RIP American Exceptionalism, 1776-2018

Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia marks an unprecedented turn in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

The lights temporarily go out in the Cabinet Room as U.S. President Donald Trump talks about his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during a meeting with House Republicans at the White House on July 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The lights temporarily go out in the Cabinet Room as U.S. President Donald Trump talks about his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during a meeting with House Republicans at the White House on July 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When Benjamin Franklin went to France on a mission to win support for America’s fledging revolution, his fur hat intrigued Parisians, spurring emulation. But the fashion choice was also a considered statement of the distinct values of his country. From the very beginning, the affirmation of republican probity has remained a touchstone for U.S. diplomacy, just as a sense of the United States as a nation “conceived in liberty” has informed Americans’ understanding of their place in the world. As citizens of the “freest of all nations,” as Ulysses S. Grant put it, Americans favored “people struggling for liberty and self-government.”

It’s true that United States became in the 20th century an imperial republic, but even then, it disavowed conquest and subjugation. Liberation and emancipation became the refrain for America’s many wars, animated by President Woodrow Wilson’s refrain that the United States battles tyrants but emancipates ordinary people. The United States would even strive to elevate and redeem the citizens of the Axis powers it defeated in 1945. After 9/11, the trope became entrenched, as President George W. Bush aimed to sever al Qaeda from Islam and Iraqis from their president. “The tyrant will soon be gone,” Bush promised Iraqis. “The day of your liberation is near.” What other conquering power has code-named a major military operation for the liberation of the invaded, as Bush did with Iraq? (Doubtless it did not occur to Hitler’s high command to dub Operation Barbarossa “Operation Soviet Freedom.”)

Such rhetoric was so pervasive that it became easy to tune out. The Wilsonian inheritance became an ideological muzak—a pervasive drone but not a captivating melody. But Americans should today pause to marvel anew at what was once familiar, because their present circumstances have become much stranger.

Since the ascent of the United States to global preeminence, the U.S. presidents have been high priests of liberty and emancipation. Standing beside Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last week, U.S. President Donald Trump took a different line. Rejecting American exceptionalism, he declared American equivalence, even American complicity. The United States, Trump insisted, is to blame for the deterioration in relations that has followed Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and his systematic (and successful) efforts to subvert the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Trump’s words were shocking but utterly predictable. The day before the now-infamous press conference, the president characterized special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into the election interference—a “rigged witch hunt”—as an unreasonable provocation to Russia.

Trump’s conduct presents a startling contrast to that of the last president to appear in Helsinki under contentious circumstances. Many Americans opposed Gerald Ford’s decision to sign in 1975 the Helsinki Final Act, a multilateral agreement that critics lambasted as a sop to the Soviet Union. Ford opted for engagement, but he permitted no doubt as to the values that he served. Staring Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev squarely in the eyes, Ford in Helsinki proclaimed the “deep devotion of the American people and their government to human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Ford calculated that strategic engagement with the Soviet Union would do better service to the cause of human liberty than would standoffish estrangement, and history would prove him right.

This time feels different. As the evidence accumulates, it is becoming harder and harder to resist the conclusion that Trump represents a radical repudiation of long-standing and even foundational commitments. Trump in the hot summer of 2018 has embraced tyrants and strongmen. He has posited implicit and explicit equivalences between the United States and some of the planet’s worst regimes. He has denigrated allies throughout the democratic world and, even worse, impugned the very idea of the West as an international formation built upon the shared inheritance of the Enlightenment. What we are experiencing, as a result, feels less like the regular oscillations between pragmatism and idealism that have recurred throughout the history of U.S. foreign relations and more like a paradigm shift.


Any assessment of the present situation must begin with frank recognition of earlier departures from Wilsonian strictures. The identification of the United States with the cause of liberty has precluded neither lapses nor catastrophes in the practice of foreign policy. Since the nation’s mid-20th-century ascent to superpower status, the United States has experienced at least three kinds of departure from its oft-avowed emancipatory ideals: collaborations, miscalculations, and engagements.

Let’s start with the collaborations. On recurrent occasion, realistic calculations of national interest have led to compromise with bloodthirsty regimes. Some instances have been notorious and consequential. In 1941, to cite the most famous such collaboration, the United States aligned itself with Joseph Stalin to defeat Adolf Hitler. During the 1970s, the United States cultivated a relationship with the People’s Republic of China—still in the late throes of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution—to tilt the Cold War’s balance of power. Such grand strategic calculations may or may not be unsavory, but they are consistent with tradition and even defensible on ethical grounds. The practice of collaboration with not so like-minded states dates all the way back to 1776—and Franklin’s efforts to build an alliance with an absolutist France. Nor is it self-evident that the renunciation of such collaborations of convenience would even be an ethical course, as the counterfactual prospect of U.S. abstention from World War II suggests.

