President Trump’s approach to foreign policy, so far, has been largely haphazard and incoherent. His tendency to speak off the cuff and his utter lack of knowledge have shaken bipartisan, decades-old foreign policy goals, from the two-state solution to temporarily questioning the “one China” policy. Notably, he has offended and scared allies, while emboldening Russia and China to gain greater influence on the world stage as the US considers stepping back. Already, multiple members of his Cabinet have contradicted his more unorthodox ideas and have been sent to foreign countries to calm shaken alliances. While it is too early to define the scope of what Trump’s changes to foreign policy will be, he has introduced new foreign policy ideas into the political spectrum. However, they are not the changes that need to be made.
Leaving Trump aside for the moment, the United States has had a remarkably consistent approach to foreign policy since World War II. As self-styled leader of the free word, the US has taken the world’s central problems of prosperity, development, security, and human rights upon itself. While this approach made sense in the postwar period, there has been little debate over changing this conception of America’s role in the world for many decades, which can be dangerous for the democratic process. Even when Democrats and Republicans debate foreign policy, they only address how to attain certain goals, not what they should be or why they are worth pursuing. After all, most Americans only pay attention to foreign policy once huge blunders are made, such as the invasion of Iraq for Bush and Obama’s infamous “red line” on Syria.
Why has this singular conception of America’s role in the world persisted for so long? To answer this question, we must examine why the US acts the way it does abroad. While a variety of reasons are often given, the absolutist character of American Exceptionalism forms the backbone of our policy.
American Exceptionalism is a broad concept, but it can essentially be boiled down to the idea that America is a special and unique nation that is a force for good in the world. Many Americans instinctively see American history as unique: our role as a “grand experiment” heralded a spread of democracy and thus freedom and liberty across the globe. This idea has morphed into a sort of American duty: we must try to transform the world, often in our own image, to make it a better place. Subconsciously, all other nations’ histories, ideas, and goals become inferior. As a result of this ideology, debate is mostly shut down. This kind of consensus is particularly dangerous for democracy, which depends on debate and eventual compromise to determine the public good. Without this, all that is left is a continuation of the status quo.
Policymakers, in essence, lazily expect foreign countries to adopt American models in order to develop, and those that refuse are assumed to have bad intentions. Exceptionalism provides a set of ideas which becomes subconscious assumptions over time. These deeply-held beliefs justify current US foreign policy, which creates a lack of criticism and contention over America’s proper role and conduct in the world.
This kind of lazy thinking is most striking in the field of democracy promotion. For the US, spreading democracy is seen as benefiting foreign countries by expanding individual freedoms and civil rights. There is also hope