Is America Exceptional?

Vladimir Putin says that the United States isn’t exceptional. Barack Obama says that it is. Who’s right?

This is a question that can’t be answered in a vacuum. A context has to be given to the word “exceptional.” It is really too rarely appreciated that predicates without a subject are downright meaningless.

So it really doesn’t make any sense to ask whether America is exceptional without specifying what it is at which we might be exceptional. There isn’t any such thing as simply being exceptional. One has to be exceptional at hockey, public speaking, dancing, or something else. Perhaps, in theory, one could be exceptional at absolutely everything. But since the United States is not a nation of exceptional tree dwellers, we’ll have to narrow the focus.

President Obama was attempting to justify to the American public his threat to attack Syria when he said that while “America is not the world’s policeman,” and that terrible “things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” [1] still, “when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.” He then added: “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

What Mr. Obama seemed to be saying was that America is exceptional because it is our duty, he believes, to use our military to stop bad things from happening to people in other countries whenever we are able to do so. Presumably, the reason why the word is used in this context, at least if the President was making sense, is that the President believes that it is not the duty of other nations to do the same thing when confronted with the same circumstances.

Mr. Putin took issue with what the President said about America being exceptional in a New York Times editorial. [2] He said,

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

But Mr. Obama doubled down on his view of American exceptionalism in a subsequent speech before the United Nations. “Some may disagree,” he said, “but I believe that America is exceptional – in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.” [3] In other words, because the United States is exceptional, it has the right and duty to engage in military action whenever its political leaders deem it to be in the best interests of the world.

Is this a defensible and coherent position? There are three things to consider in making such an evaluation.

First, the question must be answered as to whether we would be happy to cede this power to another nation that achieves sufficient military capability. China is a nation on the ascendancy. But if China ever achieves a military capability similar to that of the United States, will we gladly accede to a notion that China has the right to engage in military strikes against other nations whenever its leaders deem it to be in the world’s interests? If the answer is “no,” then we must articulate a cogent rationale for why we feel that way.

Is it because we think that only the United States would do it for the right reasons? What are those right reasons? It cannot be that many of us think that we would always do it for the right reasons. The two major political factions in this country savage each other continuously. Few are they with the internal repose to see this political divide born merely out of differences of opinion honestly held. Political opponents in the United States are not just wrong, they are evil. Therefore, it is a near certainty that, whatever action the President takes, half of the country will be strongly opposed to it. The truth is, we won’t be able to agree about what are the right reasons amongst ourselves.

A second consideration is whether we would want our own standards applied to ourselves. Assad has killed children with a chemical weapon. He would say that they were the unfortunate collateral damage of his legitimate defense of the government of Syria. The United States has killed children with air strikes and drones. Naturally, we have called this collateral damage resulting from our appropriate military actions. But let us imagine that there was a country powerful enough to fire missiles at us for doing such things, a country that took no cognizance of what we felt to be in our national interests. Would we acquiesce in the justice of such a nation’s cause should it decide to attack us?

It will be argued that the situation of Syria is different, because the use of chemical weapons is a direct violation of international law. So was the invasion of Iraq. International law requires that military attacks against nations not arising out of self-defense must be authorized by a resolution of the UN Security Council, and there was no such resolution supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Does that mean that if there was a country strong enough to do so, it would be justified in a military strike against us?

The third consideration relates to just that: a U.S. strike against Syria, the proposal for which gave rise to all of this talk about America being exceptional, would be in blatant violation of international law. There is no UN Security Council resolution authorizing such a strike. The UN Charter is a treaty to which the United States is a party, and is, therefore, U.S. law as well as international law. [4]

What are we to say to that? That it doesn’t matter what international law says? That might makes right?

Might makes right: this cannot be what we believe. Is it?

Jack Quirk