President Obama’s misunderstanding of American exceptionalism has found defenders among international-relations scholars and taken on an aura of legitimacy. Realist theorist Stephen Walt, in a recent article in Foreign Policy, exposes the “myths” of American exceptionalism. Walt echoes Obama’s view — namely that, since many nations have sincerely believed they were exceptional, no nation is truly exceptional. Yet America’s indispensable role in the world does not result from the sincerity of its leaders, but from the verity of its exceptional principles.
Despite dismissals of American exceptionalism and defeatist claims of America’s decline among some academics and left-wing pundits, the foundations of American statecraft are strong because they were well laid by the country’s founding fathers. Their commitment to the principles of liberty — as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and secured in the Constitution — had implications for foreign policy as well. Understanding the exceptional nature of America’s role in the world offers the best guide to confronting the international problems we face today. Dismissing them is not realism; it is surrealism.
#ad#While Walt correctly notes that Americans are sometimes “blind to their weak spots, and in ways that have real-world consequences,” he underestimates the historical role that the U.S. has played in advancing the cause of justice and liberty abroad. According to Walt, instead of “chest-thumping,” we need “a more realistic and critical assessment of America’s true character and contributions.” Upon such analysis, Walt finds nothing exceptional about America’s role in the world. Instead, he exposes five “myths” and concludes that the U.S. does not behave better than other nations. America’s success is largely from luck. America is not a force for good in the world. And finally, God is not on America’s side.
If America’s founding principles and its international influence since 1776 are not exceptional, then truly no nation is. American exceptionalism is meant to define the nature of America’s political order. This uniqueness is based on the fundamentals of America, since our principles are based on a dedication to universal principles rather than a restrictive understanding of nationhood based on language, ethnicity, territory, or religion. Ours is a nation open to all that adheres to its core principles, founded on reason and grounded in tradition. America was the first country on earth to commit to the ideas of liberty and equality at precisely the same moment it conceived of itself as an independent nation. America soon enshrined these principles in the oldest surviving written constitution in history.
If one is looking for exceptionalism in American foreign policy, how about the international leadership Americans showed in defeating the Barbary corsairs off North Africa in 1805? In the Tripolitan War, Americans led a coalition of England, Sweden, and Sicily to “punish” the Barbary states for raiding American ships, enslaving American citizens, and violating the law of nations. The Barbary Wars ended the centuries-old practice of pirating and white slavery in the Mediterranean, which the great powers of Europe had tolerated and even encouraged. American leadership in the Mediterranean was commended at the time by British admiral Lord Nelson and Pope Pius VII.
How about the American commitment to end European imperialism in North America, leading to the Monroe Doctrine? Secretary of State John Quincy Adams worked so that neither Spain nor France reclaimed their revolting colonies in Latin America. At the same time, America rebuffed British attempts to secure an imperial foothold in North America through an Anglo-American military alliance. Despite America’s military weakness, Adams — the principal author of the Monroe Doctrine — believed it would be “more candid, as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly” and reject an alliance, rather than appear to “come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.” By championing the cause of the newly independent Latin American republics in Europe, and being the first established nation to recognize the new nations, a young U.S. advanced its principles abroad, promoting a new system of “justice” for one-third of the globe.
#page#In the 1821 Greek Revolution against the Ottomans and in the Hungarian Revolution against the Austrian and Russian empires in 1848, America continued to stand conspicuously and sometimes precariously for freedom abroad. Even after the Hungarian revolutionaries were crushed, Secretary of State Daniel Webster defended the U.S. Navy’s rescue of Lajos Kossuth and other Hungarian refugees — which almost led to a break in diplomatic relations with Austria, a significant trading partner. Kossuth soon arrived to America and traveled along the east coast, declaring to rapturous crowds and a joint session of Congress: “Your generous part in my liberation is taken by the world for the revelation of the fact, that the United States are resolved not to allow the despots of the world to trample on oppressed humanity.”
Several 20th-century perversions of these diplomatic traditions do not invalidate or render unremarkable the foundations of American statecraft. Even in the 20th century, despite ups and downs, American foreign policy stood against imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and Soviet Russia — powers who went undefeated until American involvement decisively tipped the scale in favor of America’s dearly held ideas. Indeed, still today, America’s enemies attempt to speak the rhetoric, at least, of freedom, equality, and democracy — ideas that America’s lone voice has consistently spoken through the conduct of its foreign policy for 235 years.
#ad#But in Walt’s estimation, “U.S. leaders have done what they thought they had to do when confronted by external dangers, and they paid scant attention to moral principles along the way.” By focusing too much on the last 50 years of U.S. foreign policy instead of America’s rich diplomatic traditions — some of which were abandoned during most of the last century — Walt rejects the exceptional nature of American statecraft. In short, Walt denies America the surest way to put its foreign policy on a more prudent path.
Rejecting the source of our goodness — our true principles — will dash any hopes for future greatness. As Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan both noted, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” In the 21st century, Americans need to learn from the examples of our earlier statesmen who prudently applied our exceptional principles to the constantly changing circumstances of international affairs. Today, American grand strategy is indeed in the midst of an intellectual crisis. Unfortunately, Mr. Walt has not identified the problem; his — and President Obama’s — rejection of American exceptionalism is the problem.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.