The Obama administration’s signal achievement in foreign affairs policy is its wholesale retreat from American exceptionalism. We no longer believe in Pax Americana, rather, we spend more time confessing our sins, and less using our strength. No longer is the U.S. willing to use force against actual or potential aggressors. No longer will it put money, goods and services on the table to prop up shaky governments in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. No longer will it speak the language of freedom for the peoples of the world.  Essentially, no longer will it uphold the major principles of American policy that have been in place since the end of World War II.  

That policy helped the United Nations in 1945. But when it became clear that the UN could not protect key nations from Soviet aggression, the U.S., on a bipartisan basis, formed regional alliances, most notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April 1949, which ultimately helped bring down the Soviet Union in 1989.  

We must never forget that the idea of American exceptionalism is fraught with danger. It requires the United States to reject, but only for itself, the common view that regards all nations as equals on any matters involving the use of force. Exceptionalism makes it explicit that the United States will not accept for itself the strictures of Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allows the use of force only in response to an armed attack, and even then, only until the Security Council—now neutered by Russian and Chinese veto power—develops a plan “to maintain or restore international peace and security.” American exceptionalism necessarily requires the U.S. to commit large amounts of military and moral resources towards its position, without any reciprocal contribution from the nations we assist.  Furthermore, it poses the risk that our interventions could be counterproductive or worse, as happened in Vietnam.

What, then, does the U.S. and the world gain from this explicit claim of privilege? A great deal, in fact. Military power abhors a vacuum.  If the U. S. does not exert firm leadership, other nations with less noble goals and aspirations will fill the void.  What can stop them once the U.S. signals retreat from places of turmoil and unrest? 

Look at the world scorecard since January 2009. The sharp deterioration in world peace and the massive increase in the number of refugees forced to leave war-torn areas are a direct consequence of the breakdown in U.S. worldwide leadership. The disbanding of Baathist forces after U.S. forces under George W. Bush ousted Saddam Hussein opened a massive power void that was only filled when he reversed course and committed extensive American resources to the successful surge of 2007. The operation required a judicious mixture of the carrot and the stick, but by the end of the Bush years, relative calm had returned to Iraq, precisely because we were there.

Like it or not, there is no “exit strategy” that works. The U.S. frittered away its accomplishments by committing itself to a “responsible” withdrawal from Iraq, and to a reduction in its involvement everywhere else. But we and the world paid a heavy price. The infighting started up within Iraq when the U.S. was on the way out. No one stepped forward to take our place as an honest broker between factions. Violence surged in Al-Anbar Province and near Baghdad. Domestic discord allowed for the formation of ISIS, a group that now occupies huge swaths of territory and brutalizes its enemies along the way. Our tepid use of air power failed to slow ISIS’ advance because there is no substitute for troops on the ground. Civilian deaths and displacements continued. The notorious “red line” flip-flop in Syria led to massive loss of human life and created a massive refugee problem that could easily swamp Turkey and much of the Balkans. Yemen is suffering from cardiac arrest. The rest of Europe faces virulent anti-immigrant sentiment.

The Chinese and Russians can smell weakness