American exceptionalism, seen through the prism of American blunders

June 13, 2013

The past weeks’ revelations about PRISM, the National Security Agency’s broad electronic surveillance program, follow a grand American tradition of major disclosures that undermine the high standards to which the United States holds itself — and the world. In this case: How can the U.S. tell other countries to stop using the Internet to pursue their aims at the expense of others when it has been systematically spying on foreigners for years? 

This contradiction is nothing new in American foreign policy: it’s the flip side of American exceptionalism. The United States is so eager to cast itself as a pinnacle of various behaviors and values that when it inevitably falls short, it leads to awkward contradictions. That’s a shame, because the United States actually does have substantive differences from many other countries on civil liberties, human rights and democracy — it’s just that its stance ensures any slipups and embarrassments overshadow everything else.

Look no further than last weekend, when the NSA disclosures spoiled the Obama administration’s plans to corner China on its own cyber practices. Instead, publications like the Guardian were running headlines like “U.S.-China summit ends with accord on all but cyberespionage.”

And yet there are real differences between China and the U.S. on cyberwarfare. It’s true both countries attack one another. By some accounts, more than 90 percent of cyberespionage in the U.S. originates in China. In April, NSA chief Keith Alexander told Congress that 40 new CYBERCOM teams are being assembled — 13 of them will focus on offensive operations. But America’s offense comes from its military and surveillance arm and is predominantly directed towards China’s.

On the other hand, the evidence suggests that a significant percentage of China’s attacks are driven by commercial aims. China’s state capitalist model gives the government broader control over the private sector, and intertwines these state-owned enterprises’ success with that of the government itself. Chinese corporations narrow the performance gap between themselves and foreign competitors by targeting trade secrets and intellectual property. But it’s in China’s interests to blur the distinction between its practices and the U.S.’s. Why should China listen to American grievances about China’s IP theft when these practices work perfectly well — and Beijing can categorize America’s cyber practices as a step too far, also?

In recent interviews, Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the existence of the NSA program, claimed that the NSA has been actively hacking Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009. In the Cold War, the United States ultimately beat the Soviet Union in the eyes of the world through public opinion — not its nuclear arsenal. It would be wise to use the same tactic here.

It’s not just on the Internet that the U.S. has been caught on the wrong side of its own rhetoric. The 2008 financial crisis raised doubts around America’s claim that it had the best financial system in the world. How can America impel countries with different economic systems to believe in free markets after episodes like Enron, Lehman and Madoff? Of course, with a more nuanced appraisal of the capitalist system, where historical economic successes come hand in hand with a devotion to entrepreneurship, bubbles and cyclicality, it makes more sense. But the danger is that exceptionalist rhetoric eschews nuance — and it lets other countries do the same in their criticism of American practices.

There’s also the U.S.’s plea for others countries to root out corporate corruption, even as it allows corporate lobbyists to guide Washington’s policies. Of course, America’s level of corruption is far lower than in many developing countries; the U.S.’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was breakthrough legislation. But that doesn’t offset American missteps where it has fallen short of the lofty standards it sets for the world. 

And don’t forget the country’s various human rights efforts, whether they take the form of democracy-building, foreign aid or U.N. resolution. Those efforts are more easily advanced without iconic incidents and enterprises like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and drone strikes. 

This is the problem with the U.S.’s stubborn brand of exceptionalism — one can’t be nuanced when one is being bullheaded. Nevertheless, it was a more successful gambit when the U.S. was alone as the world’s superpower. But in the last 15 years, the world has changed — and America’s exceptionalist rhetoric largely has not.

So what can be done about it? First, the U.S. government — whether it be today’s, or some future one — has to lose the presumption that American values are the only values. Other countries do things their way for a reason, perhaps to make that country’s plutocrats even more wealthy, or maybe because a different system or set of values works better given that country’s stage of development.

