The Logic of American Exceptionalism
If perception were reality, American power would be in the midst of a steep decline. In 2013, for the first time in four decades of polling, a majority of respondents said the U.S. is now less influential than it was ten years ago. Forty-eight percent said that China is the world’s leading economic power, with only 31 percent naming the United States as such—a trend that has persisted since the financial crisis of 2008.(1) This prolonged bout of pessimism has lent credibility to widespread calls for a fundamental reorientation of U.S. foreign policy toward less ambitious objectives.
Rarely used in foreign policy circles until just a few years ago, the word “retrenchment” has come to stand for an array of strategies that encourage or enforce American restraint. The current debate is unusual because the most vocal advocates of retrenchment are self-described realists with a reputation for thinking unsentimentally in terms of power and security. However, few have noticed the dramatic divide between the recommendations of academic realists with university chairs and Washington realists with experience at the highest levels of government or media. Radicalized by the George W. Bush presidency, the academic realists have fallen prey to a misguided view of America as the greatest threat to itself and others. Their version of retrenchment amounts to binding America’s hands with a policy of “offshore balancing” that entails our withdrawal from alliances, dismantling foreign bases, and slashing the defense budget. Leading academic realists have even begun to move in the direction of isolationism.
In contrast, the Washington realists also take a dim view of the Bush presidency, yet call for adjusting the American mindset rather than seeking to bind the United States to a position of weakness. However, even this moderate version of retrenchment rests on a worldview that has little faith in Americans or their political system, resists acknowledging the persistence of unipolarity, and remains allergic to promoting democracy and human rights.
There are critics of retrenchment, of course. Yet the most prominent ones tend to argue for little more than maintaining the status quo. Missing from the current debate is a strong case for the practicality of restoring America’s decisive edge in hard power while redoubling our efforts to promote democracy and human rights through peaceful means—in short, why the United States must remain an exceptional superpower.
Rise and fall of the realists
Although realists are fond of saying that they simply see the world as it is, what they have always offered is an ideology that defines the national interest in terms of balance of power, while marginalizing ethical concerns. In his brief summation of realism, Richard Haass, a veteran of both Bush administrations, explains that realists focus on the external behavior of states, while “what goes on inside states is not irrelevant, but secondary.”(2) An important exception to this rule is the realists’ constant worrying about deficiencies within the politics and culture of the United States. They tend to see the American people as uniquely impulsive, ignorant, and self-centered. The diplomat George Kennan famously compared the United States to “one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin” which is “slow to wrath” yet, once aroused, lashes out with such “blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.”(3) Hans Morgenthau, who taught at the University of Chicago after World War II, denounced the moralists who portrayed the struggle between democracy and dictatorship as one between “good and evil, which can only end with the complete triumph of good, and with evil wiped off the face of the earth.”(4) Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski laments, “The citizens of the world’s only superpower, which ultimately makes it decisions on the basis of the popular will, are abysmally ignorant about the world.”(5)
One of the few things that concerns realists more than a foreign policy based on the popular will is a foreign policy driven by special interests. Morgenthau blasted “the disproportionate influence exerted upon members of Congress by the spokesmen of special interest groups, of which in foreign affairs the China lobby and certain ethnic and religious minorities have been the most potent.”(6) Taken to extremes, such concerns have led to the conspiracy theories of the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Harvard University’s Stephen Walt, who insist the invasion of Iraq “was due in large part to the [Israel] Lobby’s influence, especially the neoconservatives within it.”(7)
The resort to such conspiracy theories indicates the degree to which academic realists find it difficult to stay in touch with reality. Haass, who was privy to high level deliberations before the invasion of Iraq, notes his “bemusement” with Walt and Mearsheimer, since reality “was just the opposite” of what they portray. Then as now, the Israelis remained preoccupied with Iran.(8)
As recently as the 1990s, academic realists found the Republican Party to be a very comfortable home. George H.W. Bush’s decision to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait confirmed that the GOP understood power politics, whereas Democrats overwhelmingly failed to recognize why the war was necessary. The discomfort of the Clinton administration with military affairs and its humanitarian approach to conflicts in Haiti and the Balkans confirmed for many realists that the Democrats could not be taken seriously. The election of another Bush thus held out the prospect of a return to responsibility. The young Texan governor called for a foreign policy grounded in humility and surrounded himself with advisors from his father’s administration. His national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, worked in the first Bush White House and mocked Clinton for having “the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”(9)
The realists’ great hope made their betrayal all the more bitter. George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq seemed incomprehensible to Walt and Mearsheimer, “even if Saddam [had] nuclear weapons” or was likely to develop them.(10) Far worse, after overthrowing Saddam, Bush began to emphasize the moral imperative of bringing democracy to Iraq. In his second inaugural address, Bush escalated his idealism with a commitment to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
Realists were appalled. For sixty years, they had warned of the terrible costs of democratic crusades and messianic interventionism. Bush’s rhetoric dismayed the Washington realists, although some of them, like Fareed Zakaria and Henry Kissinger, supported the invasion. But whereas the Washington realists saw themselves as parties to a profound disagreement, their academic counterparts demonized their domestic opponents in precisely the manner realists have long condemned with regard to foreign ones. This difference paved the way for the sharp divergence of the two camps’ approach to retrenchment.
