations (not least, arms manufacturers), they would likely have treated George W. Bush’s plans for Iraq with less credulity. Instead, in that instance (and many others), liberals championed a just, humanitarian intervention — only to find, to their shock and awe, that those prosecuting the war did not, in fact, have the purest of hearts. So long as progressive forces do not have a firm grip on the national security state, progressives mustn’t presume that the worst thing that state can do in the face of injustice overseas is nothing.

Relatedly, the myth of American exceptionalism functions as rationale for the U.S. to subordinate international law to its own enlightened judgement. If one presumes America’s beneficence, then one will prize its freedom of action over adherence to the (often arbitrary) dictates of treaties. Tellingly, the phrase “international law” appears nowhere in Sullivan’s essay (and his remarks on the Syrian civil war suggest that scrupulous observance of international law does not figure into his vision for a progressive foreign policy).

Finally, the myth of American exceptionalism might do more to strengthen Trumpism than to undermine it. No small portion of our country’s xenophobia is informed by ubiquitous ignorance of our national sins. If one shares Sullivan’s faith in the beneficence of American global leadership, then it’s easy to conclude that Americans owe little to people in other countries. After all, we selflessly tried to bring freedom to Iraq and Afghanistan — and look how those ungrateful Muslims responded; we saved Central Americans from the tyranny of Communism, and now they’re showing up at our border asking for more help. American exceptionalism suggests that the entire world owes a debt to the United States. Trumpism suggests the same — and then demands the world pay up.

Donald Trump has rebranded U.S. foreign policy in his image. Which is to say, he has put the ugliest possible face on American empire. For liberals, there is a strong temptation to call this hideous visage a mask; to insist that “this isn’t who we are.”

But it would be more accurate to say that this is who we’ve too often been. This hateful sociopath, immune to all human sentiments save fear and greed, devoid of all principles save a will to power, incapable of seeing the world from anyone’s perspective but his own — this is who we were to the peasants of Vietnam, and to the people of Jacobo Árbenz’s Guatemala, Salvador Allende’s Chile, Mohammad Mosaddegh’s Iran, João Goulart’s Brazil, and so many other fragile republics yearning to breathe free.

Trump’s great gift to the American people is that he has made our government’s ugliest features easier to see — and thus, to change. But if we respond by burying Uncle Sam’s deformities beneath the concealer of American exceptionalism, the change we make won’t even be skin deep.