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American Exceptionalism: Pride, Power and Prejudice

Oct 15 , 2020

The fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the USSR, was one of America’s proudest moments. Our Cold War ideological foe was vanquished, America’s mix of democracy and capitalism reigned supremacy, China was barely a blip in the rear view mirror, and the US was the world’s sole superpower.  

But, the sudden victory was a surprise; there had been little time to work through expectations. The sharp ideological lines of the Cold War which had reminded us of the differences between “us” and “them” melted away, leaving no meaningful guard rails. In essence, the world was ours, the question was what we should, and would, do with it.  

Triumph always has its heralds. For America, it was Francis Fukuyama, fresh from a stint in the Reagan White House, penned an essay “The End of History” (1989), calling for a monochromatic world order based on the victorious US model of Democracy and Capitalism. Subsequently, the essay was turned into a book: The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which portrayed American Exceptionalism as the logical and inevitable end of political and economic evolution. The term soon became a rallying cry to bring all countries into an American norm. In doing so, it simultaneously forgave America for past and future sins - the “greater good” had required a few broken eggs in the past, and might require a few more in the future. But, the “ends would justify the means”, because the United States was a moral and ethical flagship that sailed under the “rule of law”. Ironically, few recognized the massive hypocrisy in their rush to proselytize the ideology. 

Thus began America’s journey down the path of good intentions. America is now at a point, under President Donald Trump, where morality, ethics and the rule of law have been sacrificed to political and economic expediency. Morality has become a sop for “suckers” and the Rule of Law has become “rule by law”, heralding a new type of “thug politics”.  

Under Trump’s roaring America First-ism, it is no longer about what is good, simply what is good for America. 

Many factors contributed to this devolution: the greed and arrogance of elites who let the mainstay of America’s stability, the middle class, dwindle and slide into discontent; military adventures that yielded only dead bodies and trillions in debt; a system of government unable to produce responsive and effective leaders; an economic system which has enlarged the wealth gap by bailing out the “too big to fail” companies and their executives, while abandoning ordinary people, who lost their jobs, businesses, pensions and homes; a hot and cold neo-isolationistic foreign policy that has rapidly eroded America’s international soft power stature.  

We have traveled far from the initial euphoria of victory, forty years ago, when democracy, capitalism, multilateral institutions and cooperation were the ideals.  

Democracy, which depends on a measure of altruism to succeed, has descended into “identity” and “my needs” politics that prohibit rational discussion over issues like abortion, LGBT, race etc… Today, many people feel that freedom is a right that has no corresponding responsibilities, from blaming partners for its own trade deficit to refusing wearing a mask during the pandemic.  

Capitalism, rather than creating fairer and more efficient markets, has become a tool of inequality; economically and legally. The wealth of the four richest people in the U.S. matches the worth of the bottom 50%.  

Multilateral institutions, like the UN, WTO, ICC, WHO, are under attack by the very government that envisioned and set them up.  

Cooperation, has been replaced by “thug politics”, where the strong take from, or impose on, the weak, using unilateral tariffs, sanctions, military action and political pressure.  

Treaty obligations are optional, climate change and pandemics can be ignored and the law simply becomes an enforcement tool for the interests of those in power.  

The U.S. is still the most powerful political, economic and military power in the world. But it’s “lead by example” and aspirational politics, have given way to a culture of grievance and selfishness - one that blames domestic failures on “them”; creates wild conspiratorial theories; fuels a growing sense that America, the victor of the Cold War and defender of the future, has somehow been cheated by its neighbors, allies and the rest of the world. Under it all, there is an ever-growing existential unease over the rise and success of China under its hybrid economic institution, which deviates from American Exceptionalist dogma.  

China’s success, contrasted with the failures of the “superior” American system, is the constant in the deteriorating Sino-US relations. It is the rationalization for aggressive, but largely unsubstantiated, US accusations against China of cheating, theft and malevolent intent, leveled on a daily basis. It is the basis of US grievances, paranoia, racism and ultimately, the catch-all reason for why China is always at fault.  

This article is titled Pride, Power and Prejudice, because we are at an inflection point where we will either recover our collective morality, ethics, regard for the rule of law, belief in multilateralism and cooperation, or descend into a maelstrom of “might makes right” politics.  

How did we get here? What have been the ramifications to the rule of law and those who seek its protection? It is hoped that the subject of this essay may stir some vigorous debate and some possible answers.  