Less defensible are the miscalculations: those alignments with brutal regimes into which decision-makers have fallen as a result of distorted, exaggerated, and unrealistic assessments of threat and necessity. The examples are many, especially from the Cold War. Having mistaken nationalism for communism, the United States supported a coup in Iran in 1953 and, for two decades thereafter, bolstered Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a brutal authoritarian. In Guatemala in 1954, the United States replayed the script. Even more consequential would be South Vietnam, where the association of U.S. interests with a “developmental” authoritarian regime led the United States to wage war and, even worse, commit war crimes. The miscalculations continued to the Cold War’s end. President Ronald Reagan may have spoken a mellifluous Wilsonian creed, but his misplaced sense of Central America’s centrality led to collaboration with despots. Even President Jimmy Carter made compromises, such as when he took sides in the dispute over Cambodia’s United Nations seat. That controversy was complex and the stakes mostly symbolic, but considerations of diplomatic nicety and geopolitical interest led even the human rights president to align with Pol Pot. Often tragic, those miscalculations that have tethered the United States to brutal regimes have, on the whole, also been regrettable.

More complex have been those engagements wherein U.S. decision-makers have engaged oppressive regimes with the expectation of accelerating reform. The political scientist Jeane Kirkpatrick in 1979 delivered a famous defense of collaboration with authoritarian regimes, on the grounds that such states were both susceptible to reform and a bulwark against the irredeemable, totalitarian left. Democratic transitions in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan in the 1980s tended to corroborate the first part of Kirkpatrick’s hypothesis, although her insistence that communist regimes are incapable of similar evolution remains more contestable, especially after 1989. Still, the evidence is sufficient to sustain a debate between those who believe that engagement fosters change, as President Barack Obama argued when he traveled to Havana, and those who insist, like Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in the case of Cuba, that only tough ostracism is capable of stimulating change.

Rooted in the republic’s revolutionary origins, the presumption that the United States is destined to be an emancipator of nations, whether by example, influence, or intervention, has been a potent, if imperfect, compass for U.S. foreign policy. The notion has often been (dis)honored in the breach. Over 70 years as a superpower, the United States has colluded with despotic regimes, despoiling the ideals that Wilson’s presidential heirs have avowed. The strident performance of righteousness has also spawned calamitous results, as in George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. And, yet, the presumption that the United States stands against tyranny—and alongside tyranny’s victims—remains a vital touchstone of national identity and an essential normative basis for foreign policy. What the United States would be without the guiding influence of Wilsonian ideology is difficult to contemplate. We may today be in the throes of discovery.


Trump has from the outset eschewed the premise of distinctive American virtue. Interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, a cooperative TV host, Trump in 2017 disputed the host’s characterization of Vladimir Putin as a “killer.” “There are a lot of killers,” Trump retorted. “You think our country’s so innocent?” Positing equivalence and deriding exceptionalism, what Trump formulated was the kind of critique that had, theretofore, circulated most easily on the left flanks of academia. In the aftermath of his summit meetings with Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, however, Trump’s disavowal of American righteousness, his forceful rejection of the Wilsonian creed, appears to have been a portentous admission, warranting reflection.

Let’s start with Kim. Entrenched as supreme leader in 2011, he has for nearly seven years presided over the nastiest regime on earth, a vicious system of oppression and extraction. Reasonably comfortable as the Pyongyang elite may be, life for most North Koreans is a vicious and dangerous grind. Those who attempt flight risk imprisonment, torture, and death. Beyond his supreme responsibility for this supernova of depravity, Kim, by many credible accounts, is prone to indulge more peculiar cruelties. Defectors allege that his regime operates a system of sexual slavery. South Korean news agencies report on his predilection for gruesome and exotic methods of execution, including obliteration by anti-aircraft gun. The evidence may be fragmentary, but a parade of astonishing claims indicates that Kim is both a despot and a psychopath—the moral equivalent of Idi Amin.