Furthermore, when America transgresses, it has to be more honest about the transgression. While the resulting transparency may change the country, that’s all right: change is what happens when a citizenry is informed.

When the United States projects its standards upon the rest of the world, it makes it all the more glaring when the United States falls short of its own mark. Perhaps a more informed citizenry will have a more nuanced appreciation for America’s strengths and weaknesses — and impel politicians to reflect that in U.S. policy.

This column is based on a transcribed phone interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: A passenger stands beside a TV screen broadcasting news of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), on a train in Hong Kong June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Bobby Yip


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I tend to see the American exceptionalism debate as limited to Americans only, especially over the past decade. My contacts across the world associate the US with gross abuse of its influence.

Posted by socalite | Report as abusive

Today America leads the world economically because our dollar is the “least worst” of the fiat currencies.

I fear the day could come that we lead the world politically because we have become the “least worst” option, showing whatever face is most expedient at any given time and as bankrupt in culture and conviction as any smaller, less omnipotent alternate. If we don’t, would that be any better?

I see less and less difference in how the country is run regardless of the political party in the White House. More and more the choices given voters are those of “bad” and “worse”. I’m old enough to remember voting FOR someone or something instead of AGAINST.

Fun house mirrors aren’t much good for day to day use.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I do not know whether this is for real. Ordinary US citizen really thinks, i mean majority of them, that US is exceptional and best country on Earth ? (with some blunders?). If it is really the case then United States urgently needs “social psychologist” for the sake of all other humans on this planet.
1. Bi-party political system, all is settled within the Dem-Rep Family, politicians are clients for powerful economic patrons.
2. Political corruption on the level unprecedented in most UE democracies. Most of US “lobbying” activity would be actively prosecuted as corruption in majority of UE countries. Laws are tailored for highest bidder. With a few billions in campaign donations you can have anything: Glass-Steagall repealed, derivatives unregulated, bailout for friendly companies in the amount of hundreds of billions.
3. Very strong executive branch effectively suppressing civil liberties. Judicial branch role more and more in fact ceremonary.
4. Country becomes more and more militaristic and aggresive (very high defence spending to GDP ratio, aggresive wars waged worldwide to fulfill political goals, universal possession or fire arms)
5. Relatively high and rising Gini index (even after government benefits redistribution).
6. Difficult access to financially ineffective healthcare for majority of population,
7. High violent crime index, highest incarceration rate in the world,
8. Lack of equal access to good education at university level for majority of population (high fees, not transparent rules on admission)
Definitely I can list 15 countries that are a better place ot live, and their citizens do not think they are exceptional…

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

A point long overdue.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

“Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and drone strikes.” To say nothing of the wiping out of Red Indians and Hiroshima / Nagasaki.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

you should explain us how it is rational that USA is spying China while threatened by Russia? It is not a question coming back to the cold war. A triangle can’t be working ad the sharing of the world. But let’s look first the terrorist attack of Boston in which Russia appears ad a friend of the USA and 2ndly the coming conference on Syria in which the situation in an trial of strength. What is the spying of the world doing to make Putin weaker?

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

Security Is Paramount. You can enjoy liberties in life only if you live. Obama Administration has already said they are only watching metadata and not listening to calls. So only those people need to worry who are making calls to foes or who are traitors of the country.

Posted by Veer_k | Report as abusive

American ‘exceptionalism’ counts, provided it is not proclaimed. IF USA proclaims truth, from the nation founded on the only viable constitution on earth, it will lead.

Obama is not a leader, as Reagan was. Reagan proclaimed only that truth from a just nation enabling its citizens to grow in peace. ‘Tear down this wall’ is not based on any ‘exceptionalism’ – merely a statement demanding justice, even for non US citizens!

Posted by PADRAEG | Report as abusive

Outside the Anglo world, there are only few nations worthy of being called exceptional. That list is published annually, & contains all the usual characters, USA usually makes the top 11

Posted by PADRAEG | Report as abusive