From isolationism to “offshore balancing”
While concerned with the power of the Israel Lobby and the “one-party state,” academic realists located the deeper wellsprings of American dysfunction in a warped self-perception that perpetuated the myth of the United States being a uniquely ethical and altruistic state.(11) Mearsheimer expresses alarm at how the “national-security elites who execute and support [U.S. foreign policy] fervently believe in ‘American exceptionalism.’ They are convinced that the United States is morally superior to every other country on earth… These elites obviously do not look in the mirror. But, if they did, they would understand why people all around the world think hypocrites of the first order run American foreign policy.”(12) In an essay entitled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” Walt concludes, “a dispassionate look at the historical record belies most claims about America’s moral superiority.” He warns, “When a nation starts to think it enjoys the mandate of heaven and becomes convinced that it cannot fail or be led astray by scoundrels or incompetents, then reality is likely to deliver a swift rebuke.”(13)
By contrast, the Washington realists have never been comfortable with American exceptionalism, yet have increasingly reconciled themselves to letting America be America. Zakaria writes, “We are the only country in the world to issue annual report cards on every other country’s behavior. Washington, D.C., has become a bubble, smug and out of touch with the world outside.”(14) Kissinger condemns those who act “as if America has the appropriate democratic solution for every other society regardless of cultural and historical differences.” Yet on the very next page, he advises that policymakers must always balance realism and idealism, since “no serious American maker of foreign policy can be oblivious to the traditions of exceptionalism by which American democracy has defined itself.”(15) And according to Brzezinski, there must be a “deeper moral definition of America’s world role. Without this, America’s global leadership would lack legitimacy… It has to elevate human rights into a global priority.”(16)
The divergence between academic and Washington realists on the subject of American exceptionalism provides an essential part of the explanation for why the former are calling for a form of retrenchment far more drastic than the latter. For academic realists, retrenchment is designed more to protect the United States from itself than to address external threats to U.S. security. If Americans’ distorted self-image condemns the United States to act irresponsibly, then the country must be held back. Or even isolated.
For realists, the pursuit of disengagement represents a dramatic reversal from a position to which they have held firmly for decades. In 1952, Hans Morgenthau denounced isolationism as a utopian delusion and “the unwitting helpmate of Fascism.”(17) Kenneth Waltz explained that “optimistic noninterventionism” was nothing more than the flip side of Americans’ crusading impulse.(18) This anti-isolationist consensus lasted for decades. This year, however, John Mearsheimer wrote, “I am not an isolationist, but the logic underpinning this grand strategy is not easy to dismiss… If the case for isolationism was powerful before Pearl Harbor, it is even more compelling today.”(19) To explain this stunning reversal, one must understand the academic realists’ gradual embrace of the strategy known as “offshore balancing,” first elaborated by Christopher Layne of Texas A&M in 1997.(20)
Layne’s seminal article asserted that even his fellow realists were instinctively committed to unjustifiable activism abroad. He advocated the alternative of offshore balancing, whereby the United States would capitalize on its “insular position” since it is “virtually impregnable against direct attack.” Thus, “the United States would disengage from its military commitments in Europe, Japan, and South Korea.” With regard to WMD, Layne writes, “As an offshore balancer, the United States would accept that some (preferably managed) nuclear proliferation is inevitable.” Unsurprisingly, Layne anticipates his potential critics’ assertion that offshore balancing amounts to isolationism. Yet his defense against the charge only confirms its validity. He writes, “U.S. strategy toward Europe in 1939-41 was not isolationist, but rather a shrewd example of offshore balancing.” His only criticism of Roosevelt is that FDR antagonized the Japanese by offering limited resistance to their aggression against China, thus provoking Pearl Harbor. Sounding like a modern-day Charles Lindbergh, Layne concludes with the declaration, “America’s mission lies at home, not abroad… America First is an imperative, not a pejorative.”
