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Joe Biden’s emerging Cabinet looks a lot like Barack Obama’s. His picks for secretary of state (Antony Blinken) and national security adviser (Jake Sullivan) reflect a return to a more traditional approach to foreign policy—and, according to New York Times contributing opinion writer Peter Beinart, a return to an ethos that places America at the center of the foreign policy universe. As Beinart sees it, America’s power on the world stage was in decline long before Donald Trump took office, and the past four years have further discredited the notion that America should be, and must be, in charge. Beinart joined me on Thursday’s episode of What Next to talk about the history and dangers of American exceptionalism and what role the U.S. should play in the world going forward.
Peter Beinart: I’m not against United States involvement and partnership or solidarity at all. What I am against is the notion that we have some unique right and ability to sit at the head of the table. There may be moments when we sit at the head of the table, but I think that the problem with this metaphor of sitting at the head of the table is it does not acknowledge that we have the capacity to not only do good but to do enormous harm, and that when we essentially give ourselves the right to set the rules ourselves, we don’t take sufficient account of the fact that we are not even often abiding by those rules.
We, and no other country, left the Paris climate agreement. We, and no other signatory to the Iran nuclear deal, left the Iran nuclear deal. We, in the middle of a pandemic, and no other country, left the World Health Organization. We invaded Iraq in clear violation of international law. We have basically made the World Trade Organization dysfunctional because we have vetoed all appointments to its main panel. Our record of not ratifying international treaties on things like preservation of the oceans; the rights of women, children, and the disabled; the regulation of arms sales; the regulation of cluster bombs; nuclear nonproliferation; war crimes; and genocide is unparalleled among any country in the world. And I think the American exceptionalist narrative—which simply takes American innocence as a given so that when we do things that are wrong, it’s simply a mistake, it’s out of character, but when other countries do things that violate international law, that’s a reflection of who they really are—I just think a lot of people in the world don’t buy that. …
One of the things that I spent quite a few years trying to grapple with after the Iraq war—which the magazine I edited, the New Republic, supported—was what were the intellectual assumptions that led me to this kind of hubristic view that the United States could, outside of the framework of international law, overthrow a government and then reconstitute its society in a way that made things better. It’s important to remember that the Iraq war was partly justified as a humanitarian effort to remove a horrific dictator. Libya, which maybe will go down as the end of American humanitarian intervention, was justified that way.
Mary Harris: The incoming secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was there for that decision to intervene militarily against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. He was Biden’s national security adviser. And as I recall, he and Joe Biden disagreed about what to do.
Yes, interestingly Blinken was more interventionist on Libya than Biden was. They remain very close, but their instincts have been a little bit different. I think Blinken himself is probably chastened by that experience. But my larger concern about Biden and this team has to do with whether they are creating a set of expectations around what a multilateral U.S. foreign policy can do that are unrealistic, given the power dynamics that actually exist.
Blinken has said that with Syria they sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but they made the opposite error of doing too little in Syria. Do you think he’s toying with some of the same ideas that you are, of American exceptionalism and how we should live that in the world or not?
I am very sympathetic to the fact that, given how horrific the situation in Syria has been, Tony Blinken feels agonized about it. I think he should feel agonized about it. I think that’s a credit to him. We want people to feel agonized when there’s enormous human suffering. But I am not convinced of the argument that things would have turned out better had the U.S. intervened more aggressively. And given the set of experiences that we’ve seen from Iraq to Libya to Afghanistan, I think the onus has to be now on people who want the United States to intervene aggressively in regime change operations to be able to prove convincingly that there’s a very strong likelihood of a positive outcome.
I wonder if you think President Trump’s term has been kind of an experiment here, because while Trump involved himself abroad a bit, like in North Korea and the Middle East, in the last four years the U.S. has withdrawn from the international stage. What happened when we did that?
Well, I don’t think it’s quite right to say the United States has withdrawn. I would say the United States has wielded its power in different ways. The United States has been extremely unilateral, levying sanctions on all kinds of countries, even countries that are traditionally our allies. We were not great about signing up for international agreements already, but we’ve withdrawn now from a kind of unprecedented number of them. What we’ve seen with Trump is not, as I think it’s sometimes described, isolationism, but unilateralism—essentially the notion that American power should be bounded by no authority, legal or moral, beyond what America sees as is in its own narrow self-interest. I think that that has really eroded whatever was left of the belief in much of the world that the United States was pursuing a kind of common good in the world.
It sounds like a more extreme version of what was already happening.
Yes, I think that’s right. If you look at George W. Bush’s administration, the Bush administration not only would not enter the International Criminal Court because of the fear that we might one day be prosecuted, but it basically gave the United States the right to virtually take military action to ensure that the International Criminal Court never brought proceedings against the United States. So basically the position of the United States is by definition our behavior should never be subject to international moral standards of human rights behavior. What Trump has done is essentially taken that logic even further. But that logic has a deep history in American foreign policy. He did not invent it. And I think it’s part of the reason that other countries look at the United States and say, “On what moral authority do you claim to have to exercise the right of moral leadership for the world?”
It seems to me that to get people to accept the argument you’re making, that America should have a humbler role abroad, the first thing we have to do is convince Americans that we didn’t do such a great job.
Pretty consistently, polling does not suggest that Americans want to withdraw from the world and have America have no role, but neither do they want America to be the single dominant force. Mostly what they want, even if it sounds kind of soft and mushy, is cooperation. They want America to be one country cooperating with other countries. So there’s actually, in public opinion, a surprising amount of support for this and surprisingly little support for the notion of America as the single dominant power, which is often popular in foreign policy circles.
The second point I would make is that there is often a tendency in foreign policy discourse to associate America’s global footprint, particularly its global military footprint—you know, who has more power in Syria or in the Caucasus, Russia or the United States?—to associate that with the well-being of ordinary Americans. And if there’s one thing we can take away from the Trump experience and the fact that he was elected, [it’s] that many Americans don’t buy that necessarily, and they’re right not to buy it. It is not necessarily the case that America having more influence in more countries around the world and having a larger military footprint in those countries necessarily benefits ordinary Americans. In some ways, it actually detracts from our ability to take care of things here at home.
One of the things that worries me about the Biden folks is that I see in their writing not a willingness to really look seriously at cutting the defense budget, but instead an effort to talk about beefing up deterrence vis-à-vis China so we can compete with China in places like the South China Sea. And I think for an ordinary American who’s just gone through the pandemic, surely the priority should not be the balance of military power in the South China Sea—it should be whether the United States can build a welfare state that can literally keep our people alive. So I worry that the balance there is out of whack.
You see Americans asking themselves, What is in it for me, in American global power? How is it actually benefiting me? It may well be that if America were to retract some of its military influence and power around the world and redeploy some of those resources and energy towards trying to build a more functional society at home, actually Americans at home would benefit from that.