View from Washington: US exceptionalism is dead

11:37 25.06.2024 •

A facile way to frame the future of American foreign policy is to set up two scenarios as a binary choice. If Donald Trump returns to the White House, the United States becomes isolationist. If Joe Biden wins reelection, the US remains broadly internationalist.

That framing neglects a change that may be less obvious but more consequential for other countries, a shift that will keep playing out no matter who wins in November: For the first time in its two-and-a-half centuries, the US will stop looking at the world through the lens of its own exceptionalism, and behave as just another Great Power using its awe-inspiring might to serve a narrow self-interest, writes Andreas Kluth, a Bloomberg opinion columnist.

The old notion that America is exceptional was there from the start. It inspired John Winthrop, as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, to speak of a “city on a hill” and Ronald Reagan in 1980 to turn the same phrase into a “shining city upon a hill.”

This shared sense of exceptionalism was also the common factor in the country’s two otherwise contradictory foreign-policy traditions, as Henry Kissinger pointed out in 1994, at a moment of unipolar American primacy. Isolationists saw the US as perfecting its democracy at home and shining its light as a “beacon” to the rest of humanity but otherwise leaving the world alone. Internationalists understood exceptionalism as an obligation to spread American values around the world as “crusaders” or “missionaries.”

After World War II, an internationalist and quasi-messianic US built and policed a new world order, at least in much of the non-communist or “free” world. Good. In time, American confidence became hubris, as when George W. Bush proclaimed in 2002 that “today, humanity holds in its hands the opportunity to further freedom’s triumph,” and promised that “the United States welcomes our responsibility to lead in this great mission.” A few months later, he gave orders for a misguided and disastrous war in Iraq.

The eschatology of American democracy first became dubious during the first Trump term, especially with the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. If the country had subsequently rallied in defense of its republican ideals — during the congressional hearings on 1/6, for example — the next chapter could have reaffirmed the narrative of perennial self-correction. That didn’t happen.

Instead, the Big Lie (that the last election was “stolen” from Trump) lives on, alongside other conspiracy theories. Preparations are underway to use a second Trump turn to weaponize the Justice Department against political enemies, even as Trump’s minions pretend that this has already happened under Biden. The neutrality of more than one Supreme Court justice is in doubt. Left and right alike, for different reasons, fear that the rule of right is yielding to a rule of might, and are losing faith in America’s elections, institutions and exceptional virtue. The film that captures the mood this year is Civil War, a haunting tale of Americans killing one another for no fathomable reason.

The outside world is paying incredibly close attention. Foreigners certainly no longer see the US as a beacon of republicanism. Nor would they, whether allies or adversaries, tolerate any more American crusading. The Pew Research Center surveyed people in 34 countries, and found that an average of 69% had no confidence in Trump doing the right thing in world affairs; a still unflattering plurality of 46% said the same about Biden.

What arguably matters even more is what Americans believe nowadays. I doubt many beyond the capital’s Beltway would still subscribe to a phrase that former secretary of state Madeleine Albright coined and many Republicans and Democrats subsequently adopted, which sees America as the “indispensable” nation. Exceptionalism in its old form is dead, and with it notions about an American role as either beacon or crusader.

What will replace it? The new approach to world affairs would resemble the one Kissinger studied as a scholar and tried to practice as America’s top diplomat. It leaves less space for idealism and more for realism, places less emphasis on values and more on interests. It’s neither inherently good nor self-evidently bad, just very different in outcome for almost every other country.

Some students of American statecraft will mourn this shift. Others, irate about the hypocrisy that often accompanied both the beacon and the crusader personas, will shrug and say good riddance. In a sense, the world, inside America and beyond, is merely reverting to the historical norm, in which values mattered less and power more. America’s friends and foes alike should be aware.


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