The Revival of American Exceptionalism

On January 11th, 1989, Ronald Reagan, one of America’s most revered presidents, delivered his iconic farewell address, describing America as a “shining city upon a hill.” Reagan’s historic words hail from an age when American exceptionalism was not considered a dirty word or relic of the past. It was a phrase that evoked awe and inspired admiration around the world. Reagan eloquently made the case for American exceptionalism and laid out his vision for America when he asserted, “in my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” The origin of the phrase is found in Matthew 5: 14-16 14 You are the light of the world. A city set upon a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. The concept of American exceptionalism – of America’s sacred duty to protect its way of life and, by extension, that of democracies around the world – has long guided American foreign policy and secured our hegemony.

Since World War I, the United States has been the undisputed leader of the free world. In the Great War, the U.S. came to the defense of a besieged Europe, crushing the Central Powers and installing the United States at the top of the newly formed Global Order. American hegemony did not last long before another war broke out in Europe. After much dithering and debate, the U.S. entered World War II to rescue the Allied Powers. With American industry, ingenuity, and blood, the United States was able to turn the tide of the deadly war and defeat Nazi Germany along with the other Axis Powers. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States set out to create an international system to prevent another major military conflict. American diplomats were integral in the founding of the United Nations. American presidents have historically pushed the international community to strengthen cooperation and empower multilateral organizations to boost stability and mutual security. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in 1949 as a bulwark against the encroaching Soviet Union. Similarly, the Five Eyes alliance united the English-speaking countries of the world – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States – to form an unparalleled intelligence cooperation network. By virtue of the United States’ economy and its leading role in rebuilding Europe post-World War II, the free world instinctively looks to America to defend against foreign actors that threaten democratic ideals, namely, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This international system, which America helped create, is unquestionably flawed, yet it is also the best framework to prevent another world war. The U.N. and NATO have stood the test of time. They have survived the height of the Cold War, the Iraq War, and the global war on terror. The benefits that the U.S. receives from its global alliances indisputably outweigh the costs and inconveniences that occasionally arise. Remarkably, this logic has been upended in recent years, defying years of Republican orthodoxy and shattering international norms. The election of Donald Trump sent an unmistakable message to the world that the United States, for the first time in over a century, was no longer interested in events occurring outside its borders. President Trump and his administration have set about tearing down and destabilizing many of the most valuable American diplomatic agreements. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, an agreement even North Korea is a party to. Trump also unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, a move met with near-unanimous opposition from top military leaders, intelligence officials, and foreign allies that have stood by the U.S. since World War I. Trump has attempted to cast himself as a strongman taking on the belligerent Chinese Communist Party on the economic front. However, his uncoordinated and isolated trade war with China has been largely ineffectual, hurting American farmers more than Xi Jinping and his top lieutenants. Trump’s intellectual limitations were exposed when he yet again unilaterally withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal brokered during the Obama administration with the overt intent to counter China’s growing economic influence. These are just a few of the many examples that reveal Donald Trump’s breathtaking ineptitude and lay bare his morally bankrupt and fiscally bankrupting approach to foreign policy.

Throughout his norm-shattering presidency, Trump’s foreign policy blunders have failed to garner the attention they deserve. Many Americans have been understandably preoccupied with domestic crises such as the Russian hacking in the 2016 election, the impeachment hearings, and Trump’s references to the coronavirus as a Democratic “hoax.” However, with the benefit of hindsight, we can shed light on some of Trump’s overlooked and immensely consequential foreign policy mistakes. In December of 2019, Americans peered behind the curtain of what foreign heads of state think of Trump. In a scene later spoofed by Saturday Night Live, NATO leaders including, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and French President Emmanuel Macron, were caught on tape openly mocking Trump. The story created a temporary buzz before quickly being enveloped in the never-ending madness that is the Trump White House. Any foreign leader, let alone the leaders of the United States’ top allies, having the audacity to openly mock a sitting President would have been inconceivable during the time of Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, or any other American president. Amid the chaos, confusion, and utter lunacy brought on by Trumpworld, two facts remain clear: global instability has spiked over the past three years, and America’s international image has been severely diminished. A newly emboldened Vladimir Putin has brutally expanded Russian influence into Syria, Libya, and eastern Europe. At the same time, Xi Jinping’s China has brazenly sought to fill the Trump-sized power vacuum at the U.N., W.H.O., and other international bodies while Trump has watched idly from afar, content to hurl insults on Twitter instead of pushing back on China’s challenge to the U.S. led World Order. Meanwhile, pariah states such as Iran and North Korea have laughed at Trump’s ‘diplomacy’ and leveraged his incompetence and perhaps worse – his indifference – to their advantage. Iran has aggressively ramped up its uranium enrichment programs in pursuit of nuclear weapons while North Korea has successfully carried out tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which could reach anywhere on the U.S. mainland. As European democracies have come under siege from a Chinese and Russian backed shadow war, European leaders have watched NATO suffer a “brain death” as the U.S. has tacitly ceded its position as Europe’s chief defender. The free world is crumbling from the inside out while its leaders pray for a revival of American leadership.

Trump portrays himself as a proud nationalist, and his “America First” rhetoric suggests as much. This patriotic facade is undercut by his now-infamous slogan: Make American Great Again. The fact is America has always been great. It never stopped being great. To suggest otherwise is pure fiction. Even now, in the face of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, an overwhelming majority of people would still choose the U.S. over Russia, China, or Iran. This is because people trust in the promise of America, the very promise Trump has worked to undermine. Trump fails to comprehend that American exceptionalism has always, and will always, be predicated on what America could be, not what it has been in the past. The United States has made its fair share of mistakes since its inception in 1776, but this checkered past should not conjure up feelings of shame or embarrassment. Instead, we must acknowledge our mistakes and push ahead toward a brighter future. President Obama once said that “those who only understand exceptionalism as preserving the past; who deny our faults or inequality; who say love it or leave it; those are the people who are afraid. Those are the people who think America is some fragile thing.” America is exceptional because of its ability to grapple with the painful mistakes of its past; colonization, slavery, and the use of nuclear weapons are a few examples that come to mind. Acknowledging and seeking to rectify past wrongs is not weak but strong, not un-American, but unabashedly pro-American, not partisan but bipartisan. Our values are what make this “city upon a hill” so exceptional. It is not because we have the biggest guns nor the most money; rather, it is the enduring faith in the great American experiment that forms the basis for our excellence.

Ronald Reagan once said that “freedom… is never more than one generation away from extinction… it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.” Fortunately, we are not being called upon to don fatigues and face a material foe. Our war is different, more ideological than physical. Our war will be peaceful, not violent. Our war will be fought on November 3rd when we cast our ballots to decide the future of the United States of America, and as a corollary, the future of the free world. It is a war we are morally obliged to fight. Respect for the generations of Americans who selflessly gave their lives for the promise of a “more perfect union” demands it. To meet this moment, we must deliver a resounding defeat to Trumpism and restore the promise of American Exceptionalism. I urge you to lay down the shackles of partisanship and join me in voting for Joe Biden.