American exceptionalism in the age of Trump

American exceptionalism in the age of Trump

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In my recent study of 14 presidents since 1945, “Do Morals Matter,” I found that Americans want a moral foreign policy, but have been torn over what that means. Americans often see their country as exceptional because it defines its identity not by ethnicity, but rather by ideas about a liberal vision of a society and way of life based on political, economic, and cultural freedom. President Donald Trump’s administration has departed from that tradition. 

Of course, American exceptionalism faced contradictions from the start. Despite the founders’ liberal rhetoric, the original sin of slavery was written into the US Constitution in a compromise that allowed northern and southern states to unite.

And Americans have always differed over how to express liberal values in foreign policy. American exceptionalism was sometimes an excuse for ignoring international law, invading other countries, and imposing governments on their people. But American exceptionalism has also inspired liberal internationalist efforts for a world made freer and more peaceful through a system of international law and organizations that protects domestic liberty by moderating external threats. Trump has turned his back on both aspects of this tradition.

In his inaugural address, Trump declared: “America first… We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” He also said: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example.” He had a good point: When the US sets a good example, it can increase its ability to influence others.

There is also an interventionist and crusading tradition in American foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson sought a foreign policy that would make the world safe for democracy. John F. Kennedy called for Americans to make the world safe for diversity, but he sent 16,000 US troops to Vietnam, and that number grew to 565,000 under his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Likewise, George W. Bush justified America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq with a National Security Strategy that promoted freedom and democracy.

Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the US has been involved in seven wars and military interventions. Yet, as Ronald Reagan put it in 1982, “regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.” 

Avoiding such conflicts has been one of Trump’s more popular policies. He has limited the use of American force in Syria, and wishes to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by election day. 

Protected by two oceans, and bordered by weaker neighbors, the US largely focused on westward expansion in the 19th century, and tried to avoid entanglement in the global balance of power that was centered in Europe. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, America had become the world’s largest economy, and its intervention in the First World War tipped the balance of power.

The US popular mood is to avoid military interventions, but not to withdraw from alliances or multilateral cooperation.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

In the 1930s, American opinion believed intervention in Europe had been a mistake and turned inward toward strident isolationism. With the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt, his successor Harry S. Truman and others drew the lesson that the US could not afford to turn inward again. They realized that America’s very size had become a second source of exceptionalism. If the country with the largest economy did not take the lead in producing global public goods, no one else would.

The postwar presidents created a system of security alliances, multilateral institutions, and relatively open economic policies. Today, this “liberal international order” — the basic foundation of US foreign policy for 70 years — is being called into question by the rise of new powers such as China and a new wave of populism within democracies.

Trump successfully tapped this mood in 2016, when he became the first presidential nominee of a major political party to call into question the post-1945 US-led international order; and disdain for its alliances and institutions has defined his presidency. Nonetheless, a recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that more than two-thirds of Americans want an outward-oriented foreign policy. The US popular mood is to avoid military interventions, but not to withdraw from alliances or multilateral cooperation. The American public is not about to return to the isolationism of the 1930s.

The real question Americans face is whether the US can successfully address both aspects of its exceptionalism: Democracy promotion without bayonets and support for international institutions. Can it learn how to promote democratic values and human rights without military intervention and crusades, and at the same time help organize the rules and institutions needed for a new world of transnational threats such as climate change, pandemics, cyberattacks, terrorism, and economic instability?

Right now, the US is failing on both fronts. Rather than taking a lead on enhancing international cooperation in the fight against coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the Trump administration is blaming China for the pandemic and threatening to withdraw from the World Health Organization.

China has much to answer for, but turning it into a political football in this year’s US presidential election campaign is domestic politics, not foreign policy. We are not finished with the pandemic, and COVID-19 will not be the last one.

In addition, China and the US produce 40 percent of the greenhouse gases that threaten humanity’s future. Yet neither country can solve these new national security threats alone. As the world’s two largest economies, the US and China are condemned to a relationship that must combine competition and cooperation. For the US, exceptionalism now includes working with the Chinese to help produce global public goods, while also defending values such as human rights.

Those are the moral questions Americans should debate ahead of this year’s presidential election. 

  • Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author, most recently, of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.”

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

INTERVIEW: Saudi envoy to UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi says US protests show strength of American society

Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN in New York. (Getty Images)
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Updated 05 July 2020

INTERVIEW: Saudi envoy to UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi says US protests show strength of American society

  • Says Riyadh-backed Yemen donor conference a success for the UN and for Saudi diplomacy

NEW YORK: The anti-racism protests on the streets of New York outside could be heard as the indignant crowds called for nothing less than the end of systemic racism in their country.

From his office, Saudi permanent representative to the UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, who has lived in the US for many years, mused on the significance of American protests:

“Events in the United States are an indication of the vitality of American society,” he said.

“(Protests) show the strength of that society, its ability to mobilize in the face of crisis. It also shows some of the shortcomings in the American system with regard to racism and discrimination.


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 “But I know that the majority of Americans are peace-loving. They love the interaction of various ethnic backgrounds. And I hope that our friends in the US will be able to overcome the current difficulty they are now going through,” Al-Mouallimi said.

The conversation quickly turned to another country that has been in the headlines this week: Yemen.

“The situation in Yemen is catastrophic, both in terms of the humanitarian situation and in every (other) respect,” said Al-Mouallimi.

As the country continues to reel under what the UN has many times described as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis, international organizations have made pleas for funding to shore up their operations in Yemen after 75 percent of the UN programs had to shut their doors or reduce operations because of the lack of funds.

Saudi Arabia answered the humanitarian call by organizing a pledging event, co-hosted by the UN, where participants included representatives from more than 125 member states.

$1.35 billion was pledged, falling short of the $2.5 billion that the organizations said they needed to keep their operations going.

Al-Mouallimi explained that the initial pledges, though about half of what had been sought, were normal for an event of this magnitude:

“International donors do not achieve more than 50 or 60 percent of the target because basically the target is there to be completed over a full year.

“We are still in the first half of the year. We still have some time. So the pledging conference achieving 50 or 60 percent is considered a success in many ways.

“The conference was a huge success for the United Nations and for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for Saudi diplomacy.

“The fact that you can hold such a conference, with such wide participation, under the current circumstances, virtually, and with the economic clouds hanging in the air over the heads of the participants, and then come up with (actual) results: I think that is a major success,” Al-Mouallimi said.

The UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, who co-hosted the conference, was quick to urge donors to pay their pledges immediately, because “time is of the essence” for humanitarian organization to resume operations in Yemen: “When the pledges are paid literally means the difference between life and death for countless Yemenis,” Lowcock said.

Demonstrators gather to protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in New York. (Reuters)

Al-Mouallimi said Saudi Arabia would continue to work on two tracks: The humanitarian track where “the follow-up to that conference will be the collection of the funds, the disbursement of these funds through the United Nations and our channels, and the actual implementation of projects to help the Yemeni people on the ground, including provisions of food and medicine.”

The second track is the political track: “The UN envoy continues to work his way through the various obstacles that are in his way but I believe that with the determination of the Yemeni people and all the parties that are supportive of Yemen we will be able to overcome these difficulties.”

Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi minister of foreign affairs, pointed to the main obstacle in the way of humanitarian work “due to the inhuman practices and violations by Iranian-backed Houthi militias…. blocking humanitarian aid, looting relief convoys and impeding access to all Yemeni lands.”

The international community has constantly been working to overcome such hurdles. Al-Mouallimi noted that “every time there is a difficulty the UN and the international community react by withholding the supply of this aid or freezing it for a certain period of time or redirecting it to other channels or our way, and this usually prompts (the Houthis) to reconsider their position and to allow the aid to pass through. It is a game they are trying to play to gain advantage, but one needs patience and a long-term view of the situation.

“The international community needs to continue to put pressure on the Houthis, both moral and political pressure, as well as on the ground. And that’s what we are doing with our partners in the Yemeni government.

“The Houthis will continue their obstructive behavior and we will continue to change or correct it.”

Apart from Yemen and the US protests, the coronavirus pandemic continues to haunt Al-Mouallimi, who seemed disappointed at the lack of cooperation among countries to fight off the virus.

“The international community should have shown more solidarity, more coordination, more commitment to working together and enhancing the role of the multinational organization such as the UN and its subsidiaries.”

He said that from the beginning Saudi Arabia “has assumed its leadership role. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques invited world leaders of the G20 to a virtual summit, the first of its kind, that was held couple months ago and, as a result of that summit, certain measures and steps were agreed and were taken to help combat the coronavirus.

“Subsequently, the Kingdom has announced numerous steps including a contribution of $500 million to various channels that is aimed at fighting the coronavirus, including $150 million that was earmarked for helping in the development of a vaccine and treatment and medications to help treat the disease.

“So the Kingdom has been taking a leading role in that respect. We have provided support to the WHO and we have also provided specific assistance to certain countries that are vulnerable, including Yemen and our Palestinian brothers and sisters, so that they can overcome the difficulties that are associated with this virus.”

Saudi Arabia announces 18 more deaths from COVID-19

Updated 21 October 2020

Saudi Arabia announces 18 more deaths from COVID-19

  • The total number of recoveries in the Kingdom has increased to 329,715
  • A total of 5,235 people have succumbed to the virus in the Kingdom so far

LONDON: Saudi Arabia recorded 18 more deaths from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and 405 new cases of the disease on Wednesday.
Of the new cases, 92 were announced in Madinah, 44 in Makkah, 34 in Riyadh, 14 in Dhahran,13 in Dammam and 7 in Jeddah.
The total number of recoveries in the Kingdom increased to 329,715 after 445 more patients recovered from the virus.
A total of 5,235 people have succumbed to the virus in the Kingdom so far.