Europe, the International System and a Generational Shift


November 8, 2011 | 1249 GMT

by George Friedman

Change in the international system comes in large and small doses, but fundamental patterns generally stay consistent. From 1500 to 1991, for example, European global hegemony constituted the world’s operating principle. Within this overarching framework, however, the international system regularly reshuffles the deck in demoting and promoting powers, fragmenting some and empowering others, and so on. Sometimes this happens because of war, and sometimes because of economic and political forces. While the basic structure of the world stays intact, the precise way it works changes.

The fundamental patterns of European domination held for 500 years. That epoch of history ended in 1991, when the Soviet Union — the last of the great European empirescollapsed with global consequences. In China, Tiananmen Square defined China for a generation. China would continue its process of economic development, but the Chinese Communist Party would remain the dominant force. Japan experienced an economic crisis that ended its period of rapid growth and made the world’s second-largest economy far less dynamic than before. And in 1993, the Maastricht Treaty came into force, creating the contemporary European Union and holding open the possibility of a so-called United States of Europe that could counterbalance the United States of America.

The Post-European Age

All these developments happened in the unstable period after the European Age and before well, something else. What specifically, we’re not quite sure. For the past 20 years, the world has been reshaping itself. Since 1991, then, the countries of the world have been feeling out the edges of the new system. The past two decades have been an interregnum of sorts, a period of evolution from the rule of the old to the rule of the new.

Four things had to happen before the new era could truly begin. First, the Americans had to learn the difference between extreme power (which they had and still have) and omnipotence (which they do not have). The wars in the Islamic world have more than amply driven this distinction home. Second, Russian power needed to rebound from its post-Soviet low to something more representative of Russia’s strength. That occurred in August 2008 with the Russo-Georgian war, which re-established Moscow as the core of the broader region. Third, China — which has linked its economic, political and military future to a global system it does not controlhad to face a readjustment. This has yet to happen, but likely will be triggered by the fourth event: Europe’s institutions — which were created to function under the rules of the previous epoch — must be rationalized with a world in which the Americans no longer are suppressing European nationalism.


With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the 2008 financial crisis initiated the last two events. The first result of the financial crisis was the deep penetration of the state into those financial markets not already under state influence or control. The bailouts, particularly in the United States, created a situation in which decisions by political leaders and central banks had markedly more significance to the financial status of the country than the operation of the market. This was not unprecedented in the United States; the municipal bond crisis of the 1970s, the Third World debt crisis and the savings and loan crisis had similar consequences. The financial crisis, and the resultant economic crisis, hurt the United States, but its regime remained intact even while uneasiness about the elite grew.


But the financial crisis had its greatest impact in Europe, where it is triggering a generational shift. Since 1991, the idea of an integrated Europe has been a driving force of the global economy. As mentioned, it also has been presented as an implicit alternative to the United States as the global center of gravity.

Collectively, Europe’s economy was slightly larger than the U.S. economy. If mobilized, that inherent power made Europe a match for the United States. In the foreign policy arena, the Europeans prided themselves on a different approach to international affairs than the Americans used. This was based on a concept known as “soft power” — which relied on political and economic, as opposed to military, tools — an analog to the manner in which it saw itself managing the European Union. And Europe was a major consumer of goods, particularly Chinese goods. (It imported more of the latter than the United States did.) Taken together, Europe’s strengths and successes would allow it to redefine the international system — and the assumption for the past generation was that it was successful.

In the context of the ongoing European financial crisis, the issue is not simply whether the euro survives or whether Brussels regulators oversee aspects of the Italian economy. The fundamental issue is whether the core concepts of the European Union remain intact. It is obvious that the European Union that existed in 2007 is not the one that exists today. Its formal structure appears the same, but it does not function the same.

The issues confronting it are radically different. Moreover, relations among the EU nations have a completely different dynamic. The question of what the European Union might become has been replaced by the question of whether it can survive. Some think of this as a temporary aberration. We see it as a permanent change in Europe, one with global consequences.

The European Union emerged with the goal of creating a system of interdependency in which war in Europe was impossible. Given European history, this was an extraordinarily ambitious project, as war and Europe have gone hand in hand. The idea was that with Germany intimately linked to France, the possibility of significant European conflict could be managed.

