Politicians who trumpet American exceptionalism in international affairs—read: supremacy—are prone to undermine and damage America’s national interests, not to mention start, prolong, and lose wars of choice. The phrase is a euphemism for naked jingoism, an arrogant, aggressive nationalism. It presumes not only America’s military, political, moral, and cultural superiority, but also its unique exemption from the norms or laws (like those against torture) which govern international affairs. It acknowledges no limits to its power and discounts or denies the perspectives and interests of other countries.
The biggest defect of American exceptionalism is its inability to offer sensible approaches or reasonable solutions to recalcitrant problems. Its common articulation, “peace through strength,” may sound good to those who believe that differences are best settled by bullying or back-alley brawls, and who think that weapons like tanks and cruisers for conventional warfare remain suitable for counter-insurgency or counter-terror operations. But such advocates do not understand the complexities, dynamics, and subtleties of international relations, the likely threats of unconventional and asymmetric warfare, or the military requirements to deal with them. Worse, this posture handicaps foreign policy and hinders efforts to create international consortiums of common interest.
American exceptionalism creates difficulties in dealing with other countries, the more different from America, the more difficult the dealings. It merely grates the sensibilities of European countries and their former colonies or commonwealth countries, themselves with a history of conquering, colonializing, or controlling foreign lands and converting their people to Christianity. But it angers the sensibilities of countries since freed of their occupiers and of Muslim countries everywhere, especially in the Middle East.
Islamic countries have a proud past. In its first eight hundred years, Islamic power swept across North Africa, into Spain and France, across southwestern Asia, and into the Balkans and Hungary. In those eight centuries, Islamic lands were leaders in the arts, philosophy, medicine, and science. No longer: but Islam remembers its past power and pre-eminence.
Thus, for religious, political, and cultural reasons, Islam resents intrusions and interventions by Christian nations, particularly in the Levant, site of medieval crusades to recover the Holy Land. In the context of continuing conflicts between imperialistic religions, Muslims perceive the creation of Israel as yet another attempt by the Christian West to re-conquer Islamic lands. The popular reaction is resistance to, and rejection of, Israel; the extreme reaction is the call to jihad and the labeling of the United States as the Great Satan.
A belief in its exceptionalism blinds America to the perspectives of Islamic countries, which value their culture and history no less than America values its culture and history. Islamic fundamentalists oppose democracy just as American Christian fundamentalists oppose sharia law. So, when politicians urge American exceptionalism, they disregard, as if contemptuously, Islamic perspectives and interests, as if such disregard prepares for productive negotiations and good relationships. To such politicians, resistance to America’s goal of spreading democracy, including women’s rights, and resentment of American’s peace-through-strength intimidations appear to prove Muslims and their societies primitive, and to justify American-imposed reforms.
From their perspective, however, Muslims may not think America to be so civilized, not to mention democratic, as it imagines itself to be when it enters their countries to reform them. No Muslim can be indifferent to pictures of American troops humiliating prisoners at Abu Ghraib, burning or shooting Korans, or urinating on dead soldiers—the ultimate expression of uncivilized conduct—and think better of America.
Acknowledging Islamic history and Muslim religious, political, military, and cultural perspectives is not apologizing for American conduct toward Islamic countries. Instead, such acknowledgment reflects the respect necessary to constructive, not adversarial, relationships with many countries and over a billion of their people. In relationships demonstrating that respect, however, apologies may be in order. A strong and righteous nation should not be afraid to admit mistakes.
Diplomatic persuasion as a matter of course, joint economic and political sanctions in cases of impasse, and multi-national military force as the last resort permit better results and reduce the chance of self-defeating conflict. A smart approach to dealings with Islamic countries suspicious of, or hostile to, American involvement in their affairs is a “leading-from-behind” approach. Though foolishly mocked even though admittedly incapable of ensuring perfect outcomes, this approach promises better consequences at lower costs than a “leading-from-the-front” approach in a region struggling to modernize on its terms.
Two examples of smart American leadership. In Iran, Obama honored the Green Movement’s request that America not intervene for good reason. Its people in the streets wanted American support—a sign of America’s still-strong, but not universal, popular appeal in Iran—but its leaders in their suites understood that American intervention would be unhelpful by offending Iranian nationalism and strengthening the Ayatollah. The Movement failed, but American involvement could not have enhanced the chances of its success. In Libya, Obama provided assistance through a coalition to rebels overthrowing an oppressive regime. The rebels succeeded in this effort but have failed to create a government strong enough to maintain order. American intervention short of occupation would not have established a strong democratic or even a stable government, much less headed off or repelled a concerted attack upon the American consulate in Benghazi.
American exceptionalism is not a sensible basis for enhancing American influence in international affairs. America must understand the limits of military strength and realize that modern leadership depends far more on moral direction, diplomatic persuasion, and economic influence.