GUEST CONTRIBUTOR AT SAIS WASHINGTON
American exceptionalism is a sham. The US does not stand above history as a city on a hill. Like all states, it pursues its own interests at the expense of others, regardless of how those others govern themselves. This is not to the shame of God’s Country. Its policies are the result of the natural laws underlying international relations, laws appropriately classified as realism.
Hans Morgenthau, the realest of realists, who spent most of his life stateside, explained how these natural laws, far from utopian, represent the best possible scenario. The German-born theorist showed how state self-interest is a benevolent force in international politics. It provides a measure of predictability and stability to international relations. Goodwill, he noted, can only prevent intentionally evil policies. If a leader takes positive intentions too far and attempts a messianic struggle against the natural laws behind world politics (which Morgenthau described as “impervious to our preferences”), that leader will invariably fail to achieve a revolution in human behaviour and likely cause immediate harm.
American leaders are no exception, and, despite their speeches, the facts of US foreign policy do not tell the story of an exalted people nourishing alien freedom. Instead, they jibe with the time-tested natural order of global politics. Observed naked, without the garb of national myths, the body of America’s interaction with the rest of the world takes a recognizable, realist form.
US leaders are aware of this hard truth, which explains why illiberal countries are only designated as threats to democratic freedom when US antagonism can accomplish US material gains. Leaders of Ukraine and Syria, thus, are not worth fighting because they are particularly inhospitable to human rights, but because their decisions bolster Russia to America’s detriment. The humanitarian flap is merely employed to appease the unwashed, un-SAIS-educated masses that remain blissfully unaware of how realism operates.
If idealism were driving Obama’s foreign policy, one would expect him to commit hara-kiri over what has become of Libya following his oxymoronic, lead-from-behind intervention there. Gaddafi’s removal and the apparent contentment of the US to leave Libya a sandstorm of stateless chaos is a quintessential example of brutal realism at work. While it did little to help Libyans (quite the contrary), destroying the Libyan state gave the US certain advantages, like unmonitored access to Gaddafi’s arsenal, some of which it secretly routed to Syria for the war against Assad.
Now more than any time since the Cold War, the US, a falling hegemon, can ill afford to sacrifice its interests for a naïve push to alter the inexorable reality of global politics. If it stops competing amorally on the world stage, it risks falling to a position of weakness, which would compromise the material wealth that allows it domestic freedoms in the first place. (Remember, we are not talking about an exceptional people here.)
Therefore, expect complaints about illiberal states to arise from US leaders only when an ulterior motive is at play, and remember that, per Morgenthau, America is doing the best she can.