Taking Exception

America's founding principles make the country unique, argues Marion Smith.

Stephen M. Walt's myth-busting piece about American exceptionalism ("The Myth of American Exceptionalism," November 2011) represents the sort of analysis that makes a hobbyhorse of deconstructing America's founding. The United States was and remains exceptional not because of its power, accomplishments, or inspiring tropes (as Walt seems to define "exceptionalism"), but insofar as Americans remain committed to the country's founding principles.

Properly understood, American exceptionalism captures the unique nature of a political order based on universal principles of human liberty and equal natural rights. These ideas cannot be disproved. Nor should Americans' steady adherence to them be ignored. Since 1776, these principles have guided the United States' attempts, imperfect at times, to stand for freedom and justice in the world. If one is looking for examples in U.S. foreign policy, how about the leadership Americans showed in defeating the Barbary corsairs off North Africa in 1805 and 1816, which helped bring about the end of white slavery and piracy in the region? How about America's commitment to ending European imperialism in North America through the Monroe Doctrine, which promoted a new system of justice for one-third of the globe?

In the 20th century, the United States opposed imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and Soviet Russia -- powers that went undefeated until American involvement helped tip the scales in favor of America's dearly held ideas, ones that have informed and should inform its interests.

Modern perversions of these diplomatic traditions do not invalidate the foundations of American statecraft. By focusing too much on the last 50 years of U.S. foreign policy, Walt denies America the surest way to put its diplomacy on a more prudent path.

Today, American grand strategy is indeed undergoing an intellectual crisis. Unfortunately, Walt has not identified the problem; his improvident dismissal of American exceptionalism is part of the problem.

Graduate Fellow
Heritage Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Stephen M. Walt replies:

Marion Smith's letter exemplifies precisely the sort of reflexive jingoism I criticized in my article. He offers no evidence to challenge my facts or interpretations, and the historical examples that he cites do not help his case. Few Latin Americans would call the Monroe Doctrine a policy that brought "justice" to the Western Hemisphere, which is hardly surprising in light of the United States' numerous military interventions and support for assorted military dictatorships there. Similarly, the U.S. interventions in World War I and World War II were driven primarily by balance-of-power considerations rather than high ideals. Has Smith forgotten that the United States stayed out of both wars until it was directly attacked and that its most important ally in World War II -- in terms of its overall contribution to defeating the Third Reich -- was the Soviet Union, a totalitarian dictatorship led by a brutal mass murderer?

America has a number of unique features, as I noted in my article. It possesses unprecedented power and enjoys an unusually high level of security. These traits give U.S. leaders the freedom to meddle in many parts of the world, sometimes to good effect but often with disastrous consequences. Americans have no monopoly on wisdom or virtue, and the United States will never manage to address its various shortcomings or preserve its past achievements if Americans do not see both clearly. Smith seems content to bask in a comfortable national mythology. I prefer to see things as they are, in the hope of making them better.


Terms of Service

Would the United States really be better off with six-year presidential terms?

Sunil Khilnani ("What Ails America?: The Presidency," November 2011) argues that Americans would be better off with a president limited to a single six-year term. Banning second terms might be tempting given that every second term in recent history has involved some scandal or failure: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky, Abramoff, the 2008 financial meltdown. But would a single six-year term really improve things? Presidents might take bigger risks or exhibit bad judgment once they know they won't face voters again.

Khilnani cites the distraction of raising money for reelection, but he treats a relentless fundraising schedule as a de facto requirement of the job when it is in fact a choice. Incumbent presidents do not have difficulty raising money. In fact, the last major-party candidate to have serious issues with money was Bob Dole in 1996.

As of October, President Barack Obama had raised $155 million for his reelection campaign, outpacing all his Republican challengers combined. If he refused to raise another dime until Election Day, he would still be fine. Incumbent presidents also don't have to worry about getting their messages out; television cameras follow them wherever they go. What's more, taxpayers pick up most of the tab for their transportation expenses when they fly Air Force One for trips that include some "officially non-campaign" business.

It is easy to suspect that Obama's relentless fundraising schedule is not about money. At those high-dollar fundraisers, the president is surrounded by adoring crowds, all convinced he's doing a terrific job and enthusiastic enough to pay five-figure sums for the honor of telling him so. For a president who has endured a frustrating three years and currently suffers low approval ratings, basking in donors' adulation must feel like a warm bath on a cold night.

Contributing Editor
National Review

Washington, D.C.

Sunil Khilnani replies:

Jim Geraghty worries that presidential fundraising efforts that distract from the task of governing have less to do with money and more to do with a psychological need for compensatory adulation felt by down-in-the-dumps incumbents. That might be, but campaign fundraising is a major time suck not just for presidents seeking second terms but for the entire American political class. Ask any member of Congress how much time she or he spends dialing up lists supplied by aides. More importantly though, my argument was not just about the distractions of fundraising; rather, it was about pointing out that officeholders skew everything they do simply to avoid putting a foot wrong. They become professional trimmers rather than the leaders they were elected to be. Being a leader involves taking risks, and indeed those can sometimes go wrong, as Geraghty also worries. It's likely that presidents will try to summon the best judgment they can when making such decisions. Still, leaders are supposed to be achievers, not appeasers.