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Many Americans have recoiled at President Donald Trump’s “America first” foreign policy. Critics charge that his populist brand of statecraft undermines the United States’ role as an exceptional nation destined to bring political and economic liberty to a waiting world. Trump exhibits isolationist, unilateralist, and protectionist instincts; indifference to the promotion of democracy; and animosity toward immigrants. How could Americans elect a president so at odds with what their country stands for?
Yet “America first” is less out of step with U.S. history than meets the eye. Trump is not so much abandoning American exceptionalism as he is tapping into an earlier incarnation of it. Since World War II, the country’s exceptional mission has centered on the idea of a Pax Americana upheld through the vigorous export of U.S. power and values. But before that, American exceptionalism meant insulating the American experiment from foreign threats, shunning international entanglements, spreading democracy through example rather than intrusion, embracing protectionism and fair (not free) trade, and preserving a relatively homogeneous citizenry through racist and anti-immigrant policies. In short, it was about America first.
That original version of American exceptionalism—call it American Exceptionalism 1.0—vanished from mainstream politics after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But it retained allure in the heartland and is today making a comeback across the political spectrum as Americans have tired of their nation’s role as the global policeman and grown skeptical of the benefits of globalization and immigration. To be sure, as a grand strategy, “America first” is headed for failure. The United States and the rest of the world have become too interdependent; solving most international challenges requires collective, not unilateral, action; and immigration has already ensured that a homogeneous United States is gone for good.
A brand of exceptionalism dating to the eighteenth century is ill suited to the twenty-first. Still, the contemporary appeal of “America first” and the inward turn it marks reveal that the version of exceptionalism that has guided U.S. grand strategy since the 1940s is also past its prime. Trump’s presidency has exposed the need for a new narrative to steer U.S. foreign policy. The nation’s exceptional mission is far from complete; a world tilting toward illiberalism sorely needs a counterweight of republican ideals. How the United States redefines its exceptional calling will determine whether it is up to the task.
AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM 1.0
From its earliest days, the exceptionalist narrative has set the boundaries of public discourse and provided a political and ideological foundation for U.S. grand strategy. The original conception of American exceptionalism was based on five national attributes.
A brand of exceptionalism dating to the eighteenth century is ill suited to the twenty-first.
The first was geography: protective oceans kept predatory powers at bay, and ample and fertile land sustained a growing population and generated wealth, helping the United States become the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere. But the nation’s geopolitical ambition would stretch no farther. Exceptional geographic bounty enabled, even mandated, a grand strategy of isolation from other quarters. As President George Washington affirmed in his Farewell Address, the country enjoyed a “detached and distant situation. . . . Why forgo the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” The United States did experiment with a broader imperialism in 1898, colonizing the Philippines and taking hold of Hawaii and a number of other Pacific islands, and it intervened in Europe during World War I. But these episodes provoked a sharp backlash and consolidated the stubborn isolationism of the interwar decades.
Second, in part because of its geographic isolation, the United States enjoyed unparalleled autonomy, both at home and abroad. Although the founders were keen to expand overseas commerce through trade deals, they were deeply averse to binding strategic commitments. As Washington said in his Farewell Address, “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” After reneging in 1793 on the revolution-era alliance with France that had helped the United States gain independence, the country would not enter into another alliance until World War II.
Third, Americans embraced a messianic mission: they believed that their unique experiment in political and economic liberty would redeem the world. As the pamphleteer Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, “A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.” But the United States was not to fulfill this mission through intervention. When liberal revolutions unfolded in Europe and Latin America in the early 1800s, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams asserted that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” The country should be “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” he insisted, but only through “the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.”
Fourth, the United States enjoyed unprecedented social equality and economic mobility. Americans had replaced monarchy and aristocracy with equality of opportunity. Yeoman farmers and small-town shopkeepers were the foot soldiers of manifest destiny—the notion that democracy and prosperity would stretch from coast to coast. As the United States became a leading commercial power, it defended its emerging industrial base through tariffs and insisted on fair and reciprocal trade, not free trade. And when necessary, it was prepared to use deadly force to defend the commercial rights of its citizens, as made clear in the Barbary Wars of the early 1800s and in the War of 1812.
