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The Two Sides of American Exceptionalism

Any post-Trump US president will confront a fundamental question. Can the US promote democratic values without military intervention and crusades, and at the same time take a non-hegemonic lead in establishing and maintaining the institutions needed for a world of interdependence?

CAMBRIDGE – In July, I joined 43 other scholars of international relations in paying for a newspaper advertisement arguing that the US should preserve the current international order. The institutions that make up this order have contributed to “unprecedented levels of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers. US leadership helped to create this system, and US leadership has long been critical for its success.”

But some serious scholars declined to sign, not only on grounds of the political futility of such public statements, but because they disagreed with the “bipartisan US commitment to ‘liberal hegemony’ and the fetishization of ‘US leadership’ on which it rests.” Critics correctly pointed out that the American order after 1945 was neither global nor always very liberal, while defenders replied that while the order was imperfect, it produced unparalleled economic growth and allowed the spread of democracy.

Such debates are unlikely to have much effect on President Donald Trump, who proclaimed in his inaugural address that, “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First, America First […] We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”