Underpinning this idea was the concept that the problem of Europe was the problem of nationalism. Unless Europe’s nationalisms were tamed, war would break out. The Yugoslav wars after the collapse of Communism comprised the sum of Europe’s fears. But there could be no question of simply abolishing nationalism in Europe.

National identity was as deeply embedded in Europe as elsewhere, and historical differences were compounded by historical resentments, particularly those aimed toward Germany. The real solution to European wars was the creation of a European nation, but that was simply impossible. The European Union tried to solve the problem by retaining both national identity and national regimes.

Simultaneously, a broader European identity was conceived based on a set of principles, and above all, on the idea of a single European economy binding together disparate nations. The reasoning was that if the European Union provided the foundation for European prosperity, then the continued existence of nations in Europe would not challenge the European Union. Perhaps, over time, this would see a decline of particular nationalisms in favor of a European identity.

This assumed that prosperity would cause national identity and tensions to subside. If that were true, then it would work. But there is more to Europe politically speaking than an enhanced trading area, and the economics of Europe are hardly homogeneous.

Germany and the Periphery

The German economy was designed to be export-based. Its industrial plant outstrips domestic consumption; it must therefore export to prosper. A free trade zone built around the world’s second-largest exporter by definition will create tremendous pressures on emerging economies seeking to grow through their own exports. The European free trade zone thus systematically undermined the ability of the European periphery to develop because of the presence of an export-dependent economy that both penetrated linked economies and prevented their development.

Between 1991 and 2008, all of this was buried under extraordinary prosperity. The first crisis revealed the underlying fault line, however. The U.S. subprime crisis happened to trigger it, but any financial crisis would have revealed the fault line. It was not a crisis about the euro, nor was it even a crisis about economics. It was actually a crisis about nationalism.

Europe’s elites had crafted and committed themselves to the idea of a European Union. The  elite of Europe, deeply tied to a European financial system as a principle, were Europeanists in their soul. When the crisis came, their core belief was that the crisis was a technical matter that the elite could handle within the EU framework. Deals were made, structures were imagined and tranches were measured. Yet the crisis did not go away.

The German-Greek interplay was not the essence of the problem but the poster child. For the Germans, the Greeks were irresponsible profligates. For the Greeks, the Germans had used the EU free trade and monetary system to tilt the European economy in their favor, garnering huge gains in the previous generation and doing everything possible to hold on to them in a time of trouble. For the Germans, the Greeks created a sovereign debt crisis. For the Greeks, the sovereign debt crisis was the result of German-dictated trade and monetary rules. The Germans were bitter that they would have to bail out the Greeks. The Greeks were bitter that they would have to suffer austerity.

From the German point of view, the Greeks lied when they borrowed money. From the Greek point of view, if they lied it was with the conscious collaboration of German and other bankers who made money from making loans regardless of whether they were repaid.

The endless litany is not the point. The point is that these are two sovereign nations with fundamentally different interests. The elites in both nations are trying to create a solution within the confines of the current system. Both nations’ publics are dubious about bearing the burden. The Germans have little patience for paying Greek debts. The Greeks have little interest in shouldering austerity to satisfy German voters. On one level, there is collaboration under wayproblem solving.

On another level, there is distrust of the elites’ attempts to solve problems and suspicion that it will be the elites’ problems and not their own that will be addressed. But the problem is bigger than Greco-German disputes. This system was created in a world in which European politics had been declared in abeyance. Germany was occupied. The Americans provided security and inter-European fighting was not allowed. Now, the Americans are gone, the Germans are back and European international politics are bubbling up to the surface.

In short, the European project is failing at precisely the point that it had been attempting to solvenationalism. The ability of leaders to make deals depends on authority that is slipping away. The public has not yet clearly defined the alternatives, but that process is under way. It is similar to what is happening in the United States with one definitive exception: In the United States, the tension between mass and elite does not threaten to disintegrate the republic. In Europe, it does.

Europe will spend the next generation sorting through this. Whether it can do so remains to be seen — though I doubt it. We know the tensions between nations and between elites and the public will redefine how Europe works. Even if things do not get any worse, the situation already has been transformed beyond what anyone would have imagined in 2007. Far from emerging as a unified force, the question will be how divided Europe will become.


