Bringing the Eagle Back Down to Earth – The Folly of American Exceptionalism
As the United States slowly withdraws its forces from Iraq, a flood of previously secret documents is being released by Wikileaks that purports to expose widespread human rights abuses carried out against Iraqis over the course of the war. Though I am certainly conscious of the national security implications of such a leak and am wary of the manner in which Mr. Assange of Wikileaks has behaved, the essence of his message is clear. The United States must be held accountable for its actions just as it expects other nations to be accountable for theirs.
Whatever our intrepid Islamophobic theorists may say, the most important reasons for hostility between us and the people of the Middle East is the double standard they see us apply to our actions abroad. We are the world’s most powerful former colony and the birthplace of self-determination, yet we have invaded and occupied two nations in the past decade. We took down Saddam Hussein for, among other reasons, his human rights violations yet we let abuses such as those at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay occur. The pictures of the abused detainees at Abu Ghraib probably did more to help Al Qaeda recruiters in Iraq than anything they could have done by themselves. The West put out an ICC arrest warrant for the genocidal President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and he turns around and points out the unfortunate fact that the United States itself is not a party to the Rome Treaty which created the International Criminal Court1. How can we justify our judgment of other countries when we ourselves refuse to be subject to the same scrutiny? Are we afraid that someone might object to some of our actions and charge our leaders with crimes against humanity? Perhaps we are – in 2009, the Spanish judge who led the investigation against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet announced a short-lived investigation into the Bush Administration’s Guantanamo policies2.
I have long argued against the idea of American exceptionalism, a key element of neoconservative thought, and one that got us into a severely compromised diplomatic position over the course of the Bush Administration. There is nothing inherent to the United States that gives it the automatic right to dictate how the world works and ignore the will of the rest of the world’s people. Nothing gives us automatic title to our status as the most powerful country on the planet. We need to earn our keep if we want to stay at the top. The United States didn’t become the world’s sole superpower by manipulating the rules of international politics. We rose to the top through the power of our ideas and the spirit of our people. We earned our status, and we must uphold the values and maintain the drive that got us here.
The United States long had an advantage over its European counterparts in that it was relatively pure of the taint of colonialism which soured the image of the European powers in much of the world. It was American democracy that has inspired many independence movements throughout the world over the past two centuries. The entire free world used to look up to America as a shining beacon of freedom. And then we got arrogant and started ordering around the rest of the world as if they were our colonies. Using our economic and military influence in ways not necessarily beneficial to the indigenous population. Justifying unilateral action by invoking our super-special-awesome superpower status and shouting USA! USA! USA! really, really loudly to make sure everyone knew not to get in our way. In 1998, Madeleine Albright declared, “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future.3“ That’s not the kind of talk you’re supposed to hear from the world’s first modern democracy, is it? The arrogant international posture of post-Cold War America and especially the Bush Administration so alienated our allies that the entire world celebrated when Barack Obama was elected45. Sadly, it appears that the attitude still persists due to a political culture that still makes it impossible for any elected official to say anything bad about America or risk being charged with treason.
This kind of arrogance breeds contempt in the international community, and there is a rising power across the Pacific that is only happy to replace America as the world’s most respected nation. In the wake of the global financial crisis, China has become increasingly aggressive in its push for power – the so-called “Beijing Consensus” to replace the dominant “Washington Consensus” of the last few decades. A core part of China’s international policy – to keep mostly to itself and not intervene in other countries’ domestic affairs. We would criticize them for getting cozy with rogue regimes and human rights abusers, but, oh wait, that’s right, we already most of our credibility in the international community. The United States will only continue to hemorrhage its global reputation if we refuse to acknowledge and mend our own faults. We earned our superpower status by leading by example. We must keep it by doing the same.