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Accepting exceptionalism

November 13, 2011

In response to Stephen Walt’s article in The National Interest on “The End of the American Era,” Jonathan Rue posed two important questions:

1. Does primacy actually foster a more tranquil global environment?

2. Given that primacy nests so well within American exceptionalism, will it be possible to abandon this endeavor? In other words, can Americans accept the idea of not being on top?

The answer to that first question requires thinking about the balance between revolution and reaction the United States struggles with in its management of the international system. At its core, American internationalism since Wilson has taken on a fundamentally revolutionary outlook. The American disgust with power politics – a sentiment common to elements of both the isolationist and internationalist schools of American foreign policy in the era during and following the First World War – lent itself either to a refusal to engage in realpolitik, or, conversely, to an attempt to tear down a rotten international system and replace it one in accordance with the universal values America embodied. Thus we saw some former isolationists, such as Vandenberg, become critical voices in the construction of the profoundly internationalist United Nations.

The United States overturned the rest of the world’s regional orders in quick fashion after World War II. Multipolar balancing in Europe gave away to a policy of hegemonic stability in Western Europe with European great powers uncomfortably amalgamating into the US-led ranks of a bipolar European system. The United States expedited the fall of Franco-British influence in the Middle East through its opposition to Suez and discouragement of European-led hegemonic stability there more generally. In Asia, the United States pacified Japan and, after some consternation, recognized the People’s Republic of China as a legitimate power. More generally, the United States insisted on the spread of democracy, liberal capitalism, human rights, and other essentially radical ideas, even if it did so inconsistently and with deference to political necessity.

Certainly, this revolutionary system created some degree of great power peace, but in the notion of “hegemonic stability” it too often pursues stability at the expense of its hegemony, and hegemony at the expense of stability. With temporary relief from the tumult of great power politics, the United States often misdiagnoses the genuine threats to its order. America’s humanitarian interventions, nation-building, and armed democracy promotion often seek to create a form of stability at unnecessary cost to America’s global position. On the other hand, America’s fear of recalcitrant powers such as Saddam’s Iraq after the first Gulf War goad it into strategic blunders which actually reduce US relative power and empower more potent adversaries, such as Iran.

Insofar as American primacy sees its historic purpose as the simultaneous securing, democratizing, and liberalizing of the world, it is a system that breeds instability, whereas a more modest conception of the US role might be somewhat more durable, even if it had to tolerate greater degrees of strife abroad. While so far that instability has manifested itself in America’s failed adventurism abroad since the close of the Cold War, there are portents of a more serious unraveling to come. The rising powers of the world, who value sovereignty and are uninterested in being pacific liberal understudies in a Western-led order, understandably find doctrines which legitimize interventionism and regime change noxious. Untrammeled interventionism, particularly in areas which rising and recalcitrant powers believe are critical to their security, invites the destabilization of the great power stability and complacency which gives the US the freedom of action to intervene in the first place. To the extent the US preaches its goal is the inevitable spread of democracy and the transformation of political relations within and without the borders of foreign states, it positions itself as an eventual foe of any regime or society which conceptualizes their vision of order differently.

At the point where US ambitions in its maintenance and expansion of primacy exceed its actual means, primacy is destabilizing. The clarity of vision and leadership which American politicians believe the rest of the world finds “reassuring” often lead to power-political and economic imbalances the rest of the world finds disturbing. When American foreign policy diverts massive amounts of military resources and attention to CENTCOM, it is entirely logical that Asian countries should begin rapid arms buildups to ensure their own security. Why should we be surprised that Europeans are willing to buy more energy from Russia when American policy fails to provide stable energy prices in the Middle East or threatens to provoke a war which might close a critical energy conduit? Countries do not crave American leadership, they crave a United States that benefits their interests. When American leadership no longer fulfills that role, they understandably ponder the alternatives.

The inability of the US to reconcile the revolutionary ideological basis for its primacy with the reactionary imperatives of maintaining an international order is ultimately destabilizing. In seeking to uphold an international order which has outlived its means, and in some ways furthered the trends leading to its own undoing, the maintenance of primacy now chafes against emergent geopolitical realities and the rest of the globe’s ideological preferences. On top of that, the crisis in conscience the inability to reconcile the revolutionary roots and reactionary demands of the current international order begets impedes America’s ability to accurately forecast and confront real strategic threats or to seize real strategic opportunities.

To answer the second question, I cannot imagine the United States accepting the intractability of these dilemmas willingly. Primacy is not an inherent aspect of American exceptionalism, an idea whose meaning is far less set than modern commentators would have us believe (critics and proponents alike). Most US isolationists were American exceptionalists, and many imperialists were in fact seeking to emulate the other great powers. The rejection of great power politics as normal is, as I’ve said above, actually a unifying characteristic of most forms of American exceptionalism. The answers proffered vary between abstaining from the balance of power games (especially of Europe’s) or surpassing them through unleashing American might, or merely eliminating them through an American-led, and American-inspired, international institutional order.

So after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the international realities will probably trigger a rethinking of America’s role in the world – probably not after a far graver loss or humiliation than those we’ve experienced so far – but certainly not an end to American exceptionalism. Ultimately a post-hegemonic Wilsonian attitude, or a fiercely anti-interventionist stance as Buchanan or Paul would envision, would be just as exceptionalist as primacy was. Ultimately anyone hoping for a United States that believes as a normal country is likely to be disappointed.

America will still, in many ways, remain an exceptional nation. In strict geopolitical terms, the US will be the world’s only continental-sized power with easy access to two oceans and no great power rival in its own quarter sphere. For this reason, it will still be able to maintain greater power projection capabilities than any other great power around, since it will not need to spend large sums protecting its land borders from near-peers or, for that matter, keeping its own population subdued. Demographic trends will remain relatively favorable too, as Walt notes.

America will still look down on other countries and see itself as a qualitatively superior country, believing itself to embody universal values (even if it believes not every country is worthy of receiving them at America’s expense). In this sense it might return to previous forms of American exceptionalism, but the United States will not be willing to renounce its freedom of action voluntarily. As long as America can get away with doing what it wants, it will. Anyone abroad hoping the US will act like a normal nation in a period of multipolarity is bound to find disappointment in the decades ahead. De Gaulle noted that America’s hegemonic position and outlook had begun not in 1989 or 1991, but in the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just as the foreign leaders on the receiving end of US power and influence recognized this long before Americans did themselves, the combination of power and exceptionalist doctrine will likely be apparent to other statesmen and analysts long after their American counterparts today feverishly declare them dead.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. gregorylent permalink
    November 14, 2011 6:18 am

    you have to mention the concept of ego to really look at this

  2. November 21, 2011 10:53 am

    I’ve only read the opening graphs of the Walt piece but it’s a bit odd that he doesn’t at least footnote Kupchan’s The End of the American Era, since he uses the same title for his article.

    From the post:
    “America will still, in many ways, remain an exceptional nation. In strict geopolitical terms, the US will be the world’s only continental-sized power with easy access to two oceans and no great power rival in its own quarter sphere. For this reason, it will still be able to maintain greater power projection capabilities than any other great power around, since it will not need to spend large sums protecting its land borders from near-peers…”

    Side note: Offhand, the only great powers (or would-be ones) I can think of that worry about the defense of their land borders (excluding disputed islands) vs. near-peers are China and India (the border with each other), and even that has been cooling off somewhat in recent years, I think. Russia of course has used violence in Georgia, Chechnya etc but those aren’t “near-peers”.

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