Belief in ‘American Exceptionalism’ is No Basis for National Security Policy
As American power grew over the last century, our strategic goals were often defined by who our opponents were. We’ve defeated competitors over the last hundred years and have emerged at the top of a heap where it is no longer clear how threatening our opponents are.
Neocons continue to seek enemies to confront. The far left argue we only have ‘manufactured’ enemies. Despite America’s ascent over the last century, many argue America is now in decline. In response, many other Americans have rejected this idea and come to accept as an article of faith ‘American exceptionalism’: that we are preordained to succeed because our system or people are superior. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has essentially adopted it as part of his platform.
It is false and dangerous to assume American success was and is a foregone conclusion. It ignores the hard work, hazards, and sacrifice successful national security policy requires.
Victory was far from certain in both World Wars and the Cold War, though in retrospect as the subject of intense academic study it becomes easily seen as such. Those who fought and lived through these conflicts, especially on the frontlines, certainly didn’t see it that way. America’s modern conflicts fought thousands of miles away by an all-volunteer military make that easy to forget.
Belief in ‘exceptionalism’ reflects the fact that security today is considered by some to be an issue of political belief rather than realism, pragmatism, or experience. It reflects an attitude that national security is a worldview to be projected upon others, not actions based upon an evaluation and understanding of the situation as it exists.It is the modern-day equivalent of ‘manifest destiny’ of the 19th century in that it smooths over the rough spots in favor of those that put America in a more favorable light and adds a sense of inevitability.
But those who believe too sincerely in their own infallibility plant the seeds of their own downfall. The problem is compounded when politicians, most of whom personally lack national security experience, take political positions on national security issues to a politically divided American electorate, most of whom also lack real security experience.
This lack of experience, the intense politicization of national security, and its inclusion in mainstream media banter has caused much international difficulty and division in America. The national security views espoused by Romney campaign advisors John Bolton, Max Boot, and Eliot Cohen are recent and obvious examples. It used to be a maxim that politics stopped at the water’s edge, but this is arguably not true anymore.
America needs leadership with real, practical, personal national security experience. National security policy should be based upon facts and strategic considerations, not politics or beliefs. ‘American exceptionalism’ is a nice idea, but it is dangerous to allow it to have an outsized influence on our strategic thinking.
Victory is never assured; it requires hard work and sacrifice. The American men and women who fight our wars know this lesson better than anyone.
Chris Miller is a Truman Project Fellow.