American exceptionalism: for peace or conflict?
Even when the war in Ukraine was raging in full fury, threatening to escalate dangerously, two delegations of American Senators visited Taiwan, an island country that China considers as its integral part. The timing of the visits was bizarre and baffling to observers, given the geopolitical tension unleashed by Russian invasion of Ukraine and the proxy war conducted by America and its allies there for collective punishment of Russia. Already smarting under attacks through a blistering tariff war under President Trump and anything but an accommodative policy by Biden administration, the Senators' visits, declaring solidarity with Taiwan triggered knee- jerk reaction from China which lost no time in condemning the visits and reiterated its goal of reuniting the ' renegade' island territory within its fold, by using force if necessary. Soon after these visits President Biden, during his visit to Asia Pacific region declared from Japan that America will fight against China to defend Taiwan. This declaration of intent was more specific and direct than the covert military support given to Ukraine where America and its allies are not directly involved. President Biden's words were unequivocal and was a sharp warning to China against any military move over Taiwan. But China was not expected to take this threat lying down. Its response was quick and equally unequivocal: it will not hesitate to invade Taiwan to reclaim its territory. The war of words between two super powers not only heightened the tension but brought them dangerously close to military confrontation. The world has never faced a fraught situation like this after the end of the second world war: a shooting war in Europe and one brewing in Asia.
As if the situation over Taiwan was not explosive enough, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the third most important person in American polity, announced her plan to visit countries in Asia, including Taiwan. China predictably became infuriated and warned of dire consequences if the visit took place. Undaunted and uncompromising, Nancy Pelosy carried out her visit, declaring America's determination to defend Taiwanese democracy.
These visits and declarations by the American President and senior politicians would have made some sense if China was making preparations for invasion of Taiwan. But there was no such indications, either from announcements made by Chinese leaders, or from its military activities.
Even if China's invasion of Taiwan became imminent America, as the 'apostle of peace', should have brokered a negotiated settlement between the two parties. But its traditional strategic policy of military confrontation led it to making Taiwan uncompromising towards China, just it had made Ukraine adamant in pursuing an anti- Russian foreign policy. In fact, America in its long history as an independent nation has never accepted compromise and negotiation as serious components of its foreign and security policies. In pursuing this inviolable and buccaneering policy, American politicians and policy makers have been goaded by their belief in American exceptionalism. It is a political ideology that has not been articulated in a straightforward manner in its constitution but runs through the course of its history as a national ethos that has been etched on the psyche of most political leaders and many intellectuals. This ideology of 'exceptionalism' would have been benign, even helpful, for other nations had it contributed to world peace and harmony among nations. The record, unfortunately, shows that it has done more harm than good to world peace and stability. In some cases this harm is being done unwittingly, but in most cases it is the fallout of this ideology's emphasis on moral, military and material superiority that has supposedly bestowed a destiny on America to dominate in the affairs of the world. The Ukraine war and heightened tension over Taiwan, drawing two super powers to another war are the latest manifestation of 'American exceptionalism' at work.
The idea that America has an exceptional mission in the world goes far back in its history, in fact to its emergence as an independent nation. Its proponents argued that the values, political system and historical development of US are unique in human history, often with the implication that it is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on world stage. Political scientist, Seymur Lipset traces American exceptionalism to the war of independence, the 'American Revolution' from which it emerged as ' the first nation' with a distinct ideology which he called 'Americanism' that later came to be known as 'Amerian exceptionalism', based on liberty, democracy, equality, and laissez-faire economics. These principles underlying American exceptionalism were perceived to entail , both domestically and internationally, as superior to other nations or having a unique mission to transform the world. The theory of American exceptionalism, developed over time, has gone through peaks and troughs, both in intellectual discourses and foreign policy making. In modern history, the American century, epitome of American exceptionolism, began after the second world war when it became the leader of the ' free world', and felt destined to make the world in its own image, safe from communism, the enemy of democracy and free market economy. Guided by this self- serving mission, it embarked upon an aggressive foreign and security policy that saw it plunging Korean peninsula in war in the Fifties, and Vietnam and Cambodia in the Sixties.. Besides overt wars, America, under different Presidents, carried out covert operations that saw the fall of regimes in Iran (1953), Republic of Congo( 1960),Brazil (1964) and Chile( 1973).
After the end of the cold war in 1991, American neo-conservative intellectuals and policy makers embraced the idea of ' American empire' or "American Century' with the vaunted national mission to establish freedom and democracy in developing countries. The shock of 9/11 in 2001, gave America a new target, exterminating 'Islamic terrorism' with the full force of its military and economic power. According to Merylin Young, an American historian, Afghanistan (2002) and Iraq war (2003- 2011) exemplified the good old theory of American exceptionalism at work in full swing. In his 2015 book, Exceptional: Why the world needs a powerful America, Dick Cheyne, the former American Vice President, quotes President Abraham Lincoln saying: we are not just one more nation, one more same entity on world stage, We have been essential to the promotion of democracy and freedom'. [Co-author of the book is Liz Cheyne.]
The theory of American exceptionalism runs so deep even now in the political thinking of American leaders that when President Obama replied to a journalist in Europe in 2009 that America had a role in leading the world but that leadership depended on its ability to create partnetnarship, he was immediately castigated by Republican leaders for not believing in American exceptionalism of going alone to set the world order right very much like the cowboys in the wild west
Very few Americans, intellectuals and politicians alike, have recognised that the idea and practice of American exceptionalism has done more harm than good to other countries apart from interfering in their internal affairs. The policy of regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have left those countries worse off politically and economically than before. Now America, goaded by Israel, has Iran in its crosshair for regime change, because it perceives to be a threat to peace. In fact, in America's world view no country can be allowed to be militarily and economically powerful to challenge its hegemony in the world. Israel, America's poster child for democracy and human rights, on the other hand, receives unstinted support even when it retaliates disproportionately against child's play -- like fireworks of missiles fired from Gaza. In the most recent clash between David and Goliath (only metaphorically, not in real sense) Israeli retaliation against Gazan missiles (790) left 42 Palestinians dead with no casualty on the Israeli side. The American response to this routine punitive action has been the pro forma comment: Israel has the right to defend itself.
This cycle of violence and marginalisation of Palestinians could be stopped long ago by America if it were serious about the two state solution. But Palestinians do not merit serious attention as they did not figure anywhere in the agenda of American exceptionalism. Freedom and wellbeing appear to be for God's chosen people such as the Americans and Israelis. Double standard has worked as the guiding spirit since exceptionalism became a political doctrine in America.
Jeffrey Sachs, the American economist, in his book, A New Foreign Policy: End of American Exceptionalism (2018), has bluntly said that America should wind down its global role for dominance over others because it is no longer the sole superior power. He thinks playing the role of superpower is now doing more harm to Americans than to others.
There is not much hope that his sane words will reach the corridor of power in America where the myth of American exceptionalism still rules the roost even though the unipolar world embodying the 'American century' has changed irrevocably.