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The other side of US exceptionalism

Jun 08,2022 - Last updated at Jun 08,2022

CAMBRIDGE  —  When I started teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School in the mid-1980s, competition with Japan was the dominant preoccupation of US economic policy. The book Japan as Number One by Harvard’s premier Japan expert at the time, Ezra Vogel, set the tone of the debate.

I remember being struck back then by the degree to which the discussion, even among academics, was tinged by a certain sense of American entitlement to international preeminence. The United States could not let Japan dominate key industries and had to respond with its own industrial and trade policies, not just because these might help the US economy, but also because the US simply could not be number two.

Until then, I had thought that aggressive nationalism was a feature of the Old World, insecure societies ill at ease with their international standing and reeling from real or perceived historical injustices. American elites, rich and secure, may have valued patriotism, but their global outlook tended towards cosmopolitanism. But zero-sum nationalism was not far from the surface, which became clear once America’s place atop the global economic totem pole was threatened.

After three decades of US triumphalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall, a similar process is now playing out on a vastly greater scale. It is driven both by China’s rise, which represents a more significant economic challenge to America than Japan did in the 1980s and is also a geopolitical risk, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The US has responded to these developments by seeking to reassert its global primacy, a goal American policymakers readily conflate with that of establishing a more secure and prosperous world. They regard US leadership as central to the promotion of democracy, open markets, and a rules-based international order. What could be more conducive to peace and prosperity than that? The view that US foreign-policy goals are fundamentally benign underpins the myth of American exceptionalism: What is good for the US is good for the world.

While this is undoubtedly true at times, the myth too often blinds American policymakers to the reality of how they exercise power. The US undermines other democracies when it suits its interests and has a long record of meddling in sovereign countries’ domestic politics. Its 2003 invasion of Iraq was as clear a violation of the United Nations Charter as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.

US designs for “open markets” and a “rules-based international order” often primarily reflect the interests of US business and policy elites rather than smaller countries’ aspirations. And when international rules diverge from those interests, the US simply stays away (as with the International Criminal Court, or most of the core International Labour Organisation conventions).

Many of these tensions were evident in a recent speech by US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on America’s approach to China. Blinken described China as “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order,” arguing that “Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress”.

Blinken is correct that many of the elements of the post-World War II order, such as the UN Charter, are not purely American or Western. But it is far from certain that China poses a greater threat to those truly universal constructs than the US does. For example, much of the trouble that US policymakers have with Chinese economic practices relates to domains, especially trade, investment and technology, where universal rules hardly prevail.

According to Blinken, the US “will shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system”. Again, who could possibly oppose such a vision? But China and many others worry that US intentions are much less benign. To them, Blinken’s statement sounds like a threat to contain China and limit its options, while bullying other countries into siding with America.

None of this is to claim an equivalence between current US actions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or China’s gross human-rights violations in Xinjiang and land grabs in the Himalayas and South China Sea. For all its faults, the US is a democracy where critics can openly criticise and oppose the government’s foreign policy. But that makes little difference to countries treated as pawns in America’s geopolitical competition with China, which often struggle to distinguish between the global actions of major powers.

Blinken drew a clear link between China’s practices and the country’s presumed threat to global order. This is a mirror-image projection of America’s belief in its own benign exceptionalism. But just as democracy at home does not imply goodwill abroad, domestic repression need not inevitably lead to external aggression. China also claims to be interested in a stable, prosperous global order, just not one arranged exclusively on US terms.

The irony is that the more the US treats China as a threat and attempts to isolate it, the more China’s responses will seem to validate America’s fears. With the US seeking to convene a club of democracies openly opposing China, it is not surprising that President Xi Jinping cozied up to Putin just as Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine. As the journalist Robert Wright notes, countries excluded from such groupings will band together.

To those who wonder why we should care about the decline of America’s relative power, US foreign-policy elites respond with a rhetorical question: Would you rather live in a world dominated by the US or by China? In truth, other countries would rather live in a world without domination, where smaller states retain a fair degree of autonomy, have good relations with all others, are not forced to choose sides, and do not become collateral damage when major powers fight it out. The sooner US leaders recognise that others do not view America’s global ambitions through the same rose-tinted glasses, the better it will be for everyone.


Dani Rodrik, professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is president of the International Economic Association and the author of Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2017). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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