Stephen M. Walt

American exceptionalism: a realist view

Americans like to think the United States is different (i.e., "better") than other countries. The idea that the United States is "exceptional," a "shining city on a hill," or destined by Providence to play a special role in world history, is a popular theme among politicians and widely embraced by ordinary U.S. citizens. As Karen ...

ginnerobot/flickr
ginnerobot/flickr

Americans like to think the United States is different (i.e., "better") than other countries. The idea that the United States is "exceptional," a "shining city on a hill," or destined by Providence to play a special role in world history, is a popular theme among politicians and widely embraced by ordinary U.S. citizens. As Karen Tumulty pointed out in an interesting Washington Post piece last week, the idea of "American exceptionalism" has also become yet another stick that conservatives are using to beat up President Obama, because he supposedly doesn’t think we’re all that unique. (In fact, like most politicians, Obama has praised America’s "exceptional" qualities throughout his career).

Every country has certain unique features and interests, of course, but the idea that any state is truly "exceptional" is sharply at odds with a realist view of international politics. Realism depicts international politics as an anarchic realm, where no agency or institution exists to protect states from each other. As a result,  states must ultimately rely on their own resources and strategies to survive. It is, in other words, a "self-help" world, and this situation forces all states — and especially the major powers — to compete with each other, sometimes ruthlessly. Although realists acknowledge that domestic politics sometimes matters and that there are important differences between different great powers (and different leaders), the most important difference between states is their relative power.

This view obviously over-simplifies a lot, but it also helps us guard against seeing any state as either uniquely virtuous or immune to folly. Because it is a competitive world, even highly principled leaders will end up doing some pretty unprincipled things when they can get away with it, and even cruel despots may be forced to constrain their evil impulses if they are confronted by resolute opposition. In a competitive order, nice people sometimes have to act nasty, and nasty people are sometimes forced to behave better than one might otherwise expect.

This world-view helps insulate realists from the sort of myopic hyperpatriotism that leads others to see their own conduct as moral and justified, yet to see others as evil or aggressive when they do exactly the same thing. To take an obvious example: realists don’t think it is all that surprising that Iran might be interested in a nuclear capability, and don’t immediately assume that its enrichment program is a sign that Tehran has evil intentions. After all, the United States is vastly wealthier, far more secure, and has a much larger conventional military force than Iran does, yet U.S. leaders still think they need several thousand nuclear weapons in order to be truly safe. Yet we don’t think we’re evil or aggressive by spending billions on a large nuclear arsenal; we’re just being prudent.

This perspective also makes realists inherently skeptical about claims to American exceptionalism: we understand that U.S. leaders aren’t always nicer or wiser or more moral than other policymakers. Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, drone strikes, preventive war, etc., may all be regrettable, but realists don’t find them surprising, because we know that states will do lots of bad things when they are a) really scared, and b) think they can get away with it. 

The real difference between the United States and virtually all other countries is that the United States has been unusually secure for much of its history, and very powerful for six decades or more. Realist theory tells you that when a state is really powerful, it will be less constrained by the power of others and it will be able to indulge all sorts of foreign policy whims. It can decide that it has "vital" interests on every continent; it can declare itself to be "indispensable" to almost every important issue, and it can convince itself that it really knows what is good for everyone else in the world. If you’re wrong, it may not matter that much in the short term. If you are really powerful, in short, you can do a lot of stupid things for a long time.  Even when those blunders are costly, the damage will add up slowly and demands for reform may be ignored.  Look at how long it took General Motors to finally go bankrupt: it was obvious for decades that foreign automakers were eating GM’s lunch, yet its management never took the steps that might have keep it competitive.

None of this is to say that the United States doesn’t have certain unique and admirable traits. On balance, I’d argue that its role on the world stage has been positive one, and other governments (or leaders) might have acted in far worse ways had they been in a similar position of primacy. But realism is a good antidote to the jingoistic self-congratulation that pervades our political discourse, as well as the powerful tendency to see our own conduct as highly principled, while condemning others when they act in much the same way. Of course, that’s not unique to Americans either.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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