Enter Donald Trump. Records from their conversations in Singapore may never surface, but no indication has yet appeared that the U.S. president remonstrated with Kim over the dismal plight of human rights in North Korea. Where George W. Bush expressed concern for the enchained North Korean people, Trump has summonsed for Kim an ostentatious affection that has been mostly absent from Trump’s interactions with democratic leaders. Kim, in Trump’s assessment, is a “very talented man” who “loves his country very much.” Confronted by the charge that Kim had “done bad things,” Trump has made familiar recourse to relativism. “Yeah,” Trump responded to Fox News’s Bret Baier, “but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things.”

So lurid was the spectacle of the Trump-Kim summit that it takes effort to focus on the underwhelming substance. Trump’s concessions were crystalline: By meeting with Kim, the president hailed North Korea’s supreme leader as a peer. Then, in a shocking and unilateral move, Trump offered to halt the joint military exercises that undergird South Korea’s security. And what did Kim deliver in return? A vague and unenforceable pledge to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Were this professional wrestling, a vaudeville in which Trump revels, the announcer would’ve declared Rocket Man the Dotard’s conqueror. Yet this is real life, and Trump’s performance in Singapore must be assessed in its historical setting, with its costs weighed against its benefits. Assessed against its outcomes, the encounter should be seen as worse than a miscalculation, for Trump’s capitulation before tyranny did not even try to serve a national interest.

Next came Putin. There are vital differences between North Korea and Russia. One is a murderous totalitarian state, the other a cynical kleptocracy. Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin, and we must be mindful of the differences; confusion risks the hyperbole and false analogies that animate miscalculation in foreign policy. Still, Russia is no supporter of the liberal international order whose future today hangs in the balance. Russian actions in Ukraine and Crimea may be comprehensible, even explicable in light of post-Cold War setbacks, but the fact remains that Putin dismembered a sovereign state and annexed Ukrainian territory in defiance of international law. Putin’s farms of internet trolls spew disinformation, lies, and falsehoods into Western democracies, setting Americans against Americans, Britons against the European Union, and the West into disarray. At home, meanwhile, the Putin regime’s brutality is calibrated—in contrast to North Korea—but Putin’s record leaves no doubt that he rules with an iron fist that clenches a vial of Novichok.

Russia today offers, as during the Cold War, a dark mirror to American ideals. In Putin’s Russia, power tolerates few bounds, public and private interests comingle, and the rule of law bows before the rule of personality. These characteristics make Russia both an antonym to the avowed U.S. values and a plausible model for America’s, and the West’s, own future, should the United States and the broader Western world fail to correct their present course. There exists between Russia and the West a clash of values, but the collision is of a different order from the one that occurred during the Cold War. Then, the West encountered Marxism-Leninism, a rival ideology of progress and an ideological sibling to Enlightenment liberalism. The West now confronts a Russia that stands not for the rule of history over the rule of law, as Lenin did, but for the repudiation of law and progress, even the rejection of history, in the Hegelian sense.

This is the context in which Trump debased himself in Helsinki, where his performance echoed the debacle with Kim. In both summits, Trump put the foes of democracy on a plane of symbolic equality with the president of the United States. Still worse, he espoused a crude and transactional relativism, whereby ideals are at best an irrelevance in foreign policy, at worst an encumbrance. All the while, as he has gripped tyrants tighter, Trump has pushed harder against those core allies that share the liberal commitments that U.S. foreign policy once espoused. Like Putin, Trump has incited domestic opposition to Europe’s remaining liberal democrats, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose liberal backbone and gender seem to make her an object of double suspicion. In another of last week’s startling developments, Trump declared the European Union a “foe”—a word that he appears loath to use to describe strategic adversaries. Amid a deepening struggle between an embattled West and its diverse adversaries, Trump is offering aid and comfort to liberalism’s enemies.


How, to return to the broad panorama, do we square recent developments with the broad patterns of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century and beyond? Is Trump pursuing shrewd and calculated collaborations with Russia, as Franklin Roosevelt or Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger once did? Does he envision the transformation of North Korea, or even Russia, through the kind of strategic engagement that Ronald Reagan sought with Mikhail Gorbachev? Or are his trysts with tyrants better understood as foreign-policy miscalculations of the tragic and familiar sort?

There is little evidence to suggest that Trump is pursuing a coherent strategic collaboration, except insofar as he might, conceivably, be working to tilt the geopolitical terrain against China. Nixon and Kissinger, after all, forged in the early 1970s an opening to China that tilted the Cold War balance of power against the Soviet Union and shaped the final phase of the Cold War, to America’s advantage. Might Trump today be attempting the reverse move? Perhaps, but the evidence is both limited and contradictory. Were Trump preoccupied with the strategic containment of China, he would presumably be working to bolster long-standing alliances and institutional frameworks. He is not. Instead, his depredations of foreign countries are creating inroads and opportunities for China, as last week’s China-EU summit indicated. No less important, the logic for a strategic collaboration with Russia against China would be far from obvious. China is not a liberal state, but its willingness to function as a responsible power in a rules-based international order eclipses Russia’s.

