The dangers of American exceptionalism

The US policies are increasingly compelling small countries with a heightened sense of vulnerability to devise strategic deterrents to ward off potential US aggression, which in turn negatively impacts the global security architecture. Source: AP

The US policies are increasingly compelling small countries with a heightened sense of vulnerability to devise strategic deterrents to ward off potential US aggression, which in turn negatively impacts the global security architecture. Source: AP

In his recent New York Times op-ed on Syria, Vladimir Putin didn’t explicitly question America’s credentials to claim exceptionalism, but that’s actually the core issue.

One portion of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent opinion-piece in the New York Times on Syria that raised much stir in intellectual circles was the concluding part regarding American exceptionalism where he wrote, “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.”

Putin didn’t explicitly question America’s credentials to claim exceptionalism, but that’s actually the core issue. Take income inequality, for instance. In a recent CNNMoney panel on inequality, former US Labor Secretary and Berkeley professor Robert Reich made the shocking statement that the 400 richest people in the US have more wealth than the bottom 150 million put together. It’s not only about income inequality. It’s also about lifespan inequality, education inequality. And the templates of inequality multiply rapidly when it comes to the race relations in America. The fact remains that racial prejudice is rampant in American society. 

America’s self-esteem of being exceptional doesn’t stand scrutiny. Killing takes place in America at an average of 87 times each day. America holds by far the world record in the number of wars it fought and acts of aggression committed. It is the only country that has used nuclear weapons. All this would make America “exceptional” only in a most negative sense. 

Look at the consequences that have followed in the wake of policies pursued out of notions of exceptionalism. Much of the world believes that the US indulges in hypocrisy when it speaks of exceptionalism and this has lowered America’s prestige all over the world. Washington speaks of the application of “values” only selectively. There is one yardstick for Iran and another for Saudi Arabia; one response to Bahrain but a contrarian response to Syria; an exacting standard for Gaza but seamless latitude for Israel’s acts of violence  – and yet these are entities in the same region. 

The US policies are increasingly compelling small countries with a heightened sense of vulnerability to devise strategic deterrents to ward off potential US aggression, which in turn negatively impacts the global security architecture. Meanwhile, the notion of exceptionalism has prompted the US to act outside international law and the UN Charter and this sets dangerous precedents and weakens the world body, which despite its flaws still remains the only available forum for fostering peace and development. 

The doctrine of American exceptionalism got badly exposed in Afghanistan and Iraq where the US’ prescriptive approach failed to impress the native populations rooted in their history, tradition and culture. Ironically, the measure of success of the US interventions in these two countries has finally come to be measured today in terms of the efficacy with which the US is able to extricate its forces without disarray and confusion from the war zone. It is doubtful if these two countries would ever become genuine practitioners of democracy by the American norms.

President Barack Obama’s claim that American ideals and principles make the country “different” and “exceptional” is a dangerous doctrine. It echoes an equally evocative doctrine that was expounded some eight decades ago in Europe which disastrous consequences. The belief in oneself as “exceptional” is always fraught with the danger of prompting oneself to excessive actions. Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are living memories of horrible crimes committed by the US in the downstream of actions undertaken on the pretext of exceptionalism.

The US military interventions in sovereign countries have very often ended up exacerbating already-complicated situations – Haiti, Liberia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq are examples. This is what makes the Syrian problem an issue of exceptional importance. Arguably, American exceptionalism paved the way for the tragic civil war in Syria. Thanks to the timely Russian diplomatic initiative, another direct military intervention by the Obama administration in the name of exceptionalism was stopped on its track. Now a way needs to be found for Syria to regain its identity as an exceptionally secular pluralistic society where many religions and ethnic identities co-existed peacefully.

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