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Politics : Foreign Affairs Discussion Group

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From: Sun Tzu11/27/2020 6:08:22 AM
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What Donald Trump and Dick Cheney Got Wrong About AmericaWe allowed an important idea—American exceptionalism—­to be hijacked and misused. Now we need to rescue that idea and let it guide America at home and abroad.

Justin Fantl

Story by Jake Sullivan
January/February 2019 Issue

Excerpts from the article:

Young people have been exposed to a particularly arrogant brand of exceptionalism. Many of them aren’t naturally inclined to see American foreign policy through a lens of optimism or aspiration. I hear this in my classes, and I see it in surveys that reveal a strong generational divide over the idea of “American exceptionalism.” Large numbers of young people question the merits of a unique American leadership role in world affairs.This is partly because they have seen the country’s foreign policy so frequently fall short. But I suspect it is also because they have been exposed to a particularly arrogant brand of exceptionalism. For example, Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz published a book a few years ago called Exceptional, in which they boast of America’s unmatched “goodness” and “greatness”—conceding nothing, admitting no error. In their telling, the Vietnam and Iraq Wars were sound strategic decisions. George W. Bush’s administration’s use of torture was right; its critics were wrong. And on and on. Young people hear these kinds of arguments and say, Count us out.

Meanwhile, older generations are tilting toward a different outlook: the United States as the world’s No. 1 sucker. It’s time, many believe, to stop shouldering the burdens and letting others enjoy the benefits. This is Trump’s vision of “America first.” He is hostile toward America’s allies and contemptuous of cooperation. He loves to goad and bully (and even bomb) other countries and says alarming and irresponsible things about nuclear war. He has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and more. He is not preaching isolationism; he is preaching predatory unilateralism.

American exceptionalism has meant different things to different people at different times: the unique geographic advantages of the continent, the story of the Revolution and the writing of the Constitution, the legacy of the frontier, the impulse to universalize the American experience. Some have taken this to an extreme, asserting that America is blessed by divine providence.

There is a common thread: the idea that the United States has a set of characteristics that gives it a unique capacity and responsibility to help make the world a better place.

The foreign-policy community’s traditional response to that question has been to describe America as the world’s “indispensable nation.” That is no longer sufficient. By itself, indispensability is more wearying than energizing—it’s the boy in the Hans Brinker story, holding back the flood by putting his finger in the dike. It speaks to fulfilling others’ needs, not one’s own. And it comes with no limits.

The core purpose of American foreign policy must be to protect and defend the American way of life. This raises the obvious challenge that the very definition of the American way of life is currently up for grabs. No vision of American exceptionalism can succeed if the United States does not defeat the emerging vision that emphasizes ethnic and cultural identity and restore a more hopeful and inclusive definition: a healthy democracy, shared economic prosperity, and security and freedom for all citizens to follow the paths they choose. This requires domestic renewal above all, with energetic responses at home to the rise of tribalism and the hollowing-out of the middle class. Foreign policy can support that renewal, while dealing effectively with external threats.

These fall into two categories. The first emanate from other countries, specifically the major powers: There is China’s long-term strategy to dominate the fastest-growing part of the world, to make the global economy adjust to its brand of authoritarian capitalism, and above all to put pressure on free and open economic and political models. And there is Russia’s pursuit of a related strategy to spread neofascist ideology and destabilize Western democracies. The threats in the second category are those that transcend national borders: the spread of weapons of mass destruction; deadly epidemics like Ebola; irreversible planetary harm caused by climate change; another global economic meltdown; and massive cyberattacks.

All of these have the potential to cripple America as we know it. Here’s the kicker: None of them can be effectively confronted by the United States alone, and none can be effectively confronted if the United States sits on the sidelines.

The fact that the major powers have not returned to war with one another since 1945 is a remarkable achievement of American statecraft.
A national idea like American exceptionalism will fail, however, if it is neither plausible nor well defined. We should therefore identify the distinctive attributes of the United States, explain how to revive and reinforce them, and prescribe how to put them to work in foreign policy.

The first of those attributes has been a recognition that the best and most durable solutions are ones in which America’s gain also contributes to gains by others. From the republican ideas of the Founders—in particular, from their notion of interdependence—flows an attitude. Alexis de Tocqueville called it “self-interest rightly understood.” Today, we might call it positive-sum thinking.

