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American Exceptionalism and Foreign Policy Restraint

Michael Brendan Dougherty describes an “older definition of American exceptionalism”:

A sense of disgust and confusion with the world — not jealous admiration — is exactly what motivates a more sensible and restrained foreign policy. It’s not that we should sober up, but that they are drunk.

There is some truth to this, but I would say it is less true today than it has been at almost any other time in modern history. Overall, the world is more peaceful and less dangerous than it has been in several decades, which makes hyper-activist foreign policy both redundant and harmful. If the rest of the world were really so confusing and alarming, it would not be necessary for hawks to indulge in routine threat inflation, nor would they have to claim that U.S. interests are imperiled in virtually every crisis and conflict that shows up on the news. As it is, they have to exaggerate what few threats there are and simply invent others. Hawks thrive on the perception that the world is extremely chaotic–and therefore dangerous to everyone–and they rely on upheavals overseas to provide them with occasions to have the U.S. “do something.”

The trouble is not that the world is all that confusing, but that many of us know so little about it and even fewer seem inclined to understand. Instead of encouraging humility and restraint, this lack of understanding leads many Americans to accept the argument that other nations’ problems are ours to “solve.” Those most inclined to cast restraint aside are typically the ones that know the least about the places that they want the U.S. to “shape.” Where they see confusion and tumult, they imagine that the U.S.–and only the U.S.–can bring order. When that doesn’t happen (as it usually doesn’t), and when many of the people supposedly “benefiting” from our interventions respond with resentment and hostility, it is easier to hold them responsible and write them off as “ungrateful.” It may be easier, but it doesn’t prevent the same folly from being repeated over and over again in the future. That will happen only when we recognize that most nations neither want nor need the kind of “leadership” that hawks want to give them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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