Finally, Americans believed their nation had been endowed with not just exceptional land but also exceptional people: Anglo-Saxons. Reflecting a view commonplace in the early United States, the Congregational minister Horace Bushnell declared, “Out of all the inhabitants of the world, . . . a select stock, . . . the noblest of the stock, was chosen to people our country.” The racial dimension of American exceptionalism manifested itself in the campaigns against Native Americans, the enslavement and segregation of African Americans, and frequent bouts of anti-immigrant sentiment. Through the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Congress extended the timeline for immigrants to become U.S. citizens and granted the federal government the power to imprison or deport those it deemed disloyal. Restrictions on immigration kicked in during the second half of the 1800s and intensified during the interwar period. And the fear of diluting the population with “inferior peoples” curbed the country’s desire to acquire significant territory in the Caribbean and Central America after the Civil War.
AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM 2.0
Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor, which, as Arthur Vandenberg, a Repubican senator and one-time isolationist, wrote in his diary, “ended isolationism for any realist.” So began the era of American Exceptionalism 2.0. If the United States could no longer shield itself from the world and share the American experiment by example, it would have to run the world by more actively projecting its power and values. Ever since the 1940s, internationalists have enjoyed political dominance, while isolationists have become political pariahs—“wacko birds,” as Senator John McCain of Arizona once labeled his fellow Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and others who take that stance.
Under American Exceptionalism 2.0, an aversion to foreign entanglement gave way to a strategy of global engagement. The Cold War set the stage for the country’s core alliances in Europe and Asia, as well as a global network of diplomatic and military outposts. Unilateralism yielded to multilateralism. In 1919 and 1920, the Senate rejected U.S. participation in the League of Nations three times; in 1945, it ratified the UN Charter by a vote of 89 to 2. The United States also assumed a leading role in the panoply of institutions that have undergirded the postwar rules-based international order. And it continued to pursue its messianic mission, but through more intrusive means, from the successful occupations and transformations of Germany and Japan after World War II to the ongoing and less successful forays into Afghanistan and Iraq.
The American dream remained central to this updated version of exceptionalism, but it was to be fulfilled by the factory worker instead of the yeoman farmer. The postwar industrial boom generated bipartisan support for open trade. And especially after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, postwar American exceptionalism lost its racial tinge, replaced by a conviction that the melting pot would successfully integrate a diverse population into one civic nation. Preaching pluralism and tolerance became part of spreading the American way.
THE RETURN OF AMERICA FIRST
Postwar presidents through Barack Obama have been staunch defenders of American Exceptionalism 2.0. “The United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” Obama affirmed in a 2012 commencement speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy. But just minutes after taking office, Trump promised something different. “From this moment on,” he proclaimed in his inaugural address, “it’s going to be America first.”
Because of the America First Committee, which was founded in 1940 to oppose U.S. intervention in World War II, this phrase evokes anti-Semitism and isolationism. But there is more to Trump’s “America first” than its ugly pedigree. Trump’s political success stems in no small part from his ability to exploit a version of American exceptionalism that resonates with the nation’s history. As the writer Walter Russell Mead has argued, populist foreign policy—what Mead calls a “Jacksonian” approach—has always maintained its appeal in the heartland, Trump’s electoral base. Whether Trump himself actually believes in the exceptional nature of the American experiment is unclear (his illiberal instincts and behavior suggest he may not). Nonetheless, he has proved quite successful at reanimating core elements of American Exceptionalism 1.0.
Trump has cloaked himself in isolationist garb, repeatedly questioning the value of core U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia and promising in a campaign speech outlining his “America first” foreign policy that the United States will be “getting out of the nation-building business.” So far, his bark has been worse than his bite, as these pledges have proved easier said than done. The United States remains the strategic stabilizer of Europe and Northeast Asia and continues to be mired in the broader Middle East. And when it comes to Iran and North Korea, Trump, if anything, errs on the hawkish side.
Still, Trump’s vision is nonetheless isolationist. In his “America first” campaign speech, he promised to let allies that did not increase their own military spending “defend themselves.” And he pledged to bring to an end the era in which “our politicians seem more interested in defending the borders of foreign countries than their own.”
