We Americans have always taken pride in the fact that our country is a pretty special place. Within our foreign policy that has frequently taken the form of what is called “American exceptionalism”, the idea or conceit that we have a special place in the world and are different from other countries, better even.
Now. certainly not everyone agrees with this notion. There are those who point to our frequent hypocrisy, our foreign policy missteps, and our failures of morality and ethics to show that we no different, and no better than any other nation. They make some very valid points.
But I don’t agree with them. I have always believed in American exceptionalism. If I hadn’t I could never have spent nearly three decades serving my country as a civil servant and diplomat.
There are a lot of things that make America special and different from other nations. The most obvious of these is our sheer power. We are, at the moment, considerably more powerful than any other nation on Earth, in terms of political, economic and military power. No other nation comes close, and none of them will catch us any time soon. All of that is obvious. In my years as a diplomat I witnessed time and again that America is now, has been for some time, and will be for some time to come, the country whose support and participation is needed to accomplish almost anything of import, be it a military mission, a trade deal, a human rights accord or an environmental agreement.
But if that were all that made America special, I would not have felt moved to serve my country for so long. What makes us special is the ideals on which we were founded. Ideals that include democracy, freedom and human rights. And the idea that every person in the world should be able to enjoy them as we do. We haven’t always lived up to those ideals. Far from it.
But sometimes we have.
Sometimes we have, in ways no other nation was or is capable of. We have done good in the world, and not all of it was for purely selfish reasons. We have led the world in a mostly positive direction, despite our many failures. We have worked for peace and security, respect for human rights and for the spread of democracy. And in turn, that has served our own selfish interests very well – the bipartisan consensus of the last eighty years or more in which we have embraced leadership in the world have been the time when America has thrived the most. That is not a coincidence. Others have worked for these causes as well, but none with the impact we can have because of our power. Our leadership has been and still is necessary. Without it, the world becomes a more dangerous place, a place dictators and aggressors feel more emboldened and where rights are more likely to be abused. A world where democracy declines.
That is the true meaning and purpose of American exceptionalism. That is why I served my country for so long and am proud of my service, as I am proud of my country.
That’s also why I am so saddened by the foreign policy of this Administration. It clearly does not define American exceptionalism in the same way I do. It focuses only on the power and the short-term interests of America, and ignores our ideals and is apparently ignorant of our long-term interests. It seems to want to turn America into just another country, only stronger. It has abandoned leading through persuasion and diplomacy and abandoned our allies in the process. In its place it has installed the foreign policy of a bully, full of threats and unilateral actions designed to force others to our will. It will undoubtedly achieve some short-term successes in that way, but at tremendous long-term cost both to ourselves and to the world.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. One of the dominant personality traits of Donald Trump is that he is a bully. No surprise that he should behave in the international arena just as he does in every other aspect of his life. As with most bullies, however, I suspect he is a coward at heart. And you can see the signs of it, in the way he backs down from other bullies in the world, like Russia and China. Even worse, he seems to admire them in a perverse way, perhaps because they can be greater bullies within their own countries than our system allows him to be.
Clearly, there are many people in America (and there always have been) who do want America to be exceptional only because of its power. America First has been a pernicious slogan for many years, discredited many times but always coming back. Xenophobic nationalism and bigotry are difficult monsters to slay and I don’t know if we ever will be able to do so permanently. They tore the world apart twice in the last century, costing millions of lives, and yet they still creep back now. In America, Trump is their champion.
So, for all those of us who agree that America is exceptional and for those of us who would just like it to be, we need to decide why we want it to be exceptional. To put it starkly, do we just want to be feared or do we want to be respected? Do we want to lead or do we just want to bully?
America voted for the latter in 2016, and that is part of why I felt I needed to leave government service rather than serve an Administration whose foreign policy is based on short-sighted nationalism. We have a chance to correct that mistake and restore true American exceptionalism in 2018 and 2020. We need to seize that chance.