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 that countries transitioning to democracy will have greater political stability and be more peaceful. As one concrete example of this policy, the National Endowment for Democracy is a quasi-governmental institution that provides funding for countries (such as Venezuela) on an annual basis. However, as Aberystwyth University Professor Milja Kurki has argued, democracy promotion is often given according to Western models that do not reflect the target countries’ political thought on democracy. Policymakers’ basic assumptions regarding this model result in a paradox of an undemocratic encouragement of a wholly foreign democratic system to be adopted regardless of geography and history. Deeply ingrained ideas of American Exceptionalism and the superiority of American values make it easy for rhetoric such as “extend[ing] peace and prosperity around the globe” to sound both self-evident and progressive. However, the reality of creating policy is much more nuanced and complex than a simple expansion of democracy.
Exceptionalism causes other problems besides lazy policymaking and subconscious assumptions. Namely, it blinds average Americans to the fact that America is a world hegemon that throws its weight around everywhere in an effort to remain completely unchallenged. We assume that our “leadership” is beneficial, and therefore it is hard for us to see some foreign perspectives that see the US as an invasive, violent power at worst and a meddling annoyance at best. Our mistakes and overreaches are far more obvious to them than they are to us.
Countries with current US military bases
Similarly, Exceptionalism causes an unconscious acceptance of the necessity of the military-industrial complex. The US tries to act as the world’s policeman, exhausting its power trying to quench fires in every region of the world. Our country has the most powerful military, the biggest economy, and a remarkably secure territory due to favorable geography. Regardless, no perceived threat is permitted to exist anywhere in the world, including possible future threats. Pursuit of global primacy began with a massive defense buildup and arms races in the early stages of the Cold War, and America has maintained its enormous military budget and bases all across the world under the auspices of the war on terror. This strategy of primacy is accepted without much critical thought, as America is assumed to be acting in the world’s best interest by providing security and spreading ideas such as liberty, equality, and the rule of law. In this way, major international events have no effect on the unchanging rationale behind the military-industrial complex.
Besides blinding policymakers and citizens to the realities of an overextended military and hegemonic policies, Exceptionalism limits how almost all politicians think about foreign policy and thus our range of choice.
Besides blinding policymakers and citizens to the realities of an overextended military and hegemonic policies, Exceptionalism limits how almost all politicians think about foreign policy and thus our range of choice. For example, Barack Obama, elected as an anti-war candidate, seemed more concerned with how to make the War on Terror covert than how to establish peace. Obama, by his own declaration, is a firm believer in America’s leadership. While drone strikes and somewhat greater multilateralism may seem like a smarter strategy than his predecessor, his underlying approach is unchanged.
The ingrained character of American Exceptionalism creates easy rhetoric that overstates commitment to founding values, disguises concerns over power and hegemony, justifies a strong military-industrial complex, and establishes an unquestioned devotion to primacy and leadership as America’s proper duty in the world. The majority of debates focus on how America should lead, not if it should or why. However, America now stands at a crossroads in terms of whether it should continue to support the global order that it helped create.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will take the US in a more isolationist direction, adjust to more typical Republican policies, or muddle through in a hazy mess of incompetence. However, I have little faith in any of those choices to “make American foreign policy great again”. I believe that the US can continue to be a leader in the world while scaling back our current excesses. Even Obama recognized that “almost every great world power has succumbed” to an overextension of its goals and resources. On the other hand, pursuing isolationist policies is no longer possible in today’s globalized and interconnected world: for the US to largely withdraw would be a complete abdication of power and influence, one that would greatly increase instability in a world already reeling from it.
Having recognized the fallacies of our current foreign policies, which mostly stem from ideas of American Exceptionalism, we can pursue a more moderate foreign policy that asserts influence while renouncing imperialism. The world is already shifting away from the American century to a more multipolar world; trying desperately to regain the self-appointed position of leader of the free world will cause more harm than good. Going along with the wave of history may not be psychologically satisfying, but it is inevitable. We can either choose to adjust our policies now (saving time, money, and effort), or be forced to later.
What should the specifics of this new foreign policy be? Our focus should be on expanding the range of options that policymakers can choose from in choosing policy and responding to crises. Since so many think about foreign policy in similar ways today, our current range of choice is quite limited. For this reason, perhaps a new foreign policy should avoid doctrinal coherence or specific goals in order to inculcate a new spirit of debate and open-mindedness. For now, we should focus on controlling Trump’s erraticism and spreading awareness of the shortcomings of our current foreign policy. However, I highly recommend this policy paper from the CATO Institute to see what some of these alternative policy choices might look like. Whatever your personal foreign policy inclination, the United States currently needs a vibrant debate about our role in the world and our future priorities and goals.
Yalta Conference photo is public domain
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