Taking Exception

Taking Exception

Stephen M. Walt’s myth-busting piece about American exceptionalism ("The Myth of American Exceptionalism," November 2011) represents the sort of analysis that makes a hobbyhorse of deconstructing America’s founding. The United States was and remains exceptional not because of its power, accomplishments, or inspiring tropes (as Walt seems to define "exceptionalism"), but insofar as Americans remain committed to the country’s founding principles.

Properly understood, American exceptionalism captures the unique nature of a political order based on universal principles of human liberty and equal natural rights. These ideas cannot be disproved. Nor should Americans’ steady adherence to them be ignored. Since 1776, these principles have guided the United States’ attempts, imperfect at times, to stand for freedom and justice in the world. If one is looking for examples in U.S. foreign policy, how about the leadership Americans showed in defeating the Barbary corsairs off North Africa in 1805 and 1816, which helped bring about the end of white slavery and piracy in the region? How about America’s commitment to ending European imperialism in North America through the Monroe Doctrine, which promoted a new system of justice for one-third of the globe?

In the 20th century, the United States opposed imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and Soviet Russia — powers that went undefeated until American involvement helped tip the scales in favor of America’s dearly held ideas, ones that have informed and should inform its interests.

Modern perversions of these diplomatic traditions do not invalidate the foundations of American statecraft. By focusing too much on the last 50 years of U.S. foreign policy, Walt denies America the surest way to put its diplomacy on a more prudent path.

Today, American grand strategy is indeed undergoing an intellectual crisis. Unfortunately, Walt has not identified the problem; his improvident dismissal of American exceptionalism is part of the problem.

Graduate Fellow
Heritage Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Stephen M. Walt replies:

Marion Smith’s letter exemplifies precisely the sort of reflexive jingoism I criticized in my article. He offers no evidence to challenge my facts or interpretations, and the historical examples that he cites do not help his case. Few Latin Americans would call the Monroe Doctrine a policy that brought "justice" to the Western Hemisphere, which is hardly surprising in light of the United States’ numerous military interventions and support for assorted military dictatorships there. Similarly, the U.S. interventions in World War I and World War II were driven primarily by balance-of-power considerations rather than high ideals. Has Smith forgotten that the United States stayed out of both wars until it was directly attacked and that its most important ally in World War II — in terms of its overall contribution to defeating the Third Reich — was the Soviet Union, a totalitarian dictatorship led by a brutal mass murderer?

America has a number of unique features, as I noted in my article. It possesses unprecedented power and enjoys an unusually high level of security. These traits give U.S. leaders the freedom to meddle in many parts of the world, sometimes to good effect but often with disastrous consequences. Americans have no monopoly on wisdom or virtue, and the United States will never manage to address its various shortcomings or preserve its past achievements if Americans do not see both clearly. Smith seems content to bask in a comfortable national mythology. I prefer to see things as they are, in the hope of making them better.