OPINION

NOVEMBER 8, 2011

Literature and the Search for Liberty

What is lost on collectivists is the prime importance of individual freedom for societies to flourish and economies to thrive.

The blessings of freedom and the perils of its opposite can be seen the world over. It is why I have so passionately adhered to advancing the idea of individual freedom in my work.

Having abandoned the Marxist myths that took in so many of my generation, I soon came to genuinely believe that I had found a truth that had to be shared in the best way I knew—through the art of letters. Critics on the left and right have often praised my novels only to distance themselves from the ideas I've expressed. I do not believe my work can be separated from its ideals.

It is the function of the novelist to tell timeless and universal truths through the device of a fashioned narrative. A story's significance as a piece of art cannot be divorced from its message, any more than a society's prospects for freedom and prosperity can be divorced from its underlying principles. The writer and the man are one and the same, as are the culture and its common beliefs. In my writing and in my life I have pursued a vision not only to inspire my readers but also to share my dream of what we can aspire to build here in our world.

Those who love liberty are often ridiculed for their idealism. And at times we can feel alone, as there appear to be very few dedicated to the ideals of true "liberalism."

vargasllosa

In the United States, the term "liberal" has come to be associated with leftism, socialism, and an ambitious role for government in the economy. Many who describe their politics as "liberal" emphatically favor measures which desire to push aside free enterprise. Some who call themselves liberal show even greater hostility toward business, loudly protesting the very idea of economic freedom and promoting a vision of society not so different from the failed utopian experiments of history's socialist and fascist regimes.

In Latin America and Spain, where the word "liberal" originated to mean an advocate of liberty, the left now uses the label as an invective. It carries connotations of "conservative" or reactionary politics, and especially a failure to care for the world's poor. I have been maligned in this way.

Ironically enough, part of the confusion can be pinned on some who champion the market economy in the name of old liberalism. They have at times done even more damage to freedom than the Marxists and other socialists.

There are those who in the name of the free market have supported Latin American dictatorships whose iron hand of repression was said to be necessary to allow business to function, betraying the very principles of human rights that free economies rest upon. Then there are those who have coldly reduced all questions of humanity to a matter of economics and see the market as a panacea. In doing so they ignore the role of ideas and culture, the true foundation of civilization. Without customs and shared beliefs to breathe life into democracy and the market, we are reduced to the Darwinian struggle of atomistic and selfish actors that many on the left rightfully see as inhuman.

What is lost on the collectivists, on the other hand, is the prime importance of individual freedom for societies to flourish and economies to thrive. This is the core insight of true liberalism: All individual freedoms are part of an inseparable whole.

Political and economic liberties cannot be bifurcated. Mankind has inherited this wisdom from millennia of experience, and our understanding has been enriched further by the great liberal thinkers, some of my favorites being Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. They have described the path out of darkness and toward a brighter future of freedom and universal appreciation for the values of human dignity.

When the liberal truth is forgotten, we see the horrors of nationalist dictatorship, fascism, communism, cult fanaticism, terrorism and the many savageries that have defined all too much in the modern era. The problem is less pronounced in the United States, but here there still remain problems resulting from the abandonment of these key principles.

Many cling to hopes that the economy can be centrally planned. Education, health care, housing, money and banking, crime control, transportation, energy and far more follow the failed command-and-control model that has been repeatedly discredited. Some look to nationalist and statist solutions to trade imbalances and migration problems, instead of toward greater freedom.

Yet there is reason for hope here and elsewhere. The American system still allows for open dissent, the hallmark of a free society, and in a healthy fashion both left and right practice this cherished freedom.

Throughout the world, anti-Americanism and anticapitalism are in decline. In Latin America, outside of Venezuela and Cuba, dictatorship of the old socialist and fascist varieties is dead, with market reforms sweeping even nominally leftist regimes.

The search for liberty is simply part of the greater search for a world where respect for the rule of law and human rights is universal—a world free of dictators, terrorists, warmongers and fanatics, where men and women of all nationalities, races, traditions and creeds can coexist in the culture of freedom, where borders give way to bridges that people cross to reach their goals limited only by free will and respect for one another's rights. It is a search to which I've dedicated my writing, and so many have taken notice. But is it not a search to which we should all devote our very lives? The answer is clear when we see what is at stake.
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Mr. Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel laureate in literature, will receive the Alexis de Tocqueville Award on Nov. 15 from the Independent Institute at its 25th anniversary celebration. He wrote this essay for the occasion.

