The Issue of “Negative American Exceptionalism”

I like to think I’ve been pretty consistent in drilling down my core beliefs in these essays since I started posting them almost a year ago. One of those central points I return to often is that war – while terrible – is sometimes unavoidable or even necessary. While I think I’ve had some modest success in convincing people of this, I am reminded daily that there is still a long way to go.

One of the common threads I encounter in the pushback to this principle is the sentiment that the United States is the root cause of essentially every military conflict, diplomatic crisis, or other negative event in international affairs – or can only make such conflicts and crises worse by its involvement. A common way you see this manifest is blaming every revolution or uprising against a government you like (or at least isn’t closely aligned to the United States) as being a CIA-backed coup, or writing off aggressive or violent acts by shitty regimes as long as they are anti-Western or anti-US and claiming that the only reason that problems are occurring is because of the United States. There are many other flavors of and spins on these types of opinions, but these two seem to be the two big ones that I run into a lot as I dredge through the morass of social media.

Now, I should say up front as always, that my goal here is not to absolve the United States of its many obvious failings and crimes throughout history. My country has indisputably done some awful, terrible shit in the past, is still doing it now, and will continue to do it into the future until we as Americans finally decide that “enough is enough” and do something to change that. My goal here is instead to show you that, while the United States obviously plays a central role in the world and its many issues – all of which are intertwined with one another – it is not the sole “protagonist of reality” when it comes to international affairs and war – rather, not the sole “antagonist of reality” in this case I suppose. Not everything begins and ends with the United States. Other countries, groups, leaders, and etc. have their own agency and exercise it upon one another and themselves, regardless of what the United States does or says. They have their own goals and interests, both for good and for ill, and will do their best to fulfill them.

I want to talk about this because the “everything is the United States’ fault” sentiments bother me for several reasons. For one, I just hate people putting out takes that are disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. But the primary reason I want to talk about them is because I think they are outright dangerous. To the extent that we are able to try and change things now, and with the hope we may be able to change things further in the future, trying to further these ideas could cause immeasurable harm down the line in multiple ways by way of our own misguided actions – or inaction. If one day we actually are able to change the system for the better, but instead choose to go down a road where we support the worst kind of regimes or simply choose to do nothing in terms of how we deal with the world, it could be a tragedy on a horrific scale. Specifically, as American leftists, we need to stop assuming attitudes that are essentially Negative American Exceptionalism, reducing every conflict in the world to something that is directly America’s fault with the solution being one that involves us either acting in a directly harmful way or not acting at all. While grappling with our country’s global legacy is no small task, it’s something we need to do thoughtfully and critically and not simply act in a knee jerk manner. Otherwise, to put it bluntly, many people will suffer or die.

You do not, in fact, have to hand it to the People’s Republic of China

A good contemporary example to use here for some context would be the current tensions that exist between the United States and its allies and partners and the People’s Republic of China. Depending on who you ask, the USA and the PRC are either in danger of falling into a new Cold War or are already in a new Cold War (I tend to believe the latter is already the case). This heightened state of geopolitical competition among great powers has made itself known in multiple areas (be they diplomatic, military, economic, legal, or what have you), and have risen over various different flashpoints and interests in Asia and beyond.

I think it’s safe to say that most regular people are not happy or excited about the prospect of a new Cold War – though I certainly know some people in my field that are seemingly drooling at the thought of it. It should be no surprise to most people that I’m in the “not excited” category. While I am no fan of the PRC and its policies towards its citizens and other countries and I also think we and others should be prepared to counter it should it act in a hostile way against its neighbors, I don’t think that stance necessitates the confrontational Cold War posture that has been assumed by the United States towards China.

