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Yes, America Is Exceptional

Sailors unfurl an American flag before a baseball game in San Diego, Calif., in 2013. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Critics see jingoism and a long string of U.S. crimes against foreigners; they’re blinkered.

Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country caught my attention several months ago. The author — a journalist based in Istanbul for the past decade — began an inquiry into America’s role in the world with a simple observation: “I never made the same inquiries into my own country as I did here in Turkey.” When Notes was published last September, I too was an American abroad, and this observation struck me. It’s true; observing one’s country from an ocean away leads to realizations one might not have at home, especially during times of historic political upheaval. (Granted, I was living in France, a far cry from Erdogan’s Turkey.) Over the course of her travels across the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, Hansen says that she was consistently confronted with the long trail of abuses and missteps that have defined American foreign policy for the previous seven decades.

This notion — of a United States wholly oblivious to the global consequences of its acts — is the beating heart of Hansen’s argument. While Notes made a splash in 2017, this Independence Day is an opportunity to explore its meditations on American power and the corresponding implications for our national identity: Who are we, really? From the ragtag band of rebels that secured self-government in the former British colonies, the United States has become a nation more powerful than any of the Founders could possibly have imagined. Our national narrative deserves an update, but not on Hansen’s terms.

In a story that is part coming-of-age tale, part extensively sourced polemic that spans the breadth of Hansen’s travels and the depth of America’s involvement in the world, the author prosecutes a delicate case against the American nationalism that says America is an idea to spread across the world. Hansen coos, not shouts, her indictment: With a haunting eloquence, she sets out to convince the reader that the American empire is declining and must do penance for its past sins. This is more a gentle lullaby than an acerbic condemnation.

Hansen provides some invaluable insights on the question of objectivity and the need to better understand foreigners whose lives American policy ultimately shapes, but the conclusion of her book tends toward stale left-wing talking points about everything from the Greek debt crisis to the Iraq war. Worse, she focuses obsessively on the — admittedly numerous — missteps of American policy during the Cold War, while she gives short shrift to the supremely more significant benefits the post-war liberal order has institutionalized. This serves the purpose of her argument but leaves big gaps in her rendering of the story of America abroad.

Hansen’s thesis can be distilled to the view that the United States is an empire in decline — she invokes her idol James Baldwin, who once said, “This is the way people react to the loss of empire, for the loss of an empire also implies a radical revision of the individual identity.” Hansen attempts to reconcile American national identity with a post-war foreign policy that has profoundly affected countless people outside the United States. From this vantage point, the rest of her argument unfolds. On a whirlwind survey of non-Western literature and in interviews with intellectuals, politicians, and regular people, she explores the international heritage that accompanies modern American identity.

What does she find? First, she discovers that we’ve been fed a false narrative about our country as a beacon of hope in the world. This story, she says, does not reflect the experiences of the people gravely affected by America’s foreign policy: Turkish coal miners victim to an accident enabled by U.S.-enabled policy; alleged Communists targeted for assassination during the Greek civil war by forces supported by the United States; Hosni Mubarak’s victims . . .

Second, she suggests that anti-Americanism among the denizens of foreign countries, rather than a dogmatic hatred, is “a broken heart, a defensive crouch, a hundred-year-old relationship, bewilderment that an enormous force controls your life but does not know or love you” and that our missteps in the post-9/11 era stem from a failure to understand this. Americans’ general ignorance about our nation’s historical role in the world was the product of a narrative hobbled by an incomprehension of our blind spots. In other words, what is conventional wisdom for us represents unawareness of historical facts important abroad.

The goodwill Hansen generates in her precise yet ample prose quickly fades as her argument devolves into a mere attack on American imperialism. Even though America has not been an empire since the end of its occupation of the Philippines, it is, she insists, racist and jingoistic to boot. Her account follows a familiar left-wing narrative: America expanded its Western frontier by racist, genocidal means and after World War II extended its white imperialism to a good portion of the world. In other words, American exceptionalism is little more than a cocktail of insidious nationalism and white supremacy, and this obscures how American today view the world. Redemption through “love,” which is to say a comprehensive understanding of the rest of the world, can be the only saving grace of the 70-year-long sin; and Americans are impelled to this mode of redemption by their country’s obvious decline.

She cites the use of atomic weapons against Japan and the chaos and occasional mishaps of post-war occupations as reasons to reevaluate the justness of the Allied victory.

On a few of these issues, Hansen is correct. As she notes, we scrambled to decipher the dynamics of the Arab world and a centuries-old religion practiced by nearly 2 billion people only after the 9/11 attacks, yet we had been intimately involved in these countries for decades, stationing troops, backing our allies, staging interventions. Our rush to reorder the globe after the Second World War and to preserve that order during the Cold War far exceeded our ability to develop a deep knowledge of different peoples and cultures — and this naturally led to foreign-policy blunders. One must appreciate Hansen’s willingness to challenge existing orthodoxies of the kind taught in high-school classrooms — as she notes, lessons on the Truman Doctrine rarely include details on the conflict in Greece that America sought to influence.