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Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

 

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

The idea that the United States is uniquely virtuous may be comforting to Americans. Too bad it's not true.

BY STEPHEN M. WALT

NOVEMBER 2011


Over the last two centuries, prominent Americans have described the United States as an "empire of liberty," a "shining city on a hill," the "last best hope of Earth," the "leader of the free world," and the "indispensable nation." These enduring tropes explain why all presidential candidates feel compelled to offer ritualistic paeans to America's greatness and why President Barack Obama landed in hot water -- most recently, from Mitt Romney -- for saying that while he believed in "American exceptionalism," it was no different from "British exceptionalism," "Greek exceptionalism," or any other country's brand of patriotic chest-thumping.
Most statements of "American exceptionalism" presume that America's values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.

The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America's global role is that it is mostly a myth. Although the United States possesses certain unique qualities -- from high levels of religiosity to a political culture that privileges individual freedom -- the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics. By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.

This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S. dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy, whether the subject is possession of nuclear weapons, conformity with international law, or America's tendency to condemn the conduct of others while ignoring its own failings. Ironically, U.S. foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.

What we need, in short, is a more realistic and critical assessment of America's true character and contributions. In that spirit, I offer here the Top 5 Myths about American Exceptionalism.
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Myth 1
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There Is Something Exceptional About American Exceptionalism.

Whenever American leaders refer to the "unique" responsibilities of the United States, they are saying that it is different from other powers and that these differences require them to take on special burdens.

Yet there is nothing unusual about such lofty declarations; indeed, those who make them are treading a well-worn path. Most great powers have considered themselves superior to their rivals and have believed that they were advancing some greater good when they imposed their preferences on others. The British thought they were bearing the "white man's burden," while French colonialists invoked la mission civilisatrice to justify their empire. Portugal, whose imperial activities were hardly distinguished, believed it was promoting a certain missão civilizadora. Even many of the officials of the former Soviet Union genuinely believed they were leading the world toward a socialist utopia despite the many cruelties that communist rule inflicted. Of course, the United States has by far the better claim to virtue than Stalin or his successors, but Obama was right to remind us that all countries prize their own particular qualities.

So when Americans proclaim they are exceptional and indispensable, they are simply the latest nation to sing a familiar old song. Among great powers, thinking you're special is the norm, not the exception.
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Myth 2
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The United States Behaves Better Than Other Nations Do.

Declarations of American exceptionalism rest on the belief that the United States is a uniquely virtuous nation, one that loves peace, nurtures liberty, respects human rights, and embraces the rule of law. Americans like to think their country behaves much better than other states do, and certainly better than other great powers.
If only it were true. The United States may not have been as brutal as the worst states in world history, but a dispassionate look at the historical record belies most claims about America's moral superiority.

For starters, the United States has been one of the most expansionist powers in modern history. It began as 13 small colonies clinging to the Eastern Seaboard, but eventually expanded across North America, seizing Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California from Mexico in 1846. Along the way, it eliminated most of the native population and confined the survivors to impoverished reservations. By the mid-19th century, it had pushed Britain out of the Pacific Northwest and consolidated its hegemony over the Western Hemisphere.

The United States has fought numerous wars since then -- starting several of them -- and its wartime conduct has hardly been a model of restraint. The 1899-1902 conquest of the Philippines killed some 200,000 to 400,000 Filipinos, most of them civilians, and the United States and its allies did not hesitate to dispatch some 305,000 German and 330,000 Japanese civilians through aerial bombing during World War II, mostly through deliberate campaigns against enemy cities. No wonder Gen. Curtis LeMay, who directed the bombing campaign against Japan, told an aide, "If the U.S. lost the war, we would be prosecuted as war criminals." The United States dropped more than 6 million tons of bombs during the Indochina war, including tons of napalm and lethal defoliants like Agent Orange, and it is directly responsible for the deaths of many of the roughly 1 million civilians who died in that war.

