Every nation sees itself as being in some way exceptional. Only the United States, though, has tried to develop foreign policies that reflect its exceptionalism. While other countries are content -- or obliged -- to practice a balance-of-power politics in the world, from the beginning most American leaders have argued that the United States, by dint of its unique geography and the superiority -- indeed, the universality -- of its democratic values, can and should pursue a loftier policy.
This sense of special mission has always left ample room for contradiction. It never, for instance, stopped the United States from pursuing national advantage just as fiercely as any other country did. And it drove American policy in two different directions at once. One, which became less tenable as the United States' might grew, was toward isolationism. The other, more crusading impulse was toward making the world safe for democracy, which entailed working in concert with other nations, though not relinquishing American distrust of cynical European-style alliances.
But until now, the debate over what kind of foreign policy American exceptionalism demands was always conducted in those terms: geography and democracy, distance and engagement, realism and idealism. With the coming of the Bush administration, American exceptionalism has become something entirely new and particularly troubling.
The first indication that America's strategic thinkers were working on a radically new foreign-policy doctrine for the post-Cold War world came in 1992 with the Defense Planning Guidance draft, a tract that's been called "Dick Cheney's masterwork." It produced such an outcry that it had to be toned down before it was published. The draft, however, assumed that the most important of America's unique qualities was its military dominance. The Cheney draft also introduced the idea that unilateral military action, the preemptive use of force and the maintenance of a U.S. nuclear arsenal strong enough to deter the development of nuclear programs elsewhere were now appropriate U.S. policies. This was a major departure from anything exceptionalism had meant before. It called on the United States neither to cultivate its own garden nor to pursue a world mission through multilateral organizations that would define and legitimize common goals. Instead, it demanded of America only that it be, remain and act as the world's sole superpower.
It was a doctrine with puzzling gaps. For instance, it proposed to deter challengers and carry out interventions but provided little guidance about where the more dangerous challenges and the more necessary interventions might occur. Nor did it explain how the unilateralism it favored could be reconciled with the many international agreements the United States had reached over the previous 40-plus years. Nonetheless, the Cheney approach found a great deal of support in the present administration.
When George W. Bush came to power, the doctrine that seemed to be in favor among his advisers was realism: a concentration on those conflicts that could impair the global balance of power or important regional balances, and a retreat from involvement in conflicts either devoid of such significance (as in Africa) or entirely hopeless (such as the Palestinian issue). However, the Republican mood was not calculating so much as it was deeply distrustful of others. This was the mood that brought us the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the scuttling of the Land Mine Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The extraordinary vendetta conducted (largely but not exclusively by John Bolton, Bush's controversial undersecretary of state) against the International Criminal Court revealed not just the administration's paranoia -- conjuring nightmares of a malevolent United Nations indicting innocent American soldiers and officers -- but also how punitive it could be against countries (allies or not) unwilling to meet its demands.
The "new exceptionalism" perfectly suited this mood, and four types with significant clout in the Bush administration have pressed the doctrine forward. There are, first of all, the sheriffs, such as Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who see the world as a High Noon struggle between foes and friends. They were disappointed when Ronald Reagan turned from his evil-empire days to embrace Mikhail Gorbachev, which they felt softened the Soviet Union's fall.
Second, and with an equally black-and-white view of international actors and events, there are the new imperialists -- the pundits Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol, for instance -- who believe that the good the United States does for the world justifies all means. These were the thinkers who were frustrated by the (in their eyes truncated) ending of the Gulf War in 1991.
A third and less important group sees in everything a contest between America's traditional political and religious values and all who attack them, be they secular and dissolute liberals or Islamic terrorists. This group I call the American fundamentalists.
And finally there is a loose collection of friends of Israel, who believe in the identity of interests between the Jewish state and the United States -- two democracies that, they say, are both surrounded by foes and both forced to rely on military power to survive. These analysts look at foreign policy through the lens of one dominant concern: Is it good or bad for Israel? Since that nation's founding in 1948, these thinkers have never been in very good odor at the State Department, but now they are well ensconced in the Pentagon, around such strategists as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith.
A discerning reader might object that many of my new exceptionalists are no more than realists drunk with America's new might as the only superpower. This is true, but that headiness makes all the difference. Whereas the hallmark of past realists -- theorists and diplomats such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, even Henry Kissinger -- was the kind of discerning prudence and moderation that Thucydides once praised, the new voices are nothing if not excessive and triumphalist.
What are the new exceptionalists' main arguments for liberating the United States from the constraints imposed by allies and treaties? Most bizarre may be the claim that the U.S. Constitution allows no bowing to a superior law, such as international law, and no transfer, pooling or delegation of sovereignty to any international organization. Also far out there is law professor W. Michael Reisman's argument that because the United States, as a result of its strength, is responsible for world order, it is justified in rejecting whatever parts of international law it decides would make order more difficult.
