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American exceptionalism: applying a 19th-century belief to the 21st century

By Andrew Caddell      

As the globe becomes smaller through trade and communications, its richest and most powerful nation seeks to collaborate less.

The U.S. under President Donald Trump has cut ties with several UN organizations, including UNESCO and the Human Rights Council, and has been highly critical of NATO and the G7. Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore
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Last week, I was in California, a state I had never visited. The trip was a respite from the long Ottawa winter. And while San Francisco was a bit chilly, the choice to go there over a much warmer Florida was simple: California is a state held by the Democratic Party.

Travelling to the site of the 1849 gold rush and the Napa Valley reminded me of the strong Mexican connections to the state. The Spanish place names, signage, and conversation were reminders that, not so long ago, California was part of Mexico. That is, until the notion of Manifest Destiny reared its head and, in short order, much of Oregon was taken from Britain, and Texas, New Mexico, and California were gained as spoils of war with the Mexicans.

Manifest Destiny held that the United States should control the North American continent, pushing the Mexicans and the northern British off the map. U.S. president James Polk won the 1844 election with the rallying cry “54-40 or fight!” referring to the northern boundary of Oregon, with the latitude line of 54 degrees, 40 minutes. The Americans eventually accepted the 49th parallel, and British Columbia later became a province of Canada.

The United States’ push for control in the hemisphere was the basis of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. In the 20th century, it inspired American political and commercial domination of South and Central America, Cuba, and the Caribbean.

This American desire to be seen as unique in the world has contributed strongly to its collective historical mythology, aided by Hollywood producers from Frank Capra to Walt Disney to Steven Spielberg. This is the cultural source of what is known as “American exceptionalism,” the belief the United States is the one and only great nation, and that its constitution is not only superior to all others, but supersedes international agreements.

This new “America First” movement, whose brashest proponent is Donald Trump, contains many “American exceptionalists,” like national security adviser John Bolton and U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer, who I believe are opposed to the principles of multilateral collaboration. Bolton became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations when I was working in the UN division at the former Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs. A brief described Bolton and his attachment to exceptionalism, painting him as an adversary to Canada’s long-held support for the multilateral system.

It goes without saying every country acts in its own interest. But while “interest” has now come to be defined as success in the short term, in the post-Second World War period there was a belief the world could be rebuilt for the long term on twin pillars of realism and idealism. Leaders like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had a vision of effective international organizations, and Canadian diplomats like Lester B. Pearson and Dana Wilgress helped shepherd these new diplomatic, strategic, and financial instruments to build a better world.

That said, when the United States offered the Marshall Plan to finance the reconstruction of post-war Europe, it set a condition: American films, recordings, books, and magazines must enter without tariffs, to dominate European culture. And when the United Nations headquarters was built in New York, it was convenient for American intelligence to keep a careful watch on what other countries were doing and saying behind closed doors.

That era seems almost quaint compared to the obnoxiousness of today. The U.S. has cut ties with several UN organizations, including UNESCO and the Human Rights Council, and has been highly critical of NATO and the G7. The World Trade Organization is struggling to maintain its key appellate body, because the United States has been blocking appointments to it. The new USMCA deal—a trade agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada—may be at risk, and Trump is threatening to close the border with Mexico, not just build his wall.

This is the paradox of our modern world: as the globe becomes smaller through trade and communications, its richest and most powerful nation seeks to collaborate less.

Applying 19th-century strategies to 21st-century challenges is bound to be a recipe for distrust. To be truly exceptional, the United States should engage forcefully and intelligently in multilateral forums. If it alienates its own allies with its current approach, its destiny will be of its own making.

Andrew Caddell is retired from Global Affairs Canada, where he was a senior policy adviser. He previously worked as an adviser to Liberal governments. He is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a principal of QIT Canada. He can be reached at pipson52@hotmail.com.

The Hill Times

Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this column referred to Theodore Roosevelt when it should have said Franklin Roosevelt. It was changed April 10 at 4:56 p.m. ET.

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