But, with all that in mind, while I don’t think the United States is handling this properly, this does not mean I’m letting China off the hook for its own aggressive, hegemonic aspirations. However, other folks on the Left seem to be willing to do so, either out of a weird tankie fetishization of China, or a simple anti-imperialist “anything that owns the United States and the West is good” attitude. Too often, I see the sentiment that the reason this new Cold War has begun is entirely the fault of the United States – with no responsibility falling on China for its outbreak – and that if the United States were simply to leave Asia and let the PRC do whatever it wanted, then the region would be a freer and more peaceful place (I apologize for not really having any good sources to link back to here, but I feel like if you spend even just a little time wading your way through certain corners of Left Twitter you know what I’m talking about).

There are a lot of ways I could point out how this assumption is reductive and just plain wrong, and I struggle on where to start. So, I guess I’ll start with a good old-fashioned hypothetical. Let’s assume that tomorrow the United States pulled every last one of its troops out of the Western Pacific, closing all of its bases and ending all of its security agreements throughout the region. Following the logic of some people I see discussing this on the Left, then that would solve most if not all of the security issues that are going on in that part of the world. That the PRC would no longer have a reason to act aggressive (though some would characterize that more as an attitude of “self-defense”) and would become a benevolent, peaceful actor.

That would be great if that was the case, but I find all of that very hard to believe. The United States withdrawing from the region and writing it off wouldn’t change any of the PRC’s fundamental interests and goals, whether it be forcefully incorporating Taiwan, expanding control over most of the South China Sea, economically pressuring countries in the region and beyond, and more. The PRC would almost certainly still want to do all these things if the United States left the region. If anything, China’s leadership would likely feel that they’d have a freer hand to double down and seek these objectives with more gusto. I don’t want to go as far as to say the United States is the only thing keeping them from carrying out a lot of their plans – that would just be defaulting back to classic American Exceptionalism rather than the Negative form.

Again, I have to stress that my point here isn’t to go “see, things are better off when the United States is in charge or swooping in to be the world’s policeman” or anything along those lines because that’s just flat out wrong as well. The United States’ history in Asia is “colorful” to say the very least and we have many acts we’ll need to atone for there going into the future. My point here is to illustrate that the United States alone is not the source of all the region’s problems in this particular case. Hell, China isn’t even the source of all the region’s problems in this case (though between it and the United States they do make up a healthy percentage of them). Just based on discussions with people from the region, I’m guessing they’d prefer it if there was no hegemon at all imposing its will on the region writ large – and it is these points of view we need to be more cognizant of – which I’ll foot stomp towards the end of this essay. The main point here is that even if the United States were not involved and took a hands-off attitude, conflicts and crises would still exist independent of it. All security issues do not begin and end with the United States and its foreign policy. The world chugged along with its various problems before us, and if our country ceases to exist, it will continue to chug on without it.

Getting over and moving on

I find myself reaching the “so what”/”what can we do” section of this essay faster than I have in the last few essays (the point was fairly simple this time around I guess). So, how do we deal with this?

I feel like the answer is both very simple and also very difficult – simple in that the overall action is very straightforward, difficult in that the exact, best way to carry it out is less clear and easy.

The solution is that we – we specifically being American Leftists- need to get over ourselves and our country.

As I alluded to earlier, it feels like there’s a not insignificant amount of people on the Left in this country and elsewhere who have traded one American Exceptionalism for another. Instead of holding the traditional (flawed) view that the United States the greatest country in the world, capable of doing no wrong and essential to all things that are good and pure in the world, they believe the exact opposite (also flawed) view: that the United States is the source of all things that are awful and terrible and that the only way there can be peace and justice in the world is for us to cut ourselves off from it and/or destroy our country. These are of course, rough paraphrases and there is more nuance involved in some cases, but these are the overall sentiments as I see them (when I don’t have my head in my hands in dismay that is). I also recognize that these people are not the majority on the left and definitely not the majority in general, but they do have the potential to hold outsized influence in informing people’s opinions when it comes to foreign policy and international relations – especially if no one else is pushing back on it (hence why I think it was important enough to write about here).