Somewhat subtler is the claim of benevolent imperialism, developed in particular by the policy analyst Robert Kagan, who has called the United States "a Behemoth with a conscience." In an article in which valid criticisms of current European policy are mixed with a great deal of condescending hubris, Kagan explains that Europeans think they approach problems with "greater nuance and sophistication" than the United States, but their concentration on "challenges" such as "ethnic conflict, immigration, organized crime, poverty and environmental degradation," rather than on the kinds of "threats" that preoccupy the United States, demonstrates their weakness -- and their reliance on the protection of American military power.
And then there is the argument of brute force: We have it in abundance, others do not. Hence allies, when they do not bend to our will, are both nuisances and unnecessary, and international laws and organizations that stand in our path can be ignored. This case has been made by Bolton and Rumsfeld.
It should be noted that these voices, though they all agree about the prerogatives of American power, offer no consensus concerning its mission. In Bolton and Rumsfeld's view, U.S. might should be deployed only on behalf of a very narrowly defined national interest (and not squandered in humanitarian flings), while some of their colleagues would make the United States responsible for maintaining order throughout the world.
Indeed, until September 11, the new exceptionalism was a doctrine in search of a cause. But after that traumatic day, Americans were called to wage a "war" on global terrorism, a cause as compelling as any administration could ask for. This was a mission that would define the Bush presidency; it would be the great simplifier. It also had the advantage of providing a lever for domestic mobilization (and diversion from controversial domestic issues). It flattered exceptionalists of all tendencies by emphasizing the indispensable role of the United States. And it appealed especially to the more idealistic among them by stressing that America's cause -- the defense against terrorism -- was also the world's. As they had been in the Cold War, self-interest and morality, power and values, the sheriff and the missionary were back together again.
But there are signal difficulties. Just as many issues in the Cold War-era could not be squeezed into the corset of the Soviet-American conflict, it is unlikely that all important problems now can be fitted into this new straitjacket. And even those that can may not be best addressed by primarily military means. The phenomenon of terrorism is extraordinarily heterogeneous. If terrorism is defined as deliberate, deadly attacks on the innocent, it must encompass not only "private" suicide bombers but also state terrorism -- from carpet bombings to totalitarian police tactics. And it must encompass the multiplicity of reasons for the resort to terrorism: a will to self-determination (as in the case of the Palestinians or the Chechens), a fight over territory (as in Kashmir), a form of domestic action against a repressive regime (in the Sudan, in the Algeria of the 1990s), a religious holy war (al-Qaeda) and so on. Obviously one size doesn't fit all, yet responding to acts of terrorism and ignoring their causes could well contribute to the global destabilization sought by the terrorists.
Moreover, when the enemy is so ill-defined, there is the danger of continual extensions of the "war." Since September 11, the Bush administration has widened it from a fight against transnational terrorists to a fight against the regimes that give them shelter. (Never mind that al-Qaeda has found hiding places in many nations, the United States included.) More controversially, the administration has since expanded the target from countries that aid terrorists to countries with weapons of mass destruction (so long as they are also hostile to the United States -- unlike, say, Israel, Pakistan or India).
The result is a world order rendered even shakier than it was before, as other countries are incited to use the capacious new American doctrine for their own ends: the Indians against the Pakistanis, the Russians against the Chechen rebels (and occasionally the Georgians), Ariel Sharon's government in Israel against not only Palestinian terrorists but the Palestinian Authority and Yasir Arafat. The war on terrorism has become a vast tent under which all kinds of settlements of accounts can fit -- including our own quarrels with the bizarre "axis of evil."
Bush, during the campaign of 2000, spoke about the need for modesty in foreign affairs. How far from this we are now can be seen in the new National Security Strategy of the United States of America, dated September 2002. This is the final avatar of Cheney's 1992 defense draft. It is something of a hodgepodge, speaking about primacy and balance of power, as well as using traditional Wilsonian language ("We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world."). It talks about organizing coalitions but also about not hesitating to act alone in self-defense.
Still, in the main, the 2002 strategy statement codifies all the new aspects of exceptionalism: It adopts the doctrine of preemptive action -- while warning others not to use preemption as a pretext for aggression -- and, making no mention of the United Nations in this context, presumes that the United States is the sole judge of the legitimacy of its own or anyone else's preemptive strikes. The document emphasizes the deadly threat posed by weapons of mass destruction -- should they fall into the hands of rogue states that "reject basic human values and hate the U.S. and everything for which it stands." It promises to maintain whatever military capability is needed to defeat any attempt by any state to impose its will on the United States or its allies, and to dissuade potential adversaries from building up their own forces to equal or surpass ours. Last but not least, it reaffirms the determination to protect U.S. nationals from the International Criminal Court.
In sum, the Bush doctrine proclaims the emancipation of a colossus from international constraints (including from the restraints that the United States itself enshrined in networks of international and regional organizations after World War II). In context, it amounts to a doctrine of global domination.
