Although present since the country’s origins, American exceptionalism in US foreign policy came in waves during the post-WWII period.
President Obama said during a speech at West Point in 2014 that "the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come… Russia's aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China's economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors."
US Exceptionalism and Its Opponents
By emphasizing America's indispensable role in the world, Obama suggested two truths. First, the US is essential in embodying, spreading, and maintaining an international order that Washington perceives as 'moral' because its values and norms are rooted in liberal democracy, human rights, and free markets. Second, other nations like China and Russia, regardless of how powerful or innovative, can be expected to fade into history due to their lack of 'morality' in both governance and economic systems. This attitude of American exceptionalism occasionally led Washington to overstep during interventions and war at the expense of other countries' national interests. At times, military adventurism tainted Washington’s image abroad, and phases of isolation followed nearly every overextension because of domestic concerns or fatigue.
However, whenever Washington became active in a particular conflict or international discussion during the post-WWII period, it often did so with a sense of moral and material superiority. In short, some American politicians have felt that they knew best and that others should take notes and listen because American values, and the United States as a nation, still are and will continue to be indispensable.
But the US now experiences deep divisions at home, along racial, socioeconomic, and ideological lines. While Trump is the first US President in decades to avoid starting any new wars, he still confronts China and Russia with other instruments such as tariffs, sanctions, harsh rhetoric, and diplomatic campaigns.
While Trump and Obama could not be more different in rhetoric and policy, they both believe America is indispensable. If Obama did not, Trump would not strive to broker peace in places like Kosovo and the Middle East. While negotiations once focused on international law in multilateral settings, the Trump administration reverted to bilateral or regional deals with economic ‘carrots’ rather than military-oriented or political ‘sticks.' Economic incentives or normalization aims to bring peace, lift the middle class, and pull the leaders of countries from the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa closer to the US, and away from China and Russia.
And while Beijing and Moscow share many economic interests, they share commonalities in a general opposition to this ‘indispensable’ US diplomacy, which they feel is tainted by a disingenuous moral superiority that often contradicts itself.
China and Russia find themselves united in opposition to the US, but America’s domestic scene could not be more divided itself. President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden have two different policies on China. Joe Biden's China strategy "is to build a united front of friends and partners to challenge China's abusive behavior, even as we seek to deepen cooperation on issues where our interests converge, like climate change and preventing nuclear proliferation," differing from that of President Trump, who, if re-elected, would have likely continued the trade war and pushed for additional ways to hold Beijing ‘accountable’ for COVID-19, which he calls the ‘Chinese plague.’ Under a Biden presidency, assuming he keeps his word on building a coalition to challenge China, we already see the potential for 'two camps of friends' throughout the globe: one that is pro-US and counters China economically and politically, and one that is pro-Chinese and resembles the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), with Russia as a close partner.
Pragmatism as an Alternative?
China and Russia both oppose the US-led world order because they advocate for multipolarity, which requires greater regionalization, and the lack of a global hegemon that dictates international norms. It was President Xi who recently dismissed America’s indispensability and claimed that “any act of unilateralism, monopolism and bullying would not work and would only lead to a dead end.”
Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views Washington's foreign policy as imperialist. The Kremlin also argues that Washington spreads Russophobia in Europe, a practice that dissuades European countries from maintaining a healthy relationship with Russia. This joint opposition to US foreign policy brings China and Russia to agree on Venezuela, North Korea, Kosovo, Syria, and Iran. While still inferior to the US in both economic and military terms, China and Russia believe that no national government or an alliance of nations should actively meddle in another country's internal affairs. They claim that international laws or humanitarian concerns cannot trump a nation's constitution or the legal system. In sum, Beijing and Moscow demand autonomy from Washington’s worldview, while the US accuses both countries of meddling in its elections.
Who should the global citizen believe?
China and Russia reject aspects of moral universalism in their foreign policies and instead pursue political pragmatism and multipolarity as a viable international model for the future. In this scenario, each region will contain a local hegemonic state that will then interact with counterparts worldwide. President of Russia Vladimir Putin recently suggested this when he said that “in terms of its economic weight and political influence, China is actively moving towards the status of a superpower. Germany is moving in the same direction.”
Countries will engage in more bilateral agreements or form regional forums instead of working through the United Nations or other US-influenced international organizations. With its failed macroeconomic policies, weak supranational institutions, and hidden bureaucracies, the neoliberal world order birthed the most recent populist movement. That is why Trump calls Joe Biden a ‘typical politician’ as an insult on the debate stage. President Trump does oppose the American diplomacy of the past – deal-making that favored multilateralism and neoliberal economic policies, but often waged war in the name of humanitarianism. The foreign policy was always muddled, and that lack of transparency frustrated the electorate and encouraged them to oust the ‘typical politician.’ When compared to Biden, Trump is somewhat of an anti-war candidate.
Regionalization will dismantle global supply chains' prevailing corporate structure, which proved to be fragile after COVID-19 emerged. Why was America dependent on China for nearly 97 percent of its antibiotics, blood pressure pills, and other medicine? Therefore, while regionalization will dismantle American exceptionalism in the foreign policy space, it will simultaneously strengthen national security by protecting important industries and bringing them home for quality middle-class jobs.
However, China will remain a threat to the United States, especially as tensions intensify. No matter how much Beijing ‘liberalizes’ its economy, the ideological shadow associated with the PRC’s history, accomplishments, traditions, and future will likely only irritate Washington more and more. And despite the US’s problems with the CCP, such as mass surveillance, discrimination toward minorities, and questionable trade practices, these details are ultimately not what fuels the China-US rivalry. The ideological divide between Beijing and Washington is rooted in their disagreements about the future of the coming world order. The US will not be able to force its morals and worldview, whether genuine or not, in a multipolar world. Regionalization will weaken Washington’s firm grasp in Europe or the Middle East, and it will open places to Chinese and Russian influence. Still, overall, it will create both new opportunities and room for conflict for everyone.