The Atlantic - January/February 2019
Times have changed. These days, I’m back on a university campus, now as a teacher. My students have had a profoundly different upbringing. They were in elementary and middle school in the 2000s, children of the global War on Terror—of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, drones and Edward Snowden, and, most of all, the Iraq War. Many of them aren’t naturally inclined to see American foreign policy through a lens of optimism or aspiration. I hear this in my classes, and I see it in surveys that reveal a strong generational divide over the idea of “American exceptionalism.” Large numbers of young people question the merits of a unique American leadership role in world affairs.
This is partly because they have seen the country’s foreign policy so frequently fall short. But I suspect it is also because they have been exposed to a particularly arrogant brand of exceptionalism. For example, Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz published a book a few years ago called Exceptional, in which they boast of America’s unmatched “goodness” and “greatness”—conceding nothing, admitting no error. In their telling, the Vietnam and Iraq Wars were sound strategic decisions. George W. Bush’s administration’s use of torture was right; its critics were wrong. And on and on. Young people hear these kinds of arguments and say, Count us out.
Meanwhile, older generations are tilting toward a different outlook: the United States as the world’s No. 1 sucker. It’s time, many believe, to stop shouldering the burdens and letting others enjoy the benefits. This is Trump’s vision of “America first.” He is hostile toward America’s allies and contemptuous of cooperation. He loves to goad and bully (and even bomb) other countries and says alarming and irresponsible things about nuclear war. He has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and more. He is not preaching isolationism; he is preaching predatory unilateralism.
Trump’s approach is dangerous, but he has surfaced questions that need clear answers. Those of us who believe that the United States can and should continue to occupy a global leadership role, even if a different role than in the past, have to explain why Trump is wrong—and provide a better strategy for the future.
In doing so, we should not play by his rules. An energized, inspiring, and ultimately successful foreign policy must cut through Trump’s false, dog-whistling choice between globalism and nationalism. It must combine the best kind of patriotism (a shared civic spirit and a clear sense of the national interest) and the best kind of internationalism (a recognition that when your neighbor’s house is on fire, you need to grab a bucket). And it should reject the worst kind of nationalism (damn-the-consequences aggression and identity-based hate-mongering) and the worst kind of internationalism (the self-congratulatory insulation of the Davos elite). ...
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