More recently, the U.S.-backed Contra war in Nicaragua killed some 30,000 Nicaraguans, a percentage of their population equivalent to 2 million dead Americans. U.S. military action has led directly or indirectly to the deaths of 250,000 Muslims over the past three decades (and that's a low-end estimate, not counting the deaths resulting from the sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s), including the more than 100,000 people who died following the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. U.S. drones and Special Forces are going after suspected terrorists in at least five countries at present and have killed an unknown number of innocent civilians in the process. Some of these actions may have been necessary to make Americans more prosperous and secure. But while Americans would undoubtedly regard such acts as indefensible if some foreign country were doing them to us, hardly any U.S. politicians have questioned these policies. Instead, Americans still wonder, "Why do they hate us?"

The United States talks a good game on human rights and international law, but it has refused to sign most human rights treaties, is not a party to the International Criminal Court, and has been all too willing to cozy up to dictators -- remember our friend Hosni Mubarak? -- with abysmal human rights records. If that were not enough, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the George W. Bush administration's reliance on waterboarding, extraordinary rendition, and preventive detention should shake America's belief that it consistently acts in a morally superior fashion. Obama's decision to retain many of these policies suggests they were not a temporary aberration.

The United States never conquered a vast overseas empire or caused millions to die through tyrannical blunders like China's Great Leap Forward or Stalin's forced collectivization. And given the vast power at its disposal for much of the past century, Washington could certainly have done much worse. But the record is clear: U.S. leaders have done what they thought they had to do when confronted by external dangers, and they paid scant attention to moral principles along the way. The idea that the United States is uniquely virtuous may be comforting to Americans; too bad it's not true.
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Myth 3
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America's Success Is Due to Its Special Genius.

The United States has enjoyed remarkable success, and Americans tend to portray their rise to world power as a direct result of the political foresight of the Founding Fathers, the virtues of the U.S. Constitution, the priority placed on individual liberty, and the creativity and hard work of the American people. In this narrative, the United States enjoys an exceptional global position today because it is, well, exceptional.

There is more than a grain of truth to this version of American history. It's not an accident that immigrants came to America in droves in search of economic opportunity, and the "melting pot" myth facilitated the assimilation of each wave of new Americans.

America's scientific and technological achievements are fully deserving of praise and owe something to the openness and vitality of the American political order. But America's past success is due as much to good luck as to any uniquely American virtues. The new nation was lucky that the continent was lavishly endowed with natural resources and traversed by navigable rivers.

It was lucky to have been founded far from the other great powers and even luckier that the native population was less advanced and highly susceptible to European diseases. Americans were fortunate that the European great powers were at war for much of the republic's early history, which greatly facilitated its expansion across the continent, and its global primacy was ensured after the other great powers fought two devastating world wars. This account of America's rise does not deny that the United States did many things right, but it also acknowledges that America's present position owes as much to good fortune as to any special genius or "manifest destiny."
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Myth 4
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The United States Is Responsible for Most of the Good in the World.
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Americans are fond of giving themselves credit for positive international developments. President Bill Clinton believed the United States was "indispensable to the forging of stable political relations," and the late Harvard University political scientist Samuel P. Huntington thought U.S. primacy was central "to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world." Journalist Michael Hirsh has gone even further, writing in his book At War With Ourselves that America's global role is "the greatest gift the world has received in many, many centuries, possibly all of recorded history."

Scholarly works such as Tony Smith's America's Mission and G. John Ikenberry's Liberal Leviathan emphasize America's contribution to the spread of democracy and its promotion of a supposedly liberal world order. Given all the high-fives American leaders have given themselves, it is hardly surprising that most Americans see their country as an overwhelmingly positive force in world affairs.

Once again, there is something to this line of argument, just not enough to make it entirely accurate. The United States has made undeniable contributions to peace and stability in the world over the past century, including the Marshall Plan, the creation and management of the Bretton Woods system, its rhetorical support for the core principles of democracy and human rights, and its mostly stabilizing military presence in Europe and the Far East. But the belief that all good things flow from Washington's wisdom overstates the U.S. contribution by a wide margin.

For starters, though Americans watching Saving Private Ryan or Patton may conclude that the United States played the central role in vanquishing Nazi Germany, most of the fighting was in Eastern Europe and the main burden of defeating Hitler's war machine was borne by the Soviet Union. Similarly, though the Marshall Plan and NATO played important roles in Europe's post-World War II success, Europeans deserve at least as much credit for rebuilding their economies, constructing a novel economic and political union, and moving beyond four centuries of sometimes bitter rivalry. Americans also tend to think they won the Cold War all by themselves, a view that ignores the contributions of other anti-Soviet adversaries and the courageous dissidents whose resistance to communist rule produced the "velvet revolutions" of 1989.