Trump wants to roll back multilateralism. As a candidate, he vowed that “we will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.” Once in office, he pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate agreement, and UNESCO. He refused to certify the nuclear deal with Iran and continues to take aim at the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization.
As for the United States’ messianic mission, Trump is disdainful of the activist brand of democracy promotion embraced under American Exceptionalism 2.0. As he explained in that same campaign speech, he sees today’s instability in the Middle East as a direct result of the “dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy.” But Trump does not stop there; indeed, he forsakes even American Exceptionalism 1.0, by showing little patience for republican ideals. He traffics in untruths, denigrates the media, and expresses admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocrats.
According to Trump, the American dream has given way to what he called “American carnage” in his inaugural address. He claimed that the wealth of the country’s middle class “has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.” Taking a page from American Exceptionalism 1.0, he has promised protectionist policies to “bring back our jobs . . . bring back our borders . . . bring back our dreams.”
Trump also wants to return to the more homogeneous America of the past. Restricting immigration; ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or daca (the Obama administration’s program that shielded undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children); insulting Hispanic Americans; sending back Haitians, Salvadorans, and others displaced by natural disasters; and equivocating on neo-Nazis in Charlottesville—all these moves are not-so-subtle paeans to the days when Christians of European extraction dominated the United States. For Trump, making America great again means making it white again.
AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM IN CRISIS
"America first" helped Trump win the presidency, but as a guiding principle for U.S. foreign policy, it is leading the nation astray. As Trump has already found out, a daunting array of threats makes it impossible for the United States to return to the era of “entangling alliances with none,” as Thomas Jefferson put it. The rules-based international order that the United States erected may limit the country’s room for maneuver, but dismantling it is a recipe for anarchy. In today’s globalized economy, protectionism would worsen, not improve, the plight of the U.S. middle class. And with non-Hispanic whites projected to fall below 50 percent of the population by the middle of this century, there is no going back to Anglo-Saxon America.
But the political appeal of “America first” also reveals serious cracks in American Exceptionalism 2.0, which still dominates the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Trump’s success stems not just from his skill at activating traditional elements of American identity but also from his promises to redress legitimate and widespread discontent. The United States has overreached abroad; after all, it was Obama, not Trump, who insisted that “it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” The middle class is hurting badly: stagnant wages, inequality, and socioeconomic segregation have put the American dream out of reach for many. And the nation has yet to arrive at an effective and humane policy for controlling immigration, raising important questions about whether the melting-pot approach remains viable.
The United States can either abandon its exceptionalist narrative or craft a new one.
American Exceptionalism 2.0 is also failing to deliver overseas. With help from the United States, large swaths of Europe, Asia, and the Americas have become democratic, but illiberal alternatives to the American way are more than holding their own. The collective wealth of the West has fallen below 50 percent of global GDP, and an ascendant China is challenging the postwar architecture, meaning that Washington can no longer call the shots in multilateral institutions. It was easy for the United States to advocate a rules-based international order when it was the one writing the rules, but that era has come to an end. Today, U.S. ideals are no longer backed up by U.S. preponderance, making it harder to spread American values.
AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM 3.0
With American Exceptionalism 2.0 stumbling and Trump’s effort to revert to the original version not viable, the United States can either abandon its exceptionalist narrative or craft a new one. The former option may seem tempting amid the nation’s political and economic trials, but the costs would be too high. American exceptionalism has helped the country sustain a domestic consensus behind a grand strategy aimed at spreading democracy and the rule of law. With illiberalism on the rise, the globe desperately needs an anchor of republican ideals—a role that only the United States has the power and credentials to fill. Failing to uphold rules-based governance would risk the return of a Hobbesian world, violating not just the United States’ principles but also its interests. Indeed, it is precisely because the world is potentially at a historical inflection point that the United States must reclaim its exceptionalist mantle.
