Can American exceptionalism adjust to a multipolar world?
As one of the main factors influencing U.S. attitudes to the world and as a cornerstone of the country's foreign policy, American exceptionalism is extremely difficult to reconcile with the changing dynamics of geopolitics. It could even be argued that American exceptionalism is why the U.S. finds it so difficult not only to accept the reality of a multipolar world, but also to abandon its commitment to an internationalist foreign policy.
Exceptionalism implies that of all socio-political systems, the U.S. has created the most advanced, progressive, and humanitarian system. In short, it implies that America has created the best system of governance -- a system that focuses on the protection of the civilian and a system that places at its heart the individual, his freedoms, rights, and interests.
Historically, at the turn of the 19th century, it was indeed the case. Exceptionalism became the foundation of the country's isolationist policy, which it clung to until the middle of the 20th century. At a time when the world was dominated by European nations fundamentally different to the U.S., there was no better way to preserve America's "exceptional" system and way of life.
Then, when the U.S. moved to an internationalist foreign policy, exceptionalism became the foundation of its commitment to global leadership. It is no coincidence that America has no historical experience of involvement in the international order on equal terms as just one center of many in a multipolar world. The U.S. jumped from a policy of non-participation in the "alien" international order of the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th centuries to creating its own American international order during the second half of the 20th and the early 21st century.
The reason is American exceptionalism, which does not allow for dialogue on equal terms or for the U.S. to become merely one center of power among many. That same exceptionalism also does allow equal involvement in the global decision-making and agenda-setting processes, or the creation and administration of a multilateral (i.e. non-American) international order. After all, who else should lead if not the country with the best system in the world and the most advanced way of life, the bearer of universal values?
Exceptionalism is the reason why the U.S. is faced with two options: either leading an international process or not participating at all. The third option involvement on equal terms does not even merit a look.
In the present circumstances, exceptionalism is also pushing the U.S. towards an increasingly ideological foreign policy that focuses on spreading democracy and dividing the world into two camps: democratic and undemocratic. U.S. foreign policy traditionally shows less respect towards the latter.
The problem, however, is that this approach does not correlate with the needs of a multipolar world. At a time when the U.S. is not always in a position to safeguard its key interests without the help and moreover the approval of Russia, China, India, and other countries, American exceptionalism tinged with elements of messianism is becoming counter-productive.
American exceptionalism is the chief source of friction in U.S. relations with the likes of Russia and China, as well as other non-Western centers of power, as well as the reason for the profound re-thinking of U.S. foreign policy. Again, it all comes down to exceptionalism. As long as that remains a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy philosophy, relations with global centers of power that do not recognize U.S. leadership or the universality of its values will remain gridlocked.
However, the problem is that the U.S. (for now at least) is unable to abandon the concept of exceptionalism. It is so central to the identity of America and Americans a calling card and cultural code in one that by abandoning it the U.S. would lose itself.
It is hard to see a way out. Evidently, sooner or later the U.S. will be forced to strike a balance between leadership, isolationism, and involvement on equal terms. But this transformation will require time and effort.
In terms of exceptionalism, other countries are not comparable with America. For Russia, China, Japan, and India, exceptionalism springs from cultural identity and a sense of being unique, but not necessarily from being the best or most advanced.
Whereas other countries' exceptionalism underscores their singularity and restrains them from imposing their own model of development on others, U.S. exceptionalism, by contrast, is inseparable from the country's other pillar of foreign policy universalism, whereby America is the vehicle not only of its own, but universal values. Moreover, secure in the knowledge that its system is the best, America believes that it can be applied universally.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether American exceptionalism is able to adjust to the reality of a new multipolar world, in which a number of other nations also view themselves as somehow exceptional.