Pride 

With the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy — which occurred after the Cold War (1945–1991) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) — humanity has reached a point "not just ... the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Francis Fukiyama said in “The End of History and the Las Man Standing” 

On November 3rd 1980, President Ronald Reagan, portrayed the United States as “a shining city on a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere”. Subsequently, in 1987, Reagan made his “tear down the wall” speech in Germany, marking the end of the USSR and paving a way for the reunification of Germany.   

Reagan’s Presidency, despite the inspiring words and images, was the beginning of a return to a form of unbridled Realpolitik based on the notion of American Exceptionalism - a concept that freed the U.S. from any moral, legal or ethical constraints. The concept of American Exceptionalism, so inspired, is now a rationalization for any means or methods necessary, in pursuit of the “greater good” of imposing Liberal Democratic Capitalism on the entire world.  

Drawn from Fukuyama’s 1989 essay, "The End of History?", his grand vision, ironically, based on the linear advancement theories of Hegel and Marx, has since become the battle cry of American Exceptionalists; those who put their faith in the belief that the U.S. possesses a unique, superior society that has a duty to impose its ideological and economic model on the world.  

40 years latter any veneer of altruism, that the U.S. had left, is gone. President Trump’s “America First” campaign and actions have completed the degradation of any moral, legal and ethical norms that differentiated American Liberal Democratic Capitalism from the autocratic systems it says it opposes.  

Power  

The heart of this recent hubris is not about confidence, but fear and uncertainty masked by bravado and ideological self-righteousness.  

In retrospect, from a revolutionary new nation that willingly turned its back on the “old world”, in favor of a new form of enlightened democracy, the U.S. was forced to abandon its isolationism by its growing trade footprint and two world wars.  

Following WWII the desire was to create a more stable world using multilateral political and financial institutions, like the United Nations, World Bank and IMF, as a means of preventing wars in the future - “talks rather than tanks”. This marked the beginning of the “American Century”, and the expansion of US’s diplomatic, trade and security footprints to every corner of the globe.  

It also brought to the fore the schism that has been simmering since the widespread adoption of democracy and advent of capitalism. Democracy and Capitalism are processes, not ideologies, like Socialism. As processes, they describe what is perceived to be a more efficient way of governance and economics. The rationales are that Democracy allows voters to remove inefficient leaders and governments, and Capitalism employs the power of the market to remove inefficient managers and companies.  

The reality for America is, its two party democracy, which are beholding to local issues and special interests, has failed to give US voters efficient leaders or governments. The “free market” capitalists, who proselytize the gospel of the “Chicago School”; that “free markets best allocate resources in an economy and that minimal, or even no, government intervention is best for economic prosperity”, have not allocated resources efficiently, instead creating monopolies and oligarchies that dominates almost every industry, enriching their owners at the expense of their workers. For example: between 2000 and 2018, the lion’s share of the World’s corporate profits, went to developed nations, reflected in the US by the near tripling of corporate profits even as wages for workers in the US stagnated. In terms of US GDP, it doubled, from 10 to 20 trillion dollars, but not the income or numbers of middle class Americans, which deteriorated. 

The greatest subconscious fear that the American establishment has, is that its facade of contradictions will be unmasked. The result has been an emphasis on an ever growing self-righteous proselytizing, based on the neo-fascist “manifest destiny” of American Exceptionalism. 

The apex of this trend has been the election of Donald Trump, who presents American Exceptionalism at its ugliest. The pathological lies, the constant boasting, the lack of empathy, the disregard for personal, business, social, political and international norms, morality, laws and ethics, have become the domestic and international faces of America.  

Under Donald Trump, power is a tool that allows the U.S. to impose its policies and interests on other countries. Morality is not a factor; children can be taken from their mothers and deported without their parents, dictators can be supported when there is a personal, political or financial interest, pressing human needs, like poverty, pandemics, climate change, can be ignored.  

For him, legality does not matter, the law is a means of exercising power over, not protecting, the powerless. Unilateral economic, political and military actions are implemented based on archaic laws left over from the Cold War. Neighbors, allies, and competitors are treated with equal disdain in pursuit of putting “America First”.  

But of all the actions, the most significant and telling are those against China. Attacks on Chinese tech companies, including Huawei, ZTE, TikTok, WeChat and many other leading tech firms, are justified by repetitive unproven claims and political pressure. Ms. Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder is intercepted in Canada - the only jurisdiction willing to cooperate. Allegations against her are based on incomplete information furnished by HSBC, which was awaiting punishment for knowingly laundering 881 million dollars of drug cartel money.  