Moreover, as Godfrey Hodgson recently noted in his sympathetic but clear-eyed book, The Myth of American Exceptionalism, the spread of liberal ideals is a global phenomenon with roots in the Enlightenment, and European philosophers and political leaders did much to advance the democratic ideal. Similarly, the abolition of slavery and the long effort to improve the status of women owe more to Britain and other democracies than to the United States, where progress in both areas trailed many other countries. Nor can the United States claim a global leadership role today on gay rights, criminal justice, or economic equality -- Europe's got those areas covered.

Finally, any honest accounting of the past half-century must acknowledge the downside of American primacy. The United States has been the major producer of greenhouse gases for most of the last hundred years and thus a principal cause of the adverse changes that are altering the global environment. The United States stood on the wrong side of the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa and backed plenty of unsavory dictatorships -- including Saddam Hussein's -- when short-term strategic interests dictated. Americans may be justly proud of their role in creating and defending Israel and in combating global anti-Semitism, but its one-sided policies have also prolonged Palestinian statelessness and sustained Israel's brutal occupation.
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Bottom line: Americans take too much credit for global progress and accept too little blame for areas where U.S. policy has in fact been counterproductive. Americans are blind to their weak spots, and in ways that have real-world consequences. Remember when Pentagon planners thought U.S. troops would be greeted in Baghdad with flowers and parades? They mostly got RPGs and IEDs instead.
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Myth 5
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God Is on Our Side.

A crucial component of American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States has a divinely ordained mission to lead the rest of the world. Ronald Reagan told audiences that there was "some divine plan" that had placed America here, and once quoted Pope Pius XII saying, "Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind." Bush offered a similar view in 2004, saying, "We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom." The same idea was expressed, albeit less nobly, in Otto von Bismarck's alleged quip that "God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States."

Confidence is a valuable commodity for any country. But when a nation starts to think it enjoys the mandate of heaven and becomes convinced that it cannot fail or be led astray by scoundrels or incompetents, then reality is likely to deliver a swift rebuke.
Ancient Athens, Napoleonic France, imperial Japan, and countless other countries have succumbed to this sort of hubris, and nearly always with catastrophic results.

Despite America's many successes, the country is hardly immune from setbacks, follies, and boneheaded blunders. If you have any doubts about that, just reflect on how a decade of ill-advised tax cuts, two costly and unsuccessful wars, and a financial meltdown driven mostly by greed and corruption have managed to squander the privileged position the United States enjoyed at the end of the 20th century. Instead of assuming that God is on their side, perhaps Americans should heed Abraham Lincoln's admonition that our greatest concern should be "whether we are on God's side."

Given the many challenges Americans now face, from persistent unemployment to the burden of winding down two deadly wars, it's unsurprising that they find the idea of their own exceptionalism comforting -- and that their aspiring political leaders have been proclaiming it with increasing fervor. Such patriotism has its benefits, but not when it leads to a basic misunderstanding of America's role in the world. This is exactly how bad decisions get made.

America has its own special qualities, as all countries do, but it is still a state embedded in a competitive global system. It is far stronger and richer than most, and its geopolitical position is remarkably favorable. These advantages give the United States a wider range of choice in its conduct of foreign affairs, but they don't ensure that its choices will be good ones. Far from being a unique state whose behavior is radically different from that of other great powers, the United States has behaved like all the rest, pursuing its own self-interest first and foremost, seeking to improve its relative position over time, and devoting relatively little blood or treasure to purely idealistic pursuits.

Yet, just like past great powers, it has convinced itself that it is different, and better, than everyone else.

International politics is a contact sport, and even powerful states must compromise their political principles for the sake of security and prosperity. Nationalism is also a powerful force, and it inevitably highlights the country's virtues and sugarcoats its less savory aspects. But if Americans want to be truly exceptional, they might start by viewing the whole idea of "American exceptionalism" with a much more skeptical eye.
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Stephen M. Walt, an FP contributing editor, is Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He blogs at walt.foreignpolicy.com.