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Americans’ dwindling belief in American exceptionalism

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If in the past several years, you’ve started to think America has lost its superior standing in the world, you’re not alone. For the past several decades, American foreign policy has been animated by a belief that the country possesses special traits which, as one leading policymaker put it, “can be put to work to advance both the national interest and the larger common interest.” This defines American exceptionalism, the belief that America can and should single-handedly confront the world’s problems, not just its own. Recently fashionable inside the Beltway, this conviction is dwindling in the face of our present reality. 

This past year has laid bare to many the myth at the heart of American exceptionalism. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) and the Eurasia Group Foundation (EGF) are out with two major national surveys of Americans’ views about their country and its role in the world. As the lead authors of both reports, we were struck at how Americans’ confidence in their country’s global leadership has plummeted. As a snapshot, this is not terribly surprising. This year has been full of sobering events, from the botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic to racial unrest to the struggle against west coast wildfires.

But this isn’t merely a snapshot. The CCGA survey documented a steady downward trend going back eight years in feelings of American exceptionalism. The EGF study found a strong correlation with age, with the youngest Americans most likely to think “America is not an exceptional nation.”

As the heady Cold War victory recedes from memory, and as Americans’ experience of their country’s foreign affairs continues to be dominated by decades of discrediting and dispiriting adventures in the Middle East, Americans appear to have grown bearish on their country’s international influence. This is not all bad news. In fact, these findings give us some cause for optimism. America’s political leaders can better confront threats and respond to the world as it is if they shed that intoxicating sense of supremacy, which leads to foolhardy foreign policy choices.

As Matt Duss, an advisor to Bernie Sanders, commented in response to some of these findings, “We can and should be globally engaged without stoking ultranationalist chauvinism…  upholding democracy, dignity, and the rule of law doesn’t require, is actually undermined by, the belief that we are anointed by God [or] history.”

Americans of all political stripes are tired of international interventions – including to protect human rights – as they seek to shift leadership of international problems to multilateral organizations and, crucially, see urgent human rights problems at home which need to be tackled first.  When the Eurasia Group Foundation asked how peace is best achieved and sustained by the United States, a plurality of both Democrats and Republicans answered: “by keeping a focus on domestic needs and the health of American democracy, while avoiding unnecessary intervention beyond the borders of the United States.” Thirty-five percent more survey-takers believe the U.S. should first fix its “own human rights problems” such as “mass incarceration and aggressive policing” than believe the U.S. should use “military intervention to stop human rights abuses around the globe.”

According to the Chicago Council, fewer Americans today than at any time in the past eight years believe the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world – barely half, down from a high of 70 percent in 2012. While eight in ten Republicans continue to say the United States is the greatest country on Earth, this sentiment has taken a nose-dive among Democrats and Independents alike.

These declines are likely related to disappointment with how the government handles the domestic issues they deem top threats. Barely one in five Democrats say the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been effective, and fewer think the government has responded well to climate change, election interference, or racial and economic inequality. Mere minorities of Independents think the government responded effectively to the pandemic, political polarization, China’s development as a world power, and racial inequality. Even among Republicans, fewer than half think the government is effectively confronting economic inequality, racial inequality, and political polarization, although these are not counted among the top threats.

Across both surveys, one thing Americans appear to believe is that America’s strength abroad depends upon its strength at home. The US ranks 27th out of 31 countries in an OECD’s social-justice index. Other recent surveys show the United States’ global opinion is at or near new lows, with declining percentages worldwide saying America respects its citizens’ personal freedoms. The virus is the latest challenge to national unity. Still, political polarization and economic tensions have long been simmering, and the prospect of a flagrant and flamboyant challenge to the integrity of American elections likely diminishes this stature further.

Jim Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson recently argued the United States should have “a seat at the table but not always at its head.” Americans appear to agree and would welcome a greater role for international institutions and agreements. Roughly 70 percent want the U.S. to reenter the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Agreement, and 66 percent think the U.S. should rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. A solid majority believes the U.S. should negotiate with adversaries to avoid a military confrontation. The largest group of respondents support a type of U.S. engagement characterized by fewer international military obligations and more diplomacy.

Far from a kind of confidence crisis, it’s likely Americans are emerging from a period of overconfidence. Instead of trying to solve the world’s problems single-handedly, they are taking a more realistic assessment of the threats their country faces. They want political leaders to emphasize cooperation over confrontation and protect America’s power at home before projecting it abroad. In a democracy predicated on the popular will, those leaders would be wise to listen.

Mark Hannah is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation. Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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