The End Of American Exceptionalism: EPC’s Giovanni Grevi Discusses The Changing World Order

From the isolationist rhetoric of the Trump administration to the rise of eurosceptic parties in Europe, it is clear that the West has entered a period of transition, with significant consequences for the transatlantic partnership and broader rules-based international order. This has much to do, on the one hand, with macro trends that began long before the 2016 election – the emergence of China as an economic world power, for example, underscored last month by General Secretary Xi Jinping’s announcement that China is entering a “new era” on the global stage.

But these changes also reflect the consequences of a more proximate historical development connected to the rise and fall of a particular way of thinking, one that put America at the center of the international order as global policeman and protector of democratic values. Many have challenged the practical wisdom of American exceptionalism in both its neoconservative and “liberal interventionist” conceptions. What recent trends suggest is that this way of thinking – that the unilateral posture of the Bush Doctrine and hawkish foreign policy establishment that has dominated the State Department since then – has only worked against America’s long-term interests, against the interests of those it claimed to serve and against the multilateral objectives of our European partners.

To better understand the end of American exceptionalism – and what comes next – I spoke to Giovanni Grevi, Senior Fellow at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels. Mr. Grevi has published extensively on EU foreign and security policy, strategic affairs, global governance, and EU politics. More recently, he published a series of reports on foreign policy under the Trump administration.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Peter Gaffney (PG): How has American exceptionalism – specifically the Bush Doctrine and its legacy – contributed to recent changes in the international order?

Giovanni Grevi (GG): Europeans have always been keen on preserving a strong transatlantic partnership and the securities that go with it. But at the time of President Bush, and in particular the Invasion of Iraq, many Europeans felt that the administration had chosen a course of action that would weaken the structures of multilateral cooperation that Europe was bent on preserving.

At the time, in 2003, the EU adopted the European Security Strategy, the so-called Solana document. The centerpiece of that strategy was the support for effective multilateralism, with a core role for the UN in that context. The unilateral posture of the Bush administration, the emphasis on pre-emptive strikes, and the campaign in Iraq itself, these raised a lot of doubts and opposition in Europe.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld attends a 2006 ceremony in his honor. [Image by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images]

PG: In addition to the invasion of Iraq and its consequences, do you see any reasons – any new trends in the global order – that compel us to question the validity of a foreign policy position based on American exceptionalism, such as the one outlined by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), for example?

GG: The Bush Doctrine drew from the perception during the 1990s that we were living through a unipolar moment – that the U.S. enjoyed supremacy across all dimensions of power, and therefore also a very wide margin in which to maneuver. That was coupled with a particular political culture in the U.S. and a certain belief in the value of promoting democracy abroad. The two things came together in a particularly robust and muscular approach, which was the promotion of democracy and political change, including through military intervention.

That was the word then. Since the late 90s and early 2000s, we have seen the rise of emergent powers, and increasing controversy on the part of other countries, Russia and China in particular, regarding the objectives and motivations of Western policies. As a result, there is more constraint on the implementation of Western policies and more opposition to the goals and drivers of American foreign policy on the part of non-Western countries whose importance and clout has been growing.

The election of Obama marked an important discontinuity with regard to the Bush Doctrine. I think President Obama aimed to pursue American primacy but felt that the best way of doing that was through partnerships and dialogue. It was also through a more parsimonious definition of core U.S. national interests.

So the assumption of the 90s – that America was enjoying a unipolar moment – finally gave way to an assessment of a world with multiple centers of power. The U.S. would remain the largest, but the way of pursuing U.S. foreign policy priorities would have to rely more on international cooperation, partnerships with other important countries, even dialogue with rivals.

President Obama speaks at nuclear summit
Former President Barack Obama speaks at the 206 Nuclear Security Summit. Obama will be remembered for walking a fine line on US foreign policy. [Image by Andrew Harrer/Getty Images]

PG: You have written that Obama was aware of the need to “walk a fine line between ‘the world as it is’ and ‘the world we seek.'” In the context of the U.S.-European partnership, what kind of world do you think we are seeking?

GG: What was meant by “the world we seek,” which is the formulation of U.S. national security strategy, was a world of international cooperation, a world where regional balances in East Asia and Eurasia would be preserved through dialogue and not through unbound political competition or military confrontation, a world where there would be more room for political reforms, democracy, and human rights to expand.

In other words, the balancing act is about pursuing some of the traditional centerpieces and cornerstones of American foreign policy but in less confrontational ways, in more inclusive ways, and accepting that there is a wide range of priorities in an international context that is getting more complicated. And so that would also entail on the part of the U.S. to push forward on some agendas and to accept the limitations on other agendas.

