American Exceptionalism and Its Role: Hard Power or Soft?

Michelle S. Lee ’16
Assistant Opinions Editor

American Exceptionalism. This was the phrase Vladimir Putin referred to in his article to The New York Times a little more than two weeks ago. This letter was a response to President Obama’s speech from earlier that week on America’s response to the chemical weapons that killed and poisoned thousands of Syrian civilians. Obama spoke of American credibility being at stake, and remarked, “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.” Clearly, this part of the speech wasn’t meant to rile up any sentiments of American superiority, but with its rhetorical similarity, it is not surprising that Putin interpreted it within this framework.

It is understood by the international committee that the chemical weapon attack was a terrible tragedy, and Secretariat General Ban-ki Moon has even labeled the deed as a war crime. What is still in the gray area, however, is whether Obama was correct in asserting yet another power role in an international affair, or if Putin was correct in accusing America of being dangerously motivated by American exceptionalism.

In his first few years in office, President Obama has been subject to criticism from conservatives for his lack of assertiveness in hard power toward the international community, such as air strikes in the Middle East. And it seems like the President is entering his second term with a more realist grasp on world politics, in response to his critics from his last term. This realist approach is what Putin is opposing.

The concept of American Exceptionalism, is no stranger to the post-World War II (more acutely, post-Cold War) politics. To some degree, it is necessary if the United States wants to retain its unipolarity, or singular power, in global politics, understood collectively as the “American Primary.” The United States is the only country right now with as extensive of a military hold (nevermind political history) over the globe as it has, and the ability to exercise that military control is a very persuasive argument for implementing international relations. This is why America is seen as such an exceptional power, speaking strictly in world politics.

As someone who lives in a country that holds a nearly sixty-year relationship with the United States (South Korea), I realize that American involvement in certain world affairs is necessary as a result of history or authority. What Putin refers to as American Exceptionalism, is, if we put it in constitutional terms, a necessary means, for the global objective at times.  Sometimes a country needs US presence or partnership in order to protect itself from hostile neighbors, and with the powers of US unipolarity come their responsibilities to honor those requests for protection. Other times, increasing US involvement with global politics in the 19th and 20th century forces its hand in continuing its responsibilities to its respective nations.

This has ended up spreading the United States very thin, and consequently gives the Obama administration a very tough job in calculating executive actions with expediency. Responding pre-emptively generally incites the public, but responding too late castigates the President on account of apathy.

The one thing that the administration needs to take into account is the execution of soft and hard power. Putin criticized American Exceptionalism not just on moral grounds, but because of his concern that the United States would shift focus toward hard power and too little on diplomacy. As we’ve seen in the Bush administration, military aggression, especially when not delegated in the most sensitive manner, can lead to the dangerous belligerency that Putin warned in his letter to The New York Times. Though Obama lays on the other side of this spectrum, he is strategically leaning toward the right when it comes to foreign policy. And military strikes against Syria, after it is recoiling from an internal devastating attack, would only perpetuate this idea of American Exceptionalism as irresponsible belligerency. Though he is risking his credibility by not keeping up with his promise to militarily respond to chemical attacks, it is preferable to building up the image of America as the arbitrary global policeman and provoking more armed conflict in the region.

We have to see American Exceptionalism for what it is – military power and political primacy but also efficiency.

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