American Exceptionalism in the Age of Trump

Jun 5, 2020 JOSEPH S. NYE, JR.

This article taken from

As the world’s two largest economies, the United States and China are condemned to a relationship that must combine competition and cooperation. For the US, exceptionalism now includes working with the Chinese to help produce global public goods, while also defending values such as human rights.

CAMBRIDGE – In my recent study of 14 presidents since 1945, Do Morals MatterI found that Americans want a moral foreign policy, but have been torn over what that means. Americans often see their country as exceptional because we define our identity not by ethnicity, but rather by ideas about a liberal vision of a society and way of life based on political, economic, and cultural freedom. President Donald Trump’s administration has departed from that tradition.

Of course, American exceptionalism faced contradictions from the start. Despite the founders’ liberal rhetoric, the original sin of slavery was written into the US Constitution in a compromise that allowed northern and southern states to unite.

And Americans have always differed over how to express liberal values in foreign policy. American exceptionalism was sometimes an excuse for ignoring international law, invading other countries, and imposing governments on their people.

But American exceptionalism has also inspired liberal internationalist efforts for a world made freer and more peaceful through a system of international law and organizations that protects domestic liberty by moderating external threats. Trump has turned his back on both aspects of this tradition.

In his inaugural address Trump declared: “America first … We will seek friendship and good will with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” He also said “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example.” He had a good point: When the United States sets a good example, it can increase its ability to influence others.

There is also an interventionist and crusading tradition in American foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson sought a foreign policy that would make the world safe for democracy. John F. Kennedy called for Americans to make the world safe for diversity, but he sent 16,000 US troops to Vietnam, and that number grew to 565,000 under his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Likewise, George W. Bush justified America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq with a National Security Strategy that promoted freedom and democracy.

Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the US has been involved in seven wars and military interventions. Yet, as Ronald Reagan put it in 1982, “regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.”

Avoiding such conflicts has been one of Trump’s more popular policies. He has limited the use of American force in Syria, and wishes to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by election day.

Protected by two oceans, and bordered by weaker neighbors, the US largely focused on westward expansion in the nineteenth century, and tried to avoid entanglement in the global balance of power that was centered in Europe. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, America had become the world’s largest economy, and its intervention in World War I tipped the balance of power.

In the 1930s, American opinion believed intervention in Europe had been a mistake and turned inward toward strident isolationism. With World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt, his successor, Harry S. Truman, and others drew the lesson that the US could not afford to turn inward again. They realized that America’s very size had become a second source of exceptionalism. If the country with the largest economy did not take the lead in producing global public goods, no one else would.

The post-war presidents created a system of security alliances, multilateral institutions, and relatively open economic policies. Today, this “liberal international order” – the basic foundation of US foreign policy for 70 years – is being called into question by the rise of new powers such as China and a new wave of populism within democracies.

Trump successfully tapped this mood in 2016 when he became the first presidential nominee of a major political party to call into question the post-1945 US-led international order, and disdain for its alliances and institutions has defined his presidency. Nonetheless, a recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that more than two-thirds of Americans want an outward-oriented foreign policy.

The US popular mood is to avoid military interventions, but not to withdraw from alliances or multilateral cooperation. The American public is not about to return to the isolationism of the 1930s.

The real question Americans face is whether the US can successfully address both aspects of its exceptionalism: democracy promotion without bayonets and support for international institutions. Can we learn how to promote democratic values and human rights without military intervention and crusades, and at the same time help organize the rules and institutions needed for a new world of transnational threats such as climate change, pandemics, cyber-attacks, terrorism, and economic instability?

Right now, the US is failing on both fronts. Rather than taking a lead on enhancing international cooperation in the fight against COVID-19, the Trump administration is blaming China for the pandemic and threatening to withdraw from the World Health Organization.

China has much to answer for, but turning it into a political football in this year’s US presidential election campaign is domestic politics, not foreign policy. We are not finished with the pandemic, and COVID-19 will not be the last one.

In addition, China and the US produce 40% of the greenhouse gases that threaten humanity’s future. Yet neither country can solve these new national security threats alone. As the world’s two largest economies, the US and China are condemned to a relationship that must combine competition and cooperation. For the US, exceptionalism now includes working with the Chinese to help produce global public goods, while also defending values such as human rights.

Those are the moral questions Americans should debate ahead of this year’s presidential election.