This, I think, is what President Obama was trying to do: to calibrate in the foreign policy action depending on the room to maneuver. You may recall the attempt, that has been largely unsuccessful, to reset relations with Russia, the effort to implement the pivot to the Pacific with a view to check China’s rise, while at the same time engaging China in a strategic dialogue, and then, of course, the management of the Iran deal and the Iran issue with a view to stop the Iran nuclear program, while not necessarily resolving all the issues concerning Iran and Iran’s role in the Middle East all at once.

These are all examples of attempts to maintain U.S. leadership and initiative while recognizing that the international system is less permissive for U.S. leadership.

PG: One of the more revealing documents published last year as part of the U.K.’s Iraq Inquiry (Chilcot report) was a message from Tony Blair to George Bush about the project to “co-opt” international support for the Bush Doctrine. “It is now that the world is in a state of shock,” writes Blair, “now that it can be co-opted most easily.” I wonder if last year’s election outcome should be seen as a turning point in international support for this project and for a global order based on U.S. interventionism.

People wearing Blair and Bush masks protest Iraq War
Protesters wear masks of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President George W. Bush in anticipation of the release of John Chilcot’s report on the Iraq War and its aftermath. [Image by Matt Dunham/AP Images]

GG: I think it is more a question of American strategic interests, whether they are best served by a strategic posture of deep engagement on a global scale, and therefore American involvement and investment in preserving geopolitical balances, or whether they are better served by taking a step back, disengaging to some extent, and letting balances play out on their own while preserving a sort of ultimate balancing role if and when things get out of hand.

That is the big debate that has been taking place in the US and that has been followed outside the U.S. over the last few years. And it is a vast and complex debate. Clearly, there are pros and cons to both options. I would not necessarily describe it as a debate that divides conservative from progressive elements, in terms of either public opinion or political representatives. You can find people on both sides of the aisle pushing for more engagement or for retrenchment.

Strangely enough, the Trump approach – to the extent that there is one – seems to be very much in the direction of retrenchment. His message is that America should mind its interest, with the idea that the rest of the world should either contribute to American engagement or sort out their matters by themselves. This applies to Trump’s rhetoric on security affairs, but also on trade issues and beyond. The important thing is, whatever the deal, whatever the agreement, America comes first, and the rest comes second, third, fourth, etc.

I stress that we are talking about Trump’s rhetoric because this administration includes various inspirations and worldviews – and in practice so far, on a few issues, things have been changing less than this kind of discourse could have led us to believe. People like James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, and others have presented a relatively traditional U.S. foreign policy worldview, with an emphasis on US engagement, maintaining U.S. military edge, and confronting rivals in pretty robust ways.

PG: In his speech at Westminster College, Bernie Sanders made the case for a foreign policy approach based on “leading by example” – to create a more democratic and inclusive political process in the domestic context as groundwork for America’s role on the global stage. What do you think of this approach?

Bernie Sanders introduces Medicare Act
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) arrives at an event to introduce the Medicare for All Act of 2017. Senator Sanders has proposed a progressive foreign policy based on international partnerships rather than military intervention. [Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]

GG: I would agree with the proposition that the attractiveness of an international actor also depends on the domestic performance: on the economic and social balance, on the capacity for growth, on all these sets of domestic factors.

In Europe, a lot has been made of a European social model based on the more fair distribution of wealth, so that Europe could hope if not to lead by example then at least to mobilize its example to inspire others. Conversely, a dysfunctional economy, a dysfunctional society, a divisive politics, all of that is bad news for foreign policy.

PG: Looking at current trends, do you think we will be forced to choose between two increasingly divergent approaches to foreign policy, between a more idealistic and more cynical approach?

GG: I think that we have to be neither idealistic nor cynical. We have to be realistic. That should be the case both in Europe and the U.S.

Sheer power politics in international affairs has been growing more intense over the last several years with the intensification of geopolitical clashes or tensions from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to East Asia. But there are also important drivers and opportunities for cooperation. China, for example, is very much engaged and involved in an interconnected world.

So we see both forces at play: interdependence driving cooperation and power politics driving competition. Those two things cannot be ignored. They co-exist, and they also affect each other. That is the kind of context we’re looking at.

So one way forward is to seek cooperation, to seek partnerships, and to accept that this approach will involve compromises, that it will mean accepting other peoples’ views, and therefore the capacity to achieve some priorities and not others. This is a more diverse, heterogeneous, and contested international system than we are living in now, so there has to be an effort to pursue cooperation while, of course, being able to counter security challenges when they emerge.

We need a middle way.

[Featured Image by Martyn Aim/Getty Images]