This attitude guided America’s grand strategy after the Second World War, as the U.S. rebuilt vanquished foes, protected the sea lanes, and responded to natural disasters halfway around the world. For centuries, European states waged war with grim regularity. The fact that the major powers have not returned to war with one another since 1945 is a remarkable achievement of American statecraft. Meanwhile, China’s extraordinary development was the result not of failures in U.S. foreign policy but of its successes. The U.S. maintained the security that helped drive remarkable economic growth across the Asia-Pacific region.

This is why so many observers around the world fear American retreat more than they fear American domination. During my time in the Obama administration, when I talked with counterparts in the Middle East or East Asia, I often heard a litany of complaints about things the United States had done—punctuated by a demand that the United States do more. It reminded me of the classic restaurant joke: “The food here is terrible … and such small portions!”

We live in a country full of problem-solvers, in a world full of problems.At some level, most of the world knows that America’s positive-sum approach is valuable and unusual. At a gathering of Asian nations in 2011, I heard the Chinese foreign minister address the issue of Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea this way: “China is a big country, and other countries here are small countries. Think hard about that.” This is China’s way, and Russia’s way. It generally has not been America’s way.

The second key attribute of American exceptionalism is a can-do spirit. We live in a country full of problem-solvers, in a world full of problems. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous “frontier thesis” described Americans as having a “practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients.” For the past 70 years, a habit of problem-solving has defined America’s role in the world.

Americans may like to solve problems, but which problems should they be trying to solve? The answer cannot be all of them, everywhere. As the Harvard economist Michael Porter has pointed out, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” America’s priorities should consist of the list I outlined earlier—challenges that legitimately threaten its way of life. Americans should throw every ounce of their problem-solving weight against those threats.

Too often, the U.S. succumbs to the temptation to go toe-to-toe with adversaries in situations where they have an advantage. For example, when the Chinese military started building on rocks and reefs in the South China Sea, the U.S. jumped up and down even though it could do little to stop the construction short of using military force, which it was not prepared to do. The U.S. ended up looking weak. Worse, it let the measure of success become something other than its vital interest, which is not those rocks and reefs. Its vital interest is the freedom of navigation for commercial and military ships. The U.S. can enforce that interest by increasing naval operations in the area and getting its partners to do the same, demonstrating that the world rejects China’s claims to these waters and forcing Beijing to decide whether to stop us.

Finally, the relationship between America’s interests at home and its interests abroad must always be kept in mind. Obama, listening to his national-security team ask for more money for Afghanistan, would shake his head and point out that he was the only person in the room who had to think about all the things we were not spending money on at home. This should not be about guns versus butter, but about what will position America to compete effectively—especially with China, which is now poised to out-invest the U.S. in technological innovation and R&D.

It should also be about where the middle class fits into America’s foreign-policy priorities. The erosion of America’s middle class is sapping the nation’s strength. The main causes lie in domestic policy, but foreign policy bears responsibility as well.

During the Obama administration, when the national-security team sat around the Situation Room table, we rarely posed the question What will this mean for the middle class? Many other countries have made economic growth that expands the middle class a key organizing principle of their foreign policy. The American people want their leaders to do the same: to focus on how strength abroad can contribute to a strong economic foundation at home, and not just vice versa.

As a starting point, the U.S. must define what counts as its “economic interest,” looking beyond generic GDP growth in order to understand the impact of specific policies on corporations and communities. Who are the real winners and losers? I recall working on a diplomatic effort for an American firm that wanted to close an energy deal in Europe, which the State Department saw as a potential “win.” We later learned that the company planned to import materials from other countries, not the United States. Whose interests, exactly, were we serving? Whose interests are we serving by putting diplomatic muscle into helping companies like Walmart open stores in India?

America’s trade and investment strategies should place less emphasis on making the world safe for corporate investment and more emphasis on international tax and anti-corruption policies that target drivers of inequality. Jennifer Harris, a former State Department colleague, posed an arresting question when I spoke with her recently: How is it that the domestic economic agenda of the Obama administration could be so different in its values and priorities from President George W. Bush’s—so much more focused on the needs of working people—while its international economic agenda was nearly identical? The answer is that both political parties came to treat international economic issues as somehow separate from everything else. U.S. internationalism became insufficiently attentive to the needs and aspirations of the American middle class. Changing that is a prerequisite of an effective and sustainable foreign policy that enhances the American way of life.

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