Again, it is undeniable that the United States plays a central role in how the world functions – and the problems it faces. But if we’re ever going to have a constructive attitude towards the rest of the world, we need to recognize that whatever role our country plays, it is still only one part of a highly interconnected global system of various different actors. We absolutely should be critical of ourselves and definitely be critical of our government and actions overseas, but we cannot become so single minded as to think that is the only factor at play. We cannot let the attitude of American Exceptionalism that has been drilled into us since we were young simply be morphed into a new and twisted form that is just as harmful as the old – if not potentially worse. We need to assume a true spirit of internationalism and global solidarity that isn’t ethnocentric and egotistical – even if those attitudes are unintentional on our part. And this is all coming from the guy who, despite everything, holds out hope that maybe one day the United States can be a force for some kind of positive change in the world. If that day does come (and I sure hope it does and am going to try and make it happen), I don’t think that kind of change is possible unless we can act not as the exceptional, indispensable hegemon, but as one of many entities that is party of an international collaboration to better the world for its people.

And therein lies another key takeaway: the fact that we need to listen to and center the voices of people outside the United States or members of an affected diaspora when it comes to crises and conflicts throughout the world before we attempt to make a comment, pass judgement, or otherwise act upon a given situation. When talking about an issue such as the new Cold War, its easy for some to write it off by blaming the United States – or for others to put the blame entirely on China – but I only occasionally see people paying any attention to the voices of those who are caught in-between in places like Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, the nations of Southeast Asia, and more. When people look at protests and uprisings in places like Venezuela, Cuba, and elsewhere, I see a lot of ranting about how its all a CIA backed op, but little investigation of what actual people in or from these places (aside from talking heads with agendas) think or what systemic factors at play that may push people to protest, riot, and rise up.

Something I am thankful as I’ve discovered myself more politically is being put into closer contact with folks overseas who bring their own perspectives to the issues that I study every day. Even when I don’t agree with them 100%, I’m thankful for the experience to help bring me out of my bubble and remember that the world does not begin and end with the United States and whoever its beefing with at any given moment. There are real people in real places caught in between in the new landscape of “great power competition” who face far greater stakes should things go pear shaped. More than anything, we need to remember that we should be striving to enable people across the world to have control over their own lives and the path that their countries and communities should take. In addition to recognizing that other states have agency and may have malicious intent separate from US actions, we need to remember the agency of nations and people who don’t wish to be subject to the exploitation and harm from any state or group – whether it be the United States, China, or whatever else.

Really, at the core of these issues, we need to recognize that the world is complicated and needs to be dealt with as such. That may be something of a cliché’, but just because something is a cliché’ does not mean its untrue (yes, that in itself is a cliché; bite me). As a country and a people, America has never been that great dealing with nuance. This is something we also need to finally get over – in addition to getting over ourselves. When I speak of this, I absolutely don’t mean seeing the world as being “complicated” in terms of who is “good” and “bad” or looking the other way when shitty things happen in the name of national interest because “the world isn’t black and white its shades of gray hurr hurr.” That’s fucking stupid; we should know bad shit when we see it. What I do mean is that when something happens in the world, we should be able to formulate a response to it that isn’t knee jerk or a binary choice between complete inaction or mounting a full-scale war. Those two options may in fact be options in some (rare) cases, but our ability to understand and response to things occurring in the world around us should not be limited to those and those alone. The answers to global issues – whether they be security related or otherwise – are rarely simple and we need to be able to work through those challenges and not reduce issues to the point they have no real meaning.

As someone who was raised in the United States and live and work here, I still sometimes fall in the trap of thinking that my home country – and by extension, myself – is the sole protagonist (or antagonist) of reality. But however key a component the United States is of the global system we live under today, as Americans we have to be able to push back on that assumption that has been instilled in us as we view the rest of the world and the events occurring in it. We need to remember that other states and nations and peoples have plans and goals – both positive and negative. As we grapple with the flaws and crimes that our country has committed and respond to what’s going on in the world around us, we need to make sure we reckon with our past in a way that isn’t harmful to the rest of the world through simplistic, reductive actions as a result of rigid ideological dogma. With how much damage one form of American Exceptionalism has already done to the world, it cannot afford to experience another.

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