Moving beyond the era of American exceptionalism

·5 min read

Watching the debate surrounding whether Russia will invade Ukraine or not, one would be forgiven for thinking this discussion was taking place 10 or even 15 years ago. Many pundits seem to assume (save for the exceptional few) that American power is what it once was, that neither the world nor Russia have changed and Washington can change Moscow's course. This is sadly misguided.

The world has changed, yet our notions of American exceptionalism and worldview have not and, as a result, artificially constrain our understanding of the world stage, our policy and our ability to act.

At its core, foreign policy is predicated on power, its perception and reality, and interests. If you strip away the softer elements, that is all that remains. America's view of itself is based on truly unique circumstances. Washington emerged from the Second World War an industrial powerhouse amidst a field of devastated allies and found itself fortunate enough to be standing against an adversary who chose poorly when it came to economic systems.

As a result, Washington believed it could (and believed it was seen to be able to) shape international events, avert crises and drive global stability. In many cases, it did. Without question, America was a force for good and a beacon for those seeking to throw off the yoke of communist oppression and pursue freedom and democracy.

The reality is, however, that the global balance of power has shifted both by omission and by commission. The rise of China, globalization, the emergence of anti- or counter-democratic forces in former democratic states, and America's own 20-year war on terror have all contributed to the disruption of the playing field. This is neither the result of the policies of Democratic or Republican administrations alone, but their actions have collectively contributed to this dynamic. President George W. Bush's response to 9/11 and the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, President Barack Obama's poor handling of successive crises, the tone and style of President Donald Trump, the country's response to COVID-19 and Biden's disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan have all caused allies in Europe and Asia to question Washington's reliability - a dangerous position for the country.

Yet, as this playing field shifted, Washington remained slow to recognize this development. As a result, America continues to use the same tools to ineffectually attempt to affect change. Washington also fails to understand the countries and crises with which it engages, often reverting back to tired, old and inaccurate tropes despite bodies of expertise counseling against simplistic and hyperbolic narratives.

Is it any wonder then that NATO allies question America's reliability? Or that sanctions fail to alter Moscow's behavior? Or that China's rise is uncontested and its influence is altering the landscape of free speech? Washington assumes that the perception and reality of its geopolitical power, its global attractiveness and its ability to shape events have not changed, but they very much have. By contrast, Beijing, Moscow and others understand that the playing field has changed and have identified and exploited our weaknesses.

This is then part of the reason that Washington feels stuck with its efforts stymied and finds itself on the backfoot; and why for much of the country there exists a palpable disenfranchisement with America's role in the world. If D.C. policymakers are challenged in understanding what is going on in the world and how to affect change, what hope is there for the average Michigander or Iowan?

America is an indispensable nation, but only if policymakers shift their understanding and framing of the country's power and appreciate the limits of the art of the possible. There are, of course, tactical and operational things that can be done to aid our allies and partners around the world, actions that would demonstrate much more leadership and seriousness than press releases or the forthcoming Summit of Democracy. American leadership is truly valuable and a force for good, but only so long as it is backed by power directed toward realistic, politically viable, goals.

On China, as Elbridge Colby writes in his book "The Strategy of Denial," America can lead an anti-hegemonic alliance to prevent regional dominance. This need not, in turn, mean American dominance, but merely the prevention of Beijing's hegemony. This means investing smartly in our military capabilities (something Chris Brose discusses in his book "The Kill Chain"), strengthening our regional alliances in a meaningful way and pushing back on China's use of commercial and economic interests to suborn America's partners (and America at home). This also means using all available tools of national power - the world now is far more interested in Silicon Valley and Wall Street than the proclamations of Foggy Bottom, yet we fail to marshal those sources of power to Washington's advantage.

On Russia, Biden's dual strategy approach to Moscow is sensible - engaging with NATO allies and sharing intelligence on Russia's maneuvers, while continuing high-level engagements with the Kremlin. It will, however, only achieve results if the United States understands Moscow's interests, and engages from a position of strength, something that has not yet been established. Why? Washington continues to assume the power dynamic has not changed and therefore the same tools will work (when they do not), and that it is dealing with the Russia of a decade ago. It is not.

Perhaps more than anything, Washington needs to realistically reflect on its geopolitical power and adapt accordingly by adopting a measure of humility. For too long the United States has operated without making true trade-offs by merely assuming it can do everything everywhere, that its power and prestige are enough and the world has not changed. The reality today is much different and continuing to assume the contrary is the height of strategic arrogance and is dangerous for global security.

Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a George Mason University National Security Institute Visiting Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.

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