There is something breathtakingly unrealistic about this grand exceptionalism -- what the French scholar Pierre Hassner has called "Wilsonianism in boots." Take the promise that American leaders are now making under the rubric of "regime change," the promise that we will try to replace the tyrannical regimes of the world with democracies. If actually attempted, this would topple friendly tyrants on whom the same U.S. policy makers rely. But in any case, we don't have the skill or the knowledge it would take to manipulate the domestic politics of many countries, or even to choose the right leaders for other people. It is blind hubris to assume that we will "improve" the world by projecting on others a model of democracy that has worked -- not without upheavals -- in the rich and multicultural United States but has little immediate relevance in much of the rest of the world. The successful "regime change" in Germany and Japan after World War II is no model. It required a prolonged occupation and followed a devastating total war. These are not the circumstances today. Today what we would see as a selfless or benevolent policy of democratization would be received as a policy of satellitization and clientelism.
And how long would the American public support a strategy of frequent preemptive uses of force -- and concomitant "wartime" restrictions on liberties at home? Sooner rather than later, Americans would suffer from battle fatigue, especially if officials continue to tell them that their nation is both the most powerful in history and the most threatened.
A world that is tamed by American might but whose imperial master has little enthusiasm for peacekeeping operations and little patience with nation building would be doomed. To have a chance of stability, an international system dominated by one superpower would require a code of cooperation among its states, with restraints on the mighty as well as the weak. Otherwise, the United States will appear more threatening to the rest of the world than the enemies we hope to defeat. But, alas, all the new exceptionalism offers is a mix of force and faith -- a huge force that is often unusable or counterproductive and a grandiose faith in the appeal of an American model that is actually as widely resented as admired.
Iraq is seen by the new exceptionalists as the best place to test the new doctrine: It has a horrid regime, a record of aggressions and violations of UN demands, and a history of relentless questing for weapons of mass destruction. Where better to demonstrate what the journalist Mark Danner has called an "evangelical" determination "to remake the world" and deal with the "evil of terror" by making new "the entire region from which it springs"? (Iraq also has oil, which is certainly a potent factor at a time when our alliance with Saudi Arabia is in trouble.)
But while the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to his neighbors and to U.S. interests is undeniable, is this a threat that calls for and justifies preventive action? After all, we contained the Soviet Union, its huge army and its enormous arsenal of weapons for almost 50 years without preemptive military action.
In truth, our attempt to eliminate Hussein and his weapons may well provoke the very disaster that we say we want to prevent. The optimism of those who tell us that we'll win easily, that Hussein's regime will crumble and democracy will then prevail in a liberated nation, is eerily reminiscent of the disastrously wishful thinking of the Vietnam War. And even if militarily victorious, a U.S. administration with deep doubts about nation building and very little help from other nations would then be stuck running a vast Muslim country racked by ethnic and religious divisions and aspirations for revenge -- a sure formula for further anti-Americanism and terrorism in the Muslim world. Meanwhile, our unilateral action would have shaken many of our carefully built alliances in Europe and the Middle East.
These are alliances that even a sole superpower needs. What the unilateralists forget is that we cannot achieve any of our new goals -- from finding terrorists to creating democracies -- alone. But if we want those alliances to last, it is in our interest to concentrate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the war on terrorism before we turn on Iraq. (Indeed, for some of the hawks in the Bush administration, one of the attractions of an early war on Iraq is that it would postpone and render even more difficult an evenhanded solution to the Palestinian problem.)
As for the "the moral clarity" that Bush's supporters say he wants to impose on world politics and believes a confrontation with Hussein's regime will provide, I quote the valuable words of Bryan Hehir, the former head of the Harvard Divinity School: "The invocation of moral reasoning for any contemplated policy decisions is to be welcomed as long as the complexity of moral issues is given adequate attention. Moral reasoning can indeed support military action, at times obligate such action. It also, equally importantly, can restrain or deny legitimacy to the use of force. To invoke the moral factor is to submit to the full range of its discipline."
The questionable moral character of a preemptive strike, an intervention and a unilateral action is compounded by a policy that involves all three. Moreover, the fact that great powers set precedents in world politics means that each choice they make must be measured by the consequences of the precedent they set. Eroding at one stroke the established international principles of deterrence, nonintervention and international authorization of military action is -- at the least -- morally reckless.
After all, there is an alternative available for dealing with Iraq: It is a collective, UN-supported policy of containment, including a strong border-monitoring system and thorough weapons inspectors. The United States, in other words, could present itself not as the lone sheriff but as the trustee of the society of states. And it should do just that. The greatest chance of success in the task of eliminating Iraq's arsenal lies not in attacking Hussein now (and thereby activating his capacity to destroy quasi-hostages -- Iraq's Kurds -- and neighbors) but in creating a coalition that will press for this elimination. The Bush administration, obviously divided, does show signs of understanding this, but it still insists on preserving the possibility of unilateral action.
Empire, or the dream of empire, has invariably gone to the heads of the imperialists. Today's American dream of a benevolent empire is sustained by an illusion of the world's gratitude, but in fact it rests only on America's ever more flattering self-image. Given its preponderance in all forms of power, hard and soft (to use Harvard University Dean Joseph Nye's useful distinction), the United States is bound to remain the most important state actor in the world. But it does have a choice. In the words of Pierre Hassner, "The choice is between an attempt at authoritarian, global U.S. rule tempered by anarchic resistance, on the one hand, and, on the other, hegemony tempered by law, concert and consent."