Nor is there much evidence to suggest that Trump’s engagements with Russia and North Korea aim to spread to either society the virus of democratic reform. Engagement, it is true, can yield unpredictable outcomes. The Helsinki Final Act was maligned in 1975, but the insertion of specific human rights clauses into the treaty did help, over time, to encourage democratic mobilizations in Eastern Europe, hastening the Cold War’s end. Still, there was little in Trump’s demeanor in either Singapore or Helsinki to suggest that he harbors such motivations. Rather than emulating Ford, who spoke with conviction and integrity, Trump fawned and flattered. The equivalence Trump has conceded to Putin represents a unilateral ceding of the moral high ground that ought to be a source of strength for the United States. The dismal spectacle of the Stars and Stripes hanging alongside Kim’s red-starred banner will likelier be a boon to North Korean propagandists than an impetus for internal change. (Here, the regime’s 42-minute summit propaganda video is instructive.)

The best-case scenario, then, is that Trump is making the kind of miscalculation that does not lack for precedent in the broad sweep of post-1945 U.S. foreign policy. Yet there are crucial differences between the miscalculations that animated U.S. embroilments in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia during the Cold War and Trump’s more recent dalliances with despots. In those situations, bipolar Cold War geopolitics provided at least an ostensible rationale for associations with unsavory regimes. In the present moment, however, there is no obvious rationale, rooted in some legible conviction of the national interest, to warrant Trump’s engagements. Instead, Trump appears to be fabricating a wholly new basis for U.S. relations with despotic regimes: engagement borne of a what appears to be an intuitive affinity.

For sure, the president’s motives remain unknowable. It will be for Trump’s biographers (and possibly Robert Mueller) to determine whether hope or cynicism, strategy or blackmail led Donald Trump to negotiate in such desperate fashion with Kim and Putin. A breadth of perspective nonetheless helps to define the historical high stakes of his moves. Symbolic choices matter in diplomacy, as Benjamin Franklin understood. U.S. engagement with tyrannical regimes does not lack for precedents, but it carries persistent perils. The apparent absence of self-awareness as to the risks of participating in degrading diplomatic encounters makes Trump’s engagements especially startling. Still more troubling, there is no clear rationale to explain the lengths to which Trump has gone to appease Kim and, especially, Putin. Trump talked of “world peace,” but without elucidation of his strategic agenda this is a vague platitude, not a coherent purpose. What remains, then, in the absence of an explicable rationale, is the spectacle of presidential pandering to despots—a spectacle that imperils deep-rooted norms in U.S. diplomatic conduct, especially as it contrasts with the mistreatment of allies.

Founded, however imperfectly, as a nation devoted to the expansion of human liberty, the United States has long strived, imperfectly, to function in the world as a friend to liberty and an enemy to tyrants. Donald Trump is inverting that historical inheritance. Trump’s admirers may applaud his efforts; some on the left may insist that the old creed was always riddled with hypocrisy. Yet Americans should beware of what Trump may be forsaking—and for so little prospective gain. Trump is hastening Putin’s efforts to destabilize the liberal international order, and his willingness to relativize and downplay North Korea’s heinous abuses jeopardizes U.S. moral authority in the world. Trump’s departure from long-standing practices may prove a fleeting interruption, but we should beware of the corrosive tolls that his choices are taking on the U.S. body politic. Robust majorities of Republican voters appear to approve of Trump’s handling of U.S.-Russia relations at the Helsinki summit. Trump is bending the paradigm for U.S. foreign policy, and restoration could be difficult.

The U.S. president has abandoned the Wilsonian compass, and the results could prove a turning point for the United States, not just a wrong turn. Should U.S. foreign policy forsake the assertion that the United States is an exceptional nation, a republic devoted to the cause of freedom, America will cease to be recognizable as America. Over time, a Trumpian foreign policy will diminish U.S. influence and standing in the world, as past deviations from American ideals have recurrently done. Should Donald Trump persist, deepening the amoral rut that his administration is fast defining as a new trajectory for U.S. foreign relations, the republic risks losing both the world and its soul.

Daniel Sargent is the author of A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). In 2018-19, he is the William C. Bark National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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