Doing so will require adjustments to all five dimensions of the exceptionalist narrative. For starters, the United States should find the prudent middle ground between the isolationism of American Exceptionalism 1.0 and the overreach that has accompanied Pax Americana. Some scholars have suggested that the United States embrace “offshore balancing,” letting other countries take the lead in keeping the peace in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf, with Washington intervening only in a strategic emergency. But this approach goes too far. The United States’ main problem of late has been shot selection, embroiling itself in unnecessary wars of choice in the strategic periphery—namely, the Middle East—where offshore balancing is indeed the right approach. But in the core strategic theaters of Europe and Asia, a U.S. retreat would only unsettle allies and embolden adversaries, inviting arms races and intensifying rivalries. The United States needs to end its days as the global policeman, but it should remain the arbiter of great-power peace, while emphasizing diplomatic, rather than military, engagement outside core areas.
The United States must also rebalance its alliances and partnerships. Trump is not alone in his antipathy to pacts that, as he said, “tie us up.” Congress has lost its appetite for the treaty-based obligations that laid the foundation for the postwar order. But the United States cannot afford to drift back to unilateralism; only collective action can address many of today’s international challenges, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and climate change. The United States should therefore view itself as the leader of an international posse, defending rules-based institutions when possible and putting together “coalitions of the willing” when only informal cooperation is available.
Although Trump’s diplomacy lacks tact, he is right to insist that U.S. allies shoulder their fair share. The United States should continue catalyzing international teamwork, but Washington must make clear that it will ante up only when its partners do. And in areas where the United States transitions to an offshore-balancing role, it should help organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the African Union become more capable stewards of their respective regions. Washington should also encourage emerging powers such as Brazil, China, India, and South Africa to provide the much-needed public goods of humanitarian assistance, peacekeepers, and development aid.
Although the United States’ messianic mission should remain at the core of its exceptionalist narrative, the country must transition from crusader back to exemplar. Recent efforts at regime change in the Middle East, far from clearing the way for democracy, have unleashed violence and regional instability. Leading by example hardly means giving up on democracy promotion, but it does entail engaging in a world of political diversity and respectfully working with regimes of all types. Still, Americans must always defend universal political and human rights; to do otherwise would be to abandon the ideals that inform the nation’s identity. Trump’s failure on this count is not serving to reclaim an earlier version of American exceptionalism but denigrating it.
Domestic renewal is also essential to restoring faith in the American way both at home and abroad. The United States cannot serve as a global beacon if its electorate is deeply divided and it cannot provide opportunity for many of its citizens. Still, if the United States could recover from the internal discord of the Civil War and the hardship of the Great Depression, it can surely bounce back from today’s malaise. Renewing the American dream—a key step toward overcoming political polarization—requires a realistic plan for restoring upward mobility, not a false promise to bring back an industrial heyday that is gone for good. Manufacturing employment has suffered mainly because of automation, not open trade or immigration. Adjusting the terms of trade can help. But rebuilding the middle class and restoring economic optimism in areas hurt by deindustrialization will also require ambitious plans to better educate and retrain workers, expand broadband Internet access, and promote growth sectors, including renewable energy, health care, and data processing.
Finally, a new version of American exceptionalism must embrace the idea that the United States’ increasingly diverse population will integrate into an evolving national community imbued with the country’s long-standing civic values. As sectarian passions cleave the Middle East, Hindu nationalism unsettles India, and discord over the future of immigration and multiculturalism test European solidarity, the United States must demonstrate unity amid diversity. The melting-pot approach of American Exceptionalism 2.0 is the right one, but sustaining it will require deliberate measures. Reversing socioeconomic segregation and immobility will take heavy investment in public schools and community colleges. Effective border control, a rational approach to legal immigration, and a fair but firm way to deal with undocumented immigrants would assure Americans that diversity is the product of design, not disorder. Fluency in English is critical to helping newcomers enter the mainstream. And national service and other programs that mix young Americans could encourage social and cultural integration and produce a stronger sense of community.
If nothing else, the rise of Trump has demonstrated that American Exceptionalism 2.0 has run its course. But try as he might, Trump will fail in his bid to respond to today’s challenges by going back to the past. Looking beyond Trump, the United States will need a new exceptionalism to guide its grand strategy and renew its unique role as the world’s anchor of liberal ideals.