I started to doubt Hansen’s ability to debate the post-1945 historical narrative in good faith when she framed its very genesis — American victory in World War II — as an atrocity of sorts. She cites the use of atomic weapons against Japan and the chaos and occasional mishaps of post-war occupations as reasons to reevaluate the justness of the Allied victory. Can’t one question the use of nuclear weapons and condemn the excesses of the cruel few, while still extolling the goodness of the international institutions established after 1945? Can’t one loathe the unfathomable parts of war while advocating the pursuit of peace through human ingenuity when the cannon fire stops?

Hansen’s target audience — East Coast liberals left reeling by Donald Trump’s 2016 victory — is unlikely challenge her claim that America is an empire. She cites everything from westward expansion to a post-war economic expansion to characterize America as such — it’s a “different kind of empire.” Yet it seems that she, and other critics of American empire, keep moving the goalposts. In the 19th century, empire was manifest destiny. In the early 20th century, it was, well, actual empire, with rulers and those who were ruled. In the late 20th century, empire meant economic expansion, cultural influence, and military action that did not expand America’s borders?

A vast body of academic work in the West has parsed the implications of European empire, condemning the cruelty of colonization and subjugation by former world powers — like America, a cynic might say, the Europeans relied on a “civilizing mission” to spread liberalism to others. Yet this ignores the clearly extractive, exploitive qualities of this phenomenon by the French in West Africa, the Belgians in the Congo, the British in India. By contrast, American military interventions have shunned this variety of conquest and exploitation.

If we were a nation with an abominable past as Hansen tells it, redemption would be impossible, and pretending to care about freedom and prosperity would be futile.

Notes on a Foreign Country hastens a process already under way: If America is an empire, founded on morally dubious military conquest, ignorant of those souls it subjugates, then shouldn’t the post–World War II era be remembered as many now remember the age of European empire, as a time of senseless violence, abjectly racist ideological foundations, shameless exploitation, and all? Hansen’s tone is elegiac. She seems hurt that the promise of America in which she was brought up to believe during a middle-class childhood in New Jersey is a sham. She is not so much unpatriotic as disappointed. But her argument skirts dangerously close to throwing America into the trash heap of history. It’s as though, when presented with evidence of crimes committed by a truly evil regime, one were to shrug and say, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”

In fairness to Hansen, Notes is not a whataboutist screed written to enable dictators. (She is no Walter Duranty.) But it certainly can be used this way. Moreover, if Hansen’s views were broadly accepted by Americans, it would unshackle those who wish to remove even the pretense of values from foreign-policy decision-making. If we were a nation with an abominable past as Hansen tells it, redemption would be impossible, and pretending to care about freedom and prosperity would be futile. As a result, we’d descend into a Hobbesian abyss, abandoning the rhetoric of moral clarity.

In this light, Hansen provides a few crucial lessons for July 4.

She writes:

American exceptionalism did not only define the United States as a special nation among lesser nations, it demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were born superior to others, a concept of goodness that requires the existence of evil for its own sustenance.

Yet this misconstrues the essence of America’s exceptional role in the world. Rather than leading Americans toward some false sense of superiority, exceptionalism foists on us the burden and humility of understanding the full sweep of our historical mistakes as we’ve pursued human dignity for all. The shining city upon a hill can be exalted only by an interminable process of self-improvement, of always asking how to bring the creed in the Declaration of Independence to realization. In overturning Korematsu v. United States, which allowed the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII, and in moving to finally criminalize lynching at the federal level (to take two recent examples), America has moved to correct earlier missteps. However, the land where these atrocious acts happened had been sown with the seeds of their eventual undoing.

The institutions that we created after World War II are also an outgrowth of our foundational values. The World Trade Organization and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs andTrade, have ensured liberal trade — and the corresponding boom in prosperity and security that has dramatically improved living standards for people across the world. The U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while often anemic in practice, sets a standard by which states ought to act in defense of human freedom, similar to what is described in our Declaration of Independence. And NATO, since its founding, has been an insurance policy against the possibility of expansionary totalitarianism in our time.

All this represents a natural corollary of American exceptionalism — the use of power to noble ends. Hansen understands that to question the world we built after World War II is to question the very essence of American identity, which she sees as forever stained by our worst moments. As we celebrate our independence and the advancement in liberty it made possible, though, we face a question presented by Notes and the parade of anti-American-exceptionalism op-eds that flood the papers each July: Are we the descendants of “rebels against tyranny who made a nation out of tyrannizing others . . . revolutionaries who exalted self-determination while robbing it from others”? Or are we the country that accepts a different burden, one not of apology, but of the ceaseless pursuit of goodness so that we may advance the cause of freedom and dignity on a global scale?

This Independence Day presents a crossroads between those who share Hansen’s conclusion that American exceptionalism is no more than rhetoric and its attendant skepticism of post-WWII institutions, and those who will recommit to sharing the fruits of our independence, now spreading around the globe. The choice is as clear as it has ever been.

Jimmy Quinn — Jimmy Quinn is a student at Columbia University and Sciences Po. He is a former editorial intern at National Review.

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