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Emergence of two politico-judicial systems in world affairs is possible, believes a Yale University Professor

Interview by Kayhan KARACA

In an interview to the Council of Europe on the occasion of a conference on European and American constitutionalism, organised in Göttingen, Yale University Professor Jed Rubenfeld stresses that “the European states are more committed to an international system of enforcement and interpretation and implementation than the US is”. He adds, however, that the two systems remain committed to the same fundamental values and ultimately, there is no reason why there must be complete uniformity in the constitutional law of every democratic nation.


Question : There is historic relationship between the European and American constitutional systems but it seems that this relationship has changed since the end of the communist systems in Eastern Europe. What could be the reason for this evolution?

J. Rubenfeld : There have always been differences. Perhaps they are just becoming more visible after 1989. There are two kinds of differences that we could talk about. There are differences on matters of doctrine such as the difference between the American law of free speech and European free speech law. As is well known, the US constitutional system is more protective of speech than are many European states. Similarly with respect to religion the American constitution protects against the establishment of religion in a way that a number of European states constitutional systems do not. The major change that happens after 1989 is not however a matter of doctrine. It is a matter of the developing internationalisation of constitutional protections, especially human rights protections, in Europe, for which there is no parallel in the US.

To understand this development you have to go back before 1989. You have to go back to the Second World War. What develops in Europe after the war is a kind of international constitutionalism, in which constitutional rights and other important principles are shifted to international institutions, which come to play a higher law role – a constitutional role – in Europe. International law systems come to function as a kind of constitutionalism in Europe. This is what did not happen in the United States. The US does not share the same commitment, from 1945 to 1989, to the international system as a system for restraining national self determination. These differences were suppressed during the cold war. But since 1989 this is the difference which has emerged. The European states are more committed to internationalisation as a constitutional matter. They are more committed to an international system as a form of constitutional law with the authority to restrain national power and national self-determination. This is the difference we have begun to see in the last several years. It is perceived as American unilateralism or American defiance of international law. At bottom it is reflective of two different forms of constitutionalism.

Question: So according to you, the interpretation of the death penalty, freedom of speech or human dignity are not the only examples of the difference between the two systems?

J. Rubenfeld : There are of course differences with respect to speech, religion and the death penalty. You can name a couple of more. They are important but not fundamental. They are not what is creating the anxiety that people feel today. What is creating the anxiety is the fact that the American constitutional system is showing some tendency not to be bound by the international law system.

Question : Do you think the war in Iraq has changed something more, especially when we think of the disagreements between the US and some European countries over the role of international law?

J. Rubenfeld : I think there is cause for concern. The question is whether the existing framework for international governance of the use of force is sufficient. I think this question has been on the table since Kosovo when NATO’s intervention was not authorised by the Security Council. I do not believe that Iraq is the first example of this. Iraq is not a sudden departure. We saw a similar state of affairs in Kosovo.

Question : The US is accused of unilateralism by Europe in the field of the application of the international law. Do you believe this accusation is justified?

J. Rubenfeld : The US is in fact less committed to the international form of constitutionalism that the European states have committed themselves to. This will be seen from a European point of view as unilateralism. Unquestionably, the US has shown some unilateralist tendencies on human rights and certain other matters. For instance we have not joined international human rights conventions that virtually every other country in the world has joined. We have refused to subscribe to the Kyoto protocol. We have walked away from the antiballistic missile treaty with Russia. There are several actions the US has taken last several years which demonstrate uncertainty and anxiety about the reliability of the international law system. But the US and Europe are both committed to the same ultimate legal values of rule of law, fundamental protections for individuals, equal protection under law and individual autonomy. So at a fundamental level there is much more congruence than conflict between the deepest principles that the two systems are committed to. But the European states are more committed to an international system of enforcement and interpretation and implementation than the US is. This is what the European states see as unilateralism on the US part.

Question : Is it possible to predict a bicephalous or two different politico-judicial systems in world affairs in a foreseeable future?

J. Rubenfeld : It is a possibility. Indeed with the EU, this two-headed system already exists to some extent. If the European Union succeeds in the way that it seems to be succeeding then you will have a full-blown European system of human rights and economic regulation. This would be a distinct system from the American human rights and economic regulation.

Question : Can those two systems live together without conflict?

J. Rubenfeld : The confrontation risks are very much exaggerated. Fundamentally the two systems are committed to the same values. There may be moments of anxiety and concern, when one system does not follow exactly the rules that the other system would like it to, but this is natural and viable. There may be differences between US and European constitutionalism but there is no reason ultimately why there must be complete uniformity in the constitutional law of every democratic nation.

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