Exceptionalism As A Foreign Policy Justification

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Logan Albright via Mises Canada blog,

American exceptionalism is a common theme in any policy debate surrounding the United States. We have to protect American manufacturing, protectionists ignorant of economics argue, because America is exceptional. We have to pass expansive welfare programs to care for the poor, because America is exceptional. Most recently, we have to intervene in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, because America is exceptional. Why the imputed exceptionalism requires one country to police the world and meddle in matters that do not concern them remains unexplained.

As an American myself, I do not dispute that claim that the it is, in many ways, an exceptional country. What I do object to is the use of that claim to justify bad policy. America is exceptional because of policy, not as a justification for it.

The exceptional situation America finds itself in is a result of the exceptional circumstances of its founding and the way it has treated its people throughout the years. No other country was created under the specific intention to limit government and preserve individual liberty.

These circumstance are what allowed the country to grow into an economic powerhouse, a world superpower, and a bastion of freedom that draws immigrants from all over the planet, seeking a better life.

But every time the government cites these exceptional qualities as the reason to curtail liberty, to expand government, or to drop bombs around the world, all the things that make America great are subtly diminished.

Those who are advocating for the U.S. to take military action in Ukraine, either directly or indirectly, seem to think there is a moral duty to so, and that to do otherwise somehow diminishes the nation’s greatness. But it must be remembered that these international interventions would not be voluntary, and therefore could not properly be described as moral. The people who make the decisions about whether to act or not are not the ones who do the actual fighting. They do not volunteer their own money to support the cause. They are not the ones who face the consequences of economic sanctions such as embargoes, imposed on others against their wills. All of these policies involve a few designated potentates using force and coercion to dictate what others should do. It’s hard to take the moral high ground in such a situation.

But even if we overlook the rather major point that the lives in play are the unwilling pawns of government force, what does exceptionalism have to do with moral duty? Does great power, as the Spider Man films assert, come with an obligation of great responsibility? Or to put it another way, does weakness excuse inaction? If exceptionalism uniquely demands action, then surely we must also conclude that ordinariness absolves a nation of moral responsibility. That does not seem to me to be a logical conclusion.

A weak man is not excused for failing to stand up to injustice when he sees it. Similarly, a powerful man is not uniquely obligated to take action simply because he can. Morality is a constant that doesn’t depend on the relative power of a moral agent vis a vis his circumstances.

None of this is meant to comment on the relative justice or injustice of Vladimir Putin’s actions or the situation in Crimea – I am not in a position to know the extent to which the peninsula’s secession was voluntary as opposed to coerced – but I am merely making the point that “American exceptionalism” is not a sufficient justification for an interventionist foreign policy.

When discussing American exceptionalism, we should always frame it in the context of the statement: “America is exceptional because we don’t tell people what to do.” Not: “America is exceptional, so we should get to tell people what to do.” The more public policy is guided by the latter statement, the less true the former becomes.