Several years passed before top realist scholars embraced offshore balancing as their strategy of choice. In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, John Mearsheimer argued that offshore balancing was the traditional American grand strategy for much of the 20th century.(21) Since then, he has become a vocal advocate. Stephen Walt endorsed offshore balancing in his 2005 book, Taming American Power. In contrast to Layne’s specifics, Walt and Mearsheimer hedge on just how offshore their balancing would be. While calling for a withdrawal of forces from the Persian Gulf, Mearsheimer hesitates to spell out the implications of the strategy in Asia, especially regarding potential withdrawals from Japan and Korea. Nor does he consider the implications for NATO or Russia if the U.S. were to remove its forces from Europe entirely.(22) In terms of complacency regarding terrorism, both conventional and nuclear, Mearsheimer outdoes Layne. He insists without reservation that terrorism is a problem the United States has provoked with its interventionist policies. “Nuclear terrorism, in short, is not a serious threat,” he adds, dismissing out of hand the worry that a nuclear state may lose control of its weapons.(23)
Walt’s position is harder to discern. He endorses the core principles that “the United States would intervene with its own forces only when regional powers were unable to uphold the balance of power on their own,” and “would no longer keep large numbers of U.S. troops overseas solely for the purpose of maintaining stability. However, Walt explicitly endorses participation in NATO and remains silent on troop reductions in Asia. Contrary to Layne, Walt favors intervention against mass murder and genocide when the U.S. “could prevent these horrors at an acceptable cost.”(24)
Even scholars who don’t employ the language of offshore balancing make very similar recommendations. Barry Posen, director of the security studies program at MIT, prefers the term “restraint” to “offshore balancing.” He says U.S. forces should gradually withdraw from “all military commands and headquarters in Europe,” turning NATO into a purely political alliance. The U.S. should also “abandon permanent and semi-permanent land bases in Arab countries.” Next, Posen says the U.S. alliance with Japan “needs to be renegotiated but not abandoned,” which would entail a withdrawal of all Marines from the country and a reduction of air and naval forces. If silence is consent, then Posen accepts the need for U.S. troops in Korea. “The United States should preserve an ability to help out if necessary, but it should be stingy in this regard,” he writes.(25)
The exceptional superpower
While accepting American idealism as a reality that must be dealt with rather than denied, Washington realists still resist the incorporation of democracy and human rights as focal points of U.S. foreign policy. They tolerate such impulses, but fear that elevating them will unleash the crusading mindset they loathe. Such fears are exaggerated, however, and prevent the United States from combining its material power with the power of its principles to achieve greater security for itself as well as greater security and freedom for others.
The first step toward justifying such a strategy is to recognize the inclusive nature of American exceptionalism, rather than employing the lazy and ahistorical assumption that exceptionalism is a simplistic assertion of moral superiority. On July 4, 1821, when John Quincy Adams delivered his memorable Independence Day oration, he defined American exceptionalism in a manner offensive for his times, but not ours. After reading the full text of the Declaration, Adams declared it “the first solemn declaration by a nation of the only legitimate foundation of civil government.” (Emphasis added.) Rather than praise other nations with a similar appreciation for liberty, Adams spent much of his oration attacking the British, whose liberties were a privilege granted by a king, rather than an expression of universal rights. Not surprisingly, both the British and Russian ambassadors delivered forceful protests, accusing Adams of inciting revolution.
Today, the prevailing norm is for democratic government to rest on the theory that the people are sovereign and possess intrinsic rights. While the United States remains extremely unusual because its people are a nation defined by their principles, rather than their language, faith, or ethnicity, this does not represent a barrier to the conception of all democratic nations as part of an exceptional community. Furthermore, every state has the potential to join this community, something that Adams foresaw with his prediction that the American system “was the corner stone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe.” Given the United States’ relative weakness at the time, Adams famously warned, “[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Adams, however, was determined to rapidly enhance American power.
While American exceptionalism is now inclusive, it remains deeply subversive, for the same reasons that led the British and Russian ambassadors to protest Adams’ oration. The legitimacy of authoritarian regimes is intrinsically compromised. Even the most stable ones have a habit of disintegrating without significant advance notice. Given that America’s adversaries are all authoritarian regimes with visibly frayed legitimacy, it is clearly in our interest and consistent with our values to advance their decline.
Although one might expect this sort of enlightened realpolitik to appeal to Washington realists, it doesn’t. For Haass, an essential axiom of realism is, “What goes on inside states is not irrelevant, but secondary.”(26) Yet internal transformations initiated the peaceful end of the Cold War and, much earlier, the realignment of Japan and Germany. Internal transformations also ensured enduring hostility to the United States in Nicaragua and Iran in 1979. Earlier, Mao Zedong’s overthrow of Chiang Kai-Shek had equally historic implications.
The most rhetorically powerful and emotionally resonant argument against spreading liberty is that the United States mostly failed in Iraq and Afghanistan even though it committed tremendous resources. Yet promoting democracy in the midst of a lethal insurgency is not a representative case, in spite of misleading assertions that these wars were the offspring of an aggressive democracy promotion agenda. During the Cold War and after, diplomacy has represented the most effective means of tipping a country’s internal politics in a pro-American or pro-democracy direction.(27) In the 1980s, American diplomacy facilitated the ouster of anti-Communist dictatorships in the Philippines, South Korea, and Chile, markedly enhancing the prospects for friendly relations with all three countries in the post-Cold War era. Of course, the United States has also tipped the scale in the autocratic direction—in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Debate persists about whether such instances represented foolish hypocrisy or a prudent compromise designed to strengthen our position vis-à-vis the Soviets. Beyond debate, however, is the conclusion that internal change reversed the course of all three countries’ foreign policies, realist axioms notwithstanding.
Unquestionably, even diplomatic initiatives to promote democracy entail definite risks. Successful support of the Ukrainian democracy movement this winter resulted in an ongoing showdown with Russia. Transitions are also difficult to steer, let alone control, once they are underway. The 2011 uprisings in Egypt and other Arab states illustrate this point. But the trend over time is clearly in democracy’s favor. The number of free countries has grown from forty to eighty-eight in the years since Freedom House began tracking the trend in 1973. Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution points out that the values of a dominant power tend to diffuse across the globe. Both before and after World War I, there was tremendous confidence that democracy had become such an attractive ideal that further democratization was inevitable. Yet only after the United States rose to become a superpower did such a trend actually materialize.(28)
Clearly, this diffusion of values is not always a direct or linear process. As noted above, the United States itself worked against it on notable occasions. Further research is definitely necessary to explore the issue of causation. Yet the correlation is strong. The demise of Soviet power almost eradicated communism’s revolutionary potential in the developing world. Even in the West, Marxism-without-Leninism suffered devastating intellectual setbacks.
Enduring unipolarity and hard power
Kagan’s observation about the relationship between power and values points to the necessity of anchoring any effective campaign to spread liberty in a valid assessment of American power. By the late 1990s, academic realists were puzzled by the failure of unipolarity to generate a balancing coalition. Some began to popularize the notion of “soft balancing,” which entails only mild opposition, while others still cling to the prediction that a return to multipolar balancing is imminent.
However, Dartmouth scholar William Wohlforth made two key interventions that changed the course of the debate. First, he demonstrated that the United States’ material advantage is far greater than that of any leading power of the past four centuries.(29) Second, Wohlforth illustrated that according to a purely realist understanding of power, unipolarity should endure when the dominant state in any system achieves such unprecedented advantage. Leaving aside the fact that only authoritarian states feel threatened by the U.S., it is simply imprudent for any state or group of states to challenge such a dominant leader.(30)
Rather than contest this point, a number of proponents of offshore balancing have sought to turn it to their advantage by arguing that the United States is so secure that forward engagement has become unnecessary. Yet this conflates the question of threats to American primacy with other challenges, such as mass-
casualty terrorism, which may necessitate preventive measures even if they cannot alter the balance of power.
Interestingly, Washington realists are more hesitant to accept that unipolarity is here to stay. As implied by the title of his 2008 book, Fareed Zakaria is confident in the emergence of a Post-American World. In the book’s first pages, Zakaria explains, “Power is shifting away from nation-states, up, down, and sideways.”(31) In the same year, Haass declared the onset of “the age of non-polarity” which “will follow U.S. dominance.” He asserted, “The principal characteristic of twenty-first century international relations is turning out to be non-polarity: a world dominated not by one or two or even several states, but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power. This represents a tectonic shift from the past.”(32)
Yet six years on, there are few signs we are moving into an era where international organizations, multinational corporations, or NGOs have become actors with anything like the significance of states. Conventional wisdom even held, at least until al-Qaeda’s remarkable resurgence in Syria and Iraq, that terrorist organizations, along with their criminal and insurgent partners, no longer represented a serious threat either.
Besides terrorism, the greatest threats to peace and security today are states like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Diplomacy is the preferred means of dealing with states, yet realists would be the first to say that effective diplomacy depends on the leverage provided by the potential use of force. Measured in terms of spending or technological sophistication, the U.S. military far outpaces the combined strength of its rivals. This fact is a popular but misleading tool employed to argue for the safety of defense cuts. Whereas the United States has global responsibilities, its adversaries have much narrower objectives. Also, because of the United States’ high per capita income, emphasis on technology, and relatively greater concern for its uniformed personnel, it is much more expensive for the U.S. to generate hard power.
Theoretically speaking, there is no right amount to spend on defense. No matter the level of spending, one has to ask what the marginal dollar would buy, whether spent on defense, healthcare, or debt reduction.(33) What can be said with certainty is that the United States now spends a much lower percentage of its resources on defense than it did throughout the Cold War. Two of the most vocal advocates of retrenchment candidly marvel, “That such a small slice of American wealth accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending shows how cheap military hegemony has become for Americans.”(34)
In the current political environment, capping and further cutting defense seem to be the only saleable options. Yet strategic thinking demands that one step outside the political context of the moment. A forward leaning strategy that seeks to spread liberty while preventing terrorism and aggression may require substantially more resources, although simply reversing the cuts of the past five years would have a significant impact. Furthermore, the budgets for diplomacy and intelligence should also reflect the needs of our strategy. While the United States is all but certain to inhabit a unipolar world for the indefinite future, only a rejection of today’s pessimism and calls for retrenchment can ensure it remains an exceptional superpower.
David Adesnik is visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also an International Affairs Fellow for 2013-2014 at the Council on Foreign Relations.
6. Morgenthau, In Defense of the National Interest, 37. Interestingly, Kenneth Waltz represented an exception to the trend, producing a book entitled Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics, in which he argued “that the foreign-policy capabilities of democratic states are unduly disparaged.”
7. Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP06-011, March 2006, 30-32.
11. On allegations that the US has become a “one-party state,” see Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008), 69, 95, 122. Bacevich denounces the “hijacking” of American democracy, which has turned it into a “de facto one-party state.” “One result of that hijacking,” Bacevich writes, “has been to raise up a new political elite whose members have a vested interest in perpetuating the crises that provide the source of their power.”
20. Christopher Layne, “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing,” International Security 22, no. 1, Summer 1997. For an update to this work, see Christopher Layne, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), Ch. 8.
30. William C. Wohlforth, “U.S. Strategy in a Unipolar World,” in G. John Ikenberry, ed., America Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 100-106. Wohlforth elaborates his arguments more fully in William C. Wohlforth and Stephen G. Brooks, World Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), Chs. 2 and 3.