Jake Sullivan, a former Obama-administration official who advised Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, has spent the last two years contemplating the future of the Democratic party. He’s authored two articles, one in Democracy and another in The Atlantic, articulating the principles he says should inform the domestic and foreign-policy agendas of the next Democratic president. Both are worth reading, but I was drawn to the Atlantic essay on foreign policy. It’s there that Sullivan argues that Democrats should embrace the concept of American exceptionalism.
It’s an idea criticized by elements of both Left and Right. These critics say that America isn’t so special after all, and that American exceptionalism acts as cover for imperialist wars. Sullivan replies that they don’t grasp the meaning of American exceptionalism. “The idea is not that the United States is intrinsically better than other countries,” Sullivan writes, “but rather this: Despite its flaws, America possesses distinctive attributes that can be put to work to advance both the national interest and the larger common interest.”
He’ll get no argument from me there. But what are these “distinctive attributes”? According to Sullivan, they include “positive-sum thinking,” “a can-do spirit,” a “willingness to wield power in all forms,” and “establishing a state based on ideas.” The first three qualities seem to me to be widespread throughout the globe — Russia, for example, seems all too willing to use power. It’s the last attribute, “establishing a state based on ideas,” that is most distinctly American.
“The Founders proclaimed the values of liberty and equality,” Sullivan writes. “They established the supremacy of ‘We the People.’” He adds, “Crucially, the Founders believed not just in individual rights but in the common good.” Absent from this 6,000-word essay, however, is any mention of the ground of these rights: God. Nor do the words “religion,” “human rights,” or “natural rights” appear in the text. “Freedom” shows up just twice — once in the context of Freedom of Navigation Operations.
If only Sullivan had explored more deeply the relationship between the American founding and American exceptionalism. The Founders believed that the very goal of government was to secure God-given natural rights. It was up to America to decide, as Hamilton says in Federalist No. 1, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” The public philosophy of the Founders isn’t just part of American exceptionalism. It’s the whole.
Sullivan credits the ideas on which the country was founded, but America is more than an idea. It is a nation governed by institutions that were wholly exceptional at the time of the founding and remain unique today: the separation of powers, federalism, extended republic, and limited government of enumerated powers described in the Constitution. It was these institutions that produced the society in which Alexis de Tocqueville observed such distinct qualities as widespread religiosity, voluntary association, and equality of condition.
A grand strategy that took American exceptionalism seriously would put both American values and American institutions at its center. U.S. foreign policy can neither ignore nor avoid the subjects of democracy and human rights, because these concepts are tied inextricably to our national identity and purpose as recognized in our founding charter. Certainly our adversaries understand the challenge to their legitimacy posed by human freedom as incarnated in the United States of America. However, as we voice our support for these principles abroad, we must also stay true to the institutional structure the Founders built to secure them at home.
Sullivan’s former boss is an example of what not to do. He submitted neither the Paris Climate Accord nor the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to Congress as treaties, and took a widely expansive view of the 2001 authorization of military force, against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that encompassed both the Libya war and intervention in Syria. Rather than adhere to and strengthen what makes America truly special — the separation of powers — President Obama ignored the Constitution whenever it became inconvenient. The current president ought to learn from his mistakes.
A grand strategy of American exceptionalism need look no further than the Constitution to identify our national purpose as insuring “domestic tranquility,” providing for the “common defense,” and securing “the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.” It would stipulate that the legislative and executive branches play the roles the Founders wrote for them in pursuit of these goals. It would never downplay or deny the God-authored personal dignity of every human being. But it would also apply our principles to concrete realities through the use of another of the Founders’ values: prudence.
The results of this grand strategy might look different from what Jake Sullivan has in mind. Still, I’m grateful to him for attempting to rehabilitate a much-derided idea. And for reminding us that if conservative Republicans don’t embrace and think seriously about American exceptionalism, liberal Democrats will.