Does it matter that no one from HSBC was intercepted or jailed for these crimes? Crimes, which as suggested by the latest news, continued after they cut a deal with the U.S. Justice Department.  

In terms of Tiktok, the legal basis for the unilateral action was about what might happen, not one shred of proof that anything actually had happened.  

Unsurprisingly the US courts imposed a stay based on the probable violations of Free Speech and Due Process under the US Constitution. The list goes on: the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, TPP, WTO, UNESCO, JPCOA, Chinese Media restrictions, personal sanctions of Chinese government officials, stirring discontent in HK, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, India, ASEAN.  The utter contempt for the “Rule of Law”, morality and ethics has been made abundantly clear. 

The net effect has been to make the US more unpopular, as evidenced by polls over the last 4 years. 

The mixture of pride and power has taken the U.S. down a dark road, where it has abandoned any semblance of morality, ethics or respect for the rule of law. It is now consumed with proving itself the “better country”, unfortunately, as its efforts backfire and China continues to prosper, Washington’s efforts are getting more manic, merging political, economic and military containment efforts.  

China’s success is an existential threat to those who believe in the absolute certainty of American Exceptionalism and Fukuyama’s “End of History”. 

To Trump and the China Hawks in his administration, China is a constantly visible red flag.  

Prejudice 

Many westerners do not take Asians seriously. The attacks on Huawei's technology implies a conception that Asians are incapable of inventing a leading technology without copying or cheating. The subtext is both racial and nationalistic. How could Chinese companies, under a centrally led socialist government, achieve innovation ahead of a white led Western Liberal Democratic Capitalist country? So, Huawei couldn't possibly develop 5G in advance of the U.S. without stealing and cheating. Interestingly, it is what the British said about Americans during the late 1800's. The embedded conviction is that Asians, like Hispanics, Blacks, other minorities and women are inferior to whites. 

In terms of Covid-19, many in the West saw it, and still see it, in terms of ethnocentric racial and cultural stereotyping - the superior white, liberal democratic capitalist countries, must by definition, enjoy the upper hand in crisis management - therefore - it is inconceivable that China has been able to bring the coronavirus under far better control than their “superiors”. The only explanation left is that China must have either falsified its data or it was all a sinister plot.  

On the Chinese side, this, in turn, has led to a teachable moment. As many "superior" countries struggle, and continue to struggle, with their pandemic response, China has taken quick and effective action to deal with the pandemic and its economic costs. Confidence in their country and the central government, which has always been high, is now growing. 

In contrast foreign and domestic approval of the U.S. Government, which has been historically low, except before wars, has recently gone even lower. 

Trump’s campaign promise was to “Make America Great Again”, unfortunately that idea is based on a past dominated by white men, something extremely problematic and “tone deaf” for minorities, women and others struggling with prejudice.  

At an ABC Town Hall meeting on September 16th, 2020 Trump was asked by Carl Day:  

“When has America been great for African Americans in the ghetto of America?"… "Are you aware of how tone-deaf that comes off to the African American community?"  

Trump’s response was to indicate he has “tremendous” support in the black community, itself a fabrication, since he only received 8% of the Black vote in 2016.  

Internationally, the case of Ms. Meng and Huawei are a perfect example of Trump’s “thug politics” approach to international matters. Ms. Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, was in essence kidnapped, and is being held for political ransom, in a scenario out of a Medieval tale.   

In Trump’s own words: “If I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made - which is a very important thing - what’s good for national security, I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary.” 

The political nature of this case is evident in every aspect of the case. 

Canada was cherry picked by the U.S. because other nations weren’t interested in the case, not to mention assisting with it.  

Ms. Meng’s and Huawei’s cases are political and economic attacks against a man  and a company that  achieve excellence, by investing more than 50% of profits into research and development and a tough company culture that demanded diligence and excellence. 

Huawei’s sin, like China’s, was its success. By developing 5G ahead of the US it broke ideological notions of America’s superiority and the racial stereotypes about, clever but not creative, Asians. It was inconceivable to people like Trump that a Chinese man, his company, or his nation could surpass America’s efforts in a critical industry. For someone like Trump, the only solution is to put “these people back in their place”.  

The “dark road” taken by the incumbent administration is removing the fundamental American moral, ethical or legal sign posts, trading them  for political and economic expediency.  

Hopefully, a new election will create the opportunity for a reset and a recovery to the values we need to sustain an interconnected and for the complex world during a time of great hardship.  

However, there are structural problems linked to the pride and prejudice in American Exceptionalism that need to be addressed before things will get better. Let us hope they do.  

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