American Exceptionalism

Category: World Affairs Topics: Foreign Policy, United States Of America Views: 3633

Many Americans, like the citizens of dominant nations of the past, believe that their way of life is superior and should be shared with other peoples-often at gunpoint. Lately, this American exceptionalism has assumed even more pernicious forms.

Whether called the Bush I administration's "New World Order" or the Clinton administration's "Engagement and Enlargement" or the Bush II administration's effort to "liberate" Afghanistan, Iraq, and perhaps the entire Middle East, using military force to bring democracy and market economies to errant peoples has been a staple of both Democratic and Republican administrations since World War II. Similarly, the Roman, British, Spanish and other empires believed they were civilizing conquered lands with their ways of doing things.

And like the empires of old, soaring U.S. rhetoric often hides ulterior pursuits. For example, the United States is often the rhetorical champion of human rights but, during war, sometimes flouts them. Recently, the United States violated the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners by capturing prisoners outside the Iraqi zone of conflict, and hiding the fact from the International Red Cross. This behavior should not come as a surprise, given the Bush II administration's flagrant attempt to argue that the conventions did not apply to enemy fighters in Afghanistan. The fighters were labeled "enemy combatants" so that they would not get the conventions' protections for prisoners of war. The Afghan prisoners are to be tried in kangaroo military courts that fail to meet both international and U.S. standards of fair judicial process. 

Also, the Bush II administration's flouting of the conventions sent a message to some U.S. military personnel at various prisons, including Abu Ghraib, that abusing detainees was acceptable behavior. 

U.S. pretensions of moral superiority overseas are also belied in other ways. How does invading a sovereign Iraq and deposing its government differ from Saddam Hussein's invasion of a sovereign Kuwait in 1990? Even in the very worst case-Iraqi possession weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons-wouldn't Saddam Hussein have had a right to defend his country with such armaments? Other despotic nations have been allowed by the United States to develop nuclear weapons-the Soviet Union, radical Maoist China, and, most recently, Pakistan. 

Besides, the United States possesses the most capable nuclear arsenal on the planet, has threatened to attack with nuclear weapons on more than one occasion, and is the only nation to have ever used them. This double standard shows that the United States often runs a simplistic and hypocritical Tarzan-style foreign policy: "We good, you bad." People around the world readily identify U.S. hypocrisy, but many Americans can't see that their government sometimes behaves like the empires of old.

For example, Americans would shudder at any comparison between U.S. behavior and that of Imperial Japan during the 1930s. Yet top U.S. decision-makers have alluded several times to one of the major goals of the militarized U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East-access to supplies of oil. Similarly, Imperial Japan romped all over East Asia to gain access to raw materials, including oil, for its industrial economy. In both cases, many economists would say that simply paying the going price will ensure access to oil and other raw materials much more cheaply than paying for the military power needed to maintain the flow of such resources. 

Criticizing the U.S. government's militaristic actions overseas is not the same as denigrating America. America is exceptional. As conservative George Will has said, America is the only nation founded on an ideal. That ideal is liberty for the individual, both politically and economically. The people of the United States have enjoyed freedoms unparalleled in human history. When the United States crusades overseas and attempts to use force to bring such liberties to people who have never before experienced them, it rarely succeeds and even undermines those values at home. Conquered peoples, and the rest of the undemocratic world, merely associate "democracy and free markets" with foreign invasion, thus undermining the spread of individual political and economic freedoms. Meanwhile, every overseas war in which the United States has been embroiled has undermined individual liberties at home. For example, the Bush administration's war on terrorism has given us the draconian PATRIOT Act, which allows more U.S. government snooping into the lives of its citizens. 

Instead of conducting unnecessary, deceptive, hypocritical and counterproductive foreign military adventures, the United States should lead by example. The United States should be a beacon of liberty for other nations to emulate. When the Soviet bloc crumbled, Eastern Europe used American ideals to throw off the shackles of oppression. Thus, the U.S. government should be less insecure about a failure to spread American ideals in the absence of military coercion.

Ivan Eland is the Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California and author of the book, Putting "Defense" Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World.

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Foreign Policy, United States Of America
Views: 3633

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Older Comments:
Thanks to Bill Smith for voicing your
comments in such an articulate way. As you
can see, I agree 100%. The Islamic world has
become a bottomless pit of need. No matter
how much money is given, how many lives are
lost on both sides, all they seem to want is
more, more, more. It's like an ungrateful
teenager who is willing to be supported by his
parents, but then spits at them at every
opportunity. How could a country like Sudan or
Nigeria even, develop food, medicine,
technology without help from the "evil west."?
No way possible -- everyone would be dead
from aids, tb and general influenza if it weren't
for the humanitarian aid paid for by taxpayers
in the U.S. and Mexico. And you think the U.S.
should be ashamed? Hold up the mirror to
yourselves first and you'll see where the
shame belongs.

Thanks for your alternative opinion, Bill Smith, but in all likelihood this Writer does get it. Watch for his name in the opening credits of John Kerry's "My Administration" due out in January. My guess is the writer in question, Dr. Ivan Eland, will be playing the Anti-Feith as Under Secretary of Defense (Policy). If you care to browse on over to you can (currently) see an image of Dr. Eland, as well as an image of my personal favorite out of all the Pagan/Christian emperors - may God be merciful unto him and grant him rest.


Ladies and Gentlemen, typical box-minded living in a fantasy world thinking kind of people, via Bill Smith...

You don't liberate a country by invading it because of a "good hunch" you may have you nincumpoop.

This writer just doesn't get it. We, the people of the United States, are currently having a referendum on our leadership via free and open elections. Unlike the "citizens" of most of the Arab and Muslim countries, the citizens of the US have a voice and actively decide who will lead the nation and how. You should be utterly and completely embarrassed at the current state of affairs in so many of your countries. Maybe you are, but what can you do about it? The answer seems to be nothing, except blame the rest of the world for both your predicament and for trying to dig you out of your own graves of ignorance. You can't even muster up enough dignity to objectively educate your own children and give them the tools to make better lives for themselves than your current generation of self loathing morons has. Instead you continue to incite hatred and violence by airing biased news on the internet and your new cable TV networks.

Interpreting the US invasion of Iraq as imperialistic highlights just how stubbornly stupid the Arab and Muslim world seems to be. We are GIVING our lives and billions and billions of dollars to Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of accepting all of the overwhelmingly good will that's being extended to you by the people of the US and many, many other nations you resort to the lowest levels of cowardice by engaging in terrorism.

We are not imperialists. The Japanese were imperalists. We stopped them, gave them their sovereignty, and rebuilt them with the Marshall Plan. They now have one of the highest standards of living in the world.

In contrast to the Japanese, most Iraqi's live in slums. Even with the largest reserves of the single greatest natural resource in the world, most Arabs and Muslims live in slums. That's pathetic.

What happened to the glorious Islamic Empire of the middle ages? You have become a bunch of pathetic losers. Just look in the mirror.

We sincerely want to help you help yourselves.


A short space but to express a clear and accurate
analysis of actuaql facts exept the concept of
having been built on a ideal wich indeed costed
life of millions from native americans and those
who came before the europeans by at least five
centuries,from west africa and china!!!

I believe exceptionalism is a good thing, its concept helped bring out the end of the evil empires of the past, and I see no reason why history wont repeat itself.