Winthrop's Warning

How politicians and pundits misread “city on a hill” and butcher the real meaning of American exceptionalism.

"For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."

- John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity, 1630

Poor John Winthrop! If he knew how badly future generations of Americans would mangle and misread his most-famous sermon, he'd be turning over in his grave.

Somehow, Winthrop's invocation of the Sermon on the Mount -- delivered, according to American lore, to Massachusetts Bay colonists on board the ship Arabella -- became the first crucial brick in the vast edifice now known as American Exceptionalism. Winthrop's words have been repeatedly used to invoke the notion that America is not only unique, but uniquely blessed: destined by God to be "the greatest nation on Earth."

Over time, a stated commitment to this belief became more or less mandatory for American politicians. America, Mitt Romney declared during the 2012 presidential election campaign, is "a shining city on a hill. I believe in America. I believe it is the greatest nation in the history of the Earth. I believe that the next century must be an American century. Our highest priority must be to maintain a people, an economy, and a military so strong that no nation would ever risk challenging it."

President Obama has gone out of his way to assure Americans that he shares the sentiment: "I will work every single day to make sure that America continues to be the greatest nation on Earth," he insisted in his final 2012 debate with Romney.

An unwritten corollary to the "greatest nation on Earth" narrative is that criticism of the United States is unacceptable, and apologies and admissions of error are beyond the pale. Even realist acknowledgment of U.S. limitations quickly provoke accusations of "declinism." As a result, debates about U.S. foreign policy tend to quickly degenerate into debates about American exceptionalism.

Ukraine is a case in point. To critics, President Obama's failure to prevent or end the Russian military incursion into Crimea demonstrates his shameful lack of conviction in American supremacy. As a Heritage Foundation report puts it, "President Obama's foreign policy has been an empty shell masking a spectacular lack of American leadership on the world stage. This flawed approach, with a fundamental rejection of the notion of American exceptionalism, is amply on display in the Ukrainian crisis." 

It's hardly surprising that the rest of the world is dubious about American claims to exceptionalism. In September, Vladimir Putin called American exceptionalism "dangerous," and in the context of Ukraine, the Russian media was quick to deride American exceptionalism as "arrogance and lawlessness." Putin's not alone: around the world, global publics seem to have grown increasingly disenchanted with U.S. claims to leadership, and fewer and fewer think Washington will remain the world's leading seat of power.

And though American political leaders seem to share a bipartisan dedication to denying that American global power could ever decline, the American public seems far more realistic. In poll results released in December 2013, the Pew Research Center found: "For the first time in surveys dating back nearly 40 years, a majority (53 percent) says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago. The share saying the U.S. is less powerful has increased 12 points since 2009 and has more than doubled -- from just 20 percent -- since 2004. An even larger majority says the U.S. is losing respect internationally," and a majority told pollsters that the United States should "mind its own business" internationally.

As military scholar Andrew Bacevich recently noted, the pundits and politicians who are so quick to invoke the battle cry of American exceptionalism suffer from more than a little "selective amnesia": they prefer to forget that the US has not always been a force for unmitigated good in the world, says Bacevich, and dismiss those who argue for a more modest US role in the world as "unwashed masses... too quick to give into the temptation to shirk their duty."

But American "exceptionalism" wasn't always premised on a conviction of permanent U.S. power and superiority. After all, in 1630, John Winthrop's famous Arabella sermon was far from triumphalist. On the contrary: it was a stern admonition of the evils that would befall the settlers is they should place too high a value on worldly gain or power.

To Winthrop and his fellow Puritans, the settlement of the New World represented a covenant with God -- the settlers pledge to live lives of "service to the Lord" if God will "bring us in peace to the place we desire." And God, Winthrop reminds his flock, expects people to keep their promises. "If we ... shall fall to embrace this present world ... seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant."

"Now the only way to avoid this shipwrack," wrote Winthrop, "and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do Justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God." If the settlers could manage this, he assured them, their future would be bright: "The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways.... We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, 'may the Lord make it like that of New England.'"

It's at this point that Winthrop offers his most-quoted lines: "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."

But most people don't bother to read his next lines:

"So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going."

Those fond of quoting Winthrop to buttress theories of American exceptionalism should remember this: Winthrop's declaration that "we shall be as a city upon a hill" wasn't a promise.

It was a warning.

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Pot, Meet Kettle

While Washington was bashing Russia at the U.N. for violating international law, it was facing similar criticisms of its own legal record.

At the United Nations this week, senior U.S. officials have been blasting Russian officials for disregarding established international law and rules by manhandling Ukrainian territory. In Geneva, with much less public attention, U.S. officials have been on the receiving end of accusations that it, too, is circumventing international law.

The focus in New York on Thursday was a session of the U.N. Security Council, where U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power led criticism of Russia's policy toward Ukraine, insisting that "law matters, rules matter." The Geneva occasion, meanwhile, was a meeting of the U.N.'s much less powerful Human Rights Committee, which is conducting a regular review of America's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the ICCPR.* (The session was initially scheduled for late last year, but was delayed because of the U.S. government shutdown).

The committee's examination is not binding and carries no immediate legal weight, but it creates an unusual opportunity for foreign diplomats and NGOs to ask pointed questions of U.S. officials. On Thursday and Friday, State and Justice Department officials fielded hard questions about U.S. drone policy, the country's application of the death penalty, spying programs, and interrogation practices. Several countries seized on recent tension between Senate investigators and the Central Intelligence Agency over a review of U.S. interrogation policy.

Perhaps the most awkward aspect of the session, however, was the discussion it generated about the Obama administration's own interpretation of a key human rights treaty. Even as the United States charges Russia with flouting international rules, it has been forced to publicly confront its own efforts to limit the reach of international law.

Shortly before the U.S. appearance at the committee, news leaked of an internal debate about how the United States interprets the ICCPR. For almost two decades, the United States has insisted that the treaty applies only to U.S. conduct on its own national territory -- and not U.S. behavior abroad. The United States acknowledges that the ICCPR applies to how it handles Occupy Wall Street protesters, for instance, but has denied that it covers U.S. detention practices or intelligence operations overseas.

This narrow view departs from the rulings of international courts and from the interpretations of most U.S allies, who say the treaty covers activity inside and outside the borders of states that have agreed to its terms. Thanks to leaked documents, it's now clear that some senior U.S. officials also believe the American interpretation is bunk.

On March 6, the New York Times published a memo by former State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, arguing that the longstanding U.S. interpretation is unsustainable. To adhere to it, Koh wrote, "in the face of extensive contrary evidence and authority would place our attorneys in the position of providing legal advice to the U.S. government that does not reflect the best reading of the law."

As the American session at the committee approached, there was speculation that the United States might signal a policy shift. On Thursday, however, it became clear that Washington would stick to its guns. Acting State Department legal advisor Mary McLeod insisted that the Koh memo had not in fact produced any change in the U.S. stance. "The United States continues to believe that its interpretation -- that the covenant applies only to individuals both within its territory and within its jurisdiction -- is the most consistent with the covenant's language and negotiating history," McLeod said.

How much the U.S. interpretation of the ICCPR matters in practice is up for debate. As Koh pointed out in his memo, the United States already acknowledges that other international legal obligations, including the Geneva Conventions, apply to its behavior in armed conflicts. President Obama has issued policy guidance requiring U.S. compliance with international norms against torture. But the ICCPR might cover some U.S. activity -- including detention policy and actions by intelligence operatives outside of war zones -- that other legal instruments don't.

Exposure of the internal administration debate has been a salient reminder that for all its public proselytizing about human rights and the rule of law, the United States in many contexts remains fiercely resistant to binding legal scrutiny of its own behavior.

The U.S. approach to the ICCPR is part of a larger trend. In the 1980s, Washington withdrew the broad jurisdiction it had originally granted to the International Court of Justice and has never restored it. Russia also limits the ICJ's jurisdiction. Like Russia, too, the United States has declined to join the International Criminal Court (although it often supports its investigations). And in 2010, U.S. officials (including Harold Koh) worked with Russia and other big powers to ensure that the ICC couldn't ever prosecute them for aggression against other states.

That said, the world's leading liberal democracy and the autocratic petrostate are miles apart in many respects and at odds on numerous issues. On the merits of the Ukraine situation, they have little common ground. But on the specific question of how much international legal scrutiny they will accept, there's not much daylight between Moscow and Washington. Writing on the Just Security blog, Ryan Goodman, a New York University law professor, noted the awkward coincidence of the Ukraine crisis and the Geneva debate happening at the same time. "Putin now knows he will have a friend in Washington if Moscow tries to scuttle the [Human Rights] Committee's attention to Russian actions in Ukraine."

*Correction, March 31, 2014: This article originally misstated that the review of America's human rights record was being conducted by the U.N. Human Rights Council through its Universal Periodic Review process. The review took place through the U.N. Human Rights Committee. (Return to reading.)