There are some phrases so devoid of meaning after overuse and misuse that they cease to be of use in policy making and-or politics. In this regard, we might consider retiring the oft-used phrase “American exceptionalism.” It is not that America is unexceptional; quite the contrary. Our economic and military prowess, devotion to liberty and willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the the peace and freedom of others make the U.S. the sole superpower. America remains a beacon for millions of people and the model of a prosperous, free and tolerant nation.
However, the phrase tells us nothing about the content of our policy. To put it differently: Why must the U.S. continue to project power, break the will of tyrants, untangle the knotty Middle East and fund not only our defense but that of Europe? It is not sufficient to say, “Because we are special.” For that might compel the isolationism of the right (we are too good for the world). Or it might suggest a sense of entitlement, which is how the left derogatorily describes America’s actions in the world (e.g. “American imperialism,” “pushing other countries around”).
Rather, the concept behind that phrase is simple: We are uniquely blessed, and we have no other option than to assume the superpower mantle. If nothing else the Obama presidency has been an exercise in the left-wing fantasy that America need not be the world’s policeman. It turns out that, unless we want to live in a world of genocide, constant turmoil and economic disruption, we really do need to be that cop on the beat. Quite simply, we are the only power that has the will and the capability to bend events our way, that is, in the direction of stability peace, freedom and prosperity.
If we do not assume our obligations (e.g. end genocide in Syria, prevent North Korea aggression, stop Iran’s hegemonic ambitions), Europe isn’t going to do it. (It can barely hold the misbegotten euro zone together.) The United Nations isn’t going to do it — and considering the disproportionate power wielded in that body by tin-pot dictators and rogue nations, we wouldn’t want it to. And we sure don’t want China or Russia to do it. In the absence of U.S. leadership (economic, diplomatic, military), there is chaos and-or unsavory actors filling the void. That is the real lesson of the last five years.
And that ensuing chaos and aggression by countries who don’t share our values in turn directly or indirectly threatens our ability to sustain our economic power and live in a stable and peaceful world. This bears repeating especially with a White House that sees ending wars — or ending our participation in them — (as opposed to winning wars) as our greatest contribution to the planet.
American exceptionalism is, then, a truism, but it is of limited utility when discussing policy choices. It does not in and of itself tell us why or where we must act. And as right and left turn inward, chasing some fantastical vision of a world we do not need and doesn’t need us, we should not rely purely or even mainly with vague moralistic arguments (although Americans, unlike ruling elites, do like to think of America as a force for good in the world) in defense of our international role. Instead policymakers need to make the case that a prosperous, stable and free world is the only environment in which the United States can thrive. And such a world has to be secured and in some sense nurtured by the United States.
This is why the entire notion that we must leave the world to “nation-build at home” is farcical. With a globalized economy, tending in our own back yard (which for the left means taking more resources out of the private sector) only gets you so far. We want a technologically sophisticated manufacturing base? It would be a good idea not to decimate our military. We want expanded trade and able trading partners? We should move to counter China’s cyberterrorism and theft of intellectual power. We want a safe and secure Israel and we want to prevent failed states that act as an incubator for terrorism? We better have a robust military presence and a coherent approach to the Arab Spring.
The president apparently believes that American intervention in the world is either counterproductive or so unpopular that virtually any alternative (e.g. mass murder in Syria, destabilization of Jordan, an emboldened Iran) is preferable. But retrenchment is not the safe choice; if anything it promotes more conflict, unleashes rogue states and tempts genocidal tyrants. Sitting on the sidelines is not safe; it is a luxury neither we nor the world can afford.