As the 2024 presidential election approaches, three broad camps are visible in America’s debate over how the United States should relate to the rest of the world: the liberal internationalists who have dominated since World War II; the retrenchers who want to pull back from some alliances and institutions; and the America Firsters who take a narrow, sometimes isolationist, view of America’s role in the world.
Americans have long seen their country as morally exceptional. Stanley Hoffmann, a French- American intellectual, said that while every country considers itself unique, France and the US stand out in believing that their values are universal. France, however, was limited by the balance of power in Europe, and thus could not pursue its universalist ambitions fully. Only the US had the power to do that.
The point is not that Americans are morally superior; it is that many Americans want to believe that their country is a force for good in the world. Realists have long complained that this moralism in American foreign policy interferes with a clear analysis of power. Yet the fact is that America’s liberal political culture made a huge difference to the liberal international order that has existed since WWII. Today’s world would look very different if Hitler had emerged victorious or if Stalin’s Soviet Union had prevailed in the Cold War.
American exceptionalism has three main sources. Since 1945, the dominant one has been the legacy of the Enlightenment, specifically the liberal ideas espoused by America’s founders. As President John F. Kennedy put it, “the ‘magic power’ on our side is the desire of every person to be free, of every nation to be independent … It is because I believe our system is more in keeping with the fundamentals of human nature that I believe we are ultimately going to be successful.” Enlightenment liberalism holds such rights to be universal, not limited to the US.
Of course, Americans always faced contradictions in implementing their liberal ideology. The scourge of slavery was written into the Constitution, and it was more than a century after the Civil War before Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Racism remains a major factor in American politics to this day.
Americans have also differed over how to promote liberal values in foreign policy. For some, the universalist project became an excuse to invade other countries and impose friendly regimes. Racism undoubtedly played a role in US interventions in places like Mexico, Haiti, and the Philippines. For others, however, liberalism was the impetus for creating a system of international law and institutions that protect domestic liberty by moderating international anarchy.
A second strand of American exceptionalism stems from the country’s Puritan religious roots. Those who fled Britain to worship God more purely in the new world saw themselves as a chosen people. Their project was less crusading in nature than anxious and contained, like the current “retrencher” approach of fashioning America as a city on a hill to attract others.
The founders themselves worried about the new republic losing its virtue, as the Roman republic had done. In the nineteenth century, European visitors as diverse as Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens noted the American obsession with virtue, progress, and decline. But this moral concern was more inward- than outward-looking.
The third source of American exceptionalism underlies the others: America’s sheer size and location has always conferred a geopolitical advantage. Already in the nineteenth century, De Tocqueville noted America’s special geographical situation. Protected by two oceans, and bordered by weaker neighbors, it was able to focus largely on westward expansion throughout the nineteenth century, avoiding Europe-centric struggles for global power.
But when the US emerged as the world’s largest economy at the beginning of the twentieth century, it began to think in terms of global power. After all, it had the resources, the leeway, and ample opportunities to indulge itself, for good and for ill. It had the incentive and capability to take the lead in creating global public goods, as well as the freedom to define its national interest in broad ways. That meant supporting an open international trading system, freedom of the seas and other commons, and the development of international institutions. Size creates an important realist basis for American exceptionalism.
Isolationism was America’s answer to the nineteenth-century global balance of power. The relatively weak American republic could be imperialistic toward its small neighbors, but it had to follow a cautiously realist policy vis-à-vis European powers. Though the Monroe Doctrine asserted a separation between the Western Hemisphere and the European balance, such a policy could be maintained only because it coincided with British interests and the Royal Navy’s control of the seas.
But as America’s power grew, its options increased. An important turning point came in 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson broke with tradition and sent two million Americans to fight in Europe. Although the liberal League of Nations that Wilson created at the end of the war was repudiated by his fellow Americans, it laid the basis for the United Nations and the liberal order after 1945.
Today, President Joe Biden and most Democrats say they want to maintain and preserve the existing order, whereas Donald Trump and the America Firsters want to abandon it, and retrenchers in both parties hope to pick and choose among the remains. Ongoing conflicts in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East will be strongly affected by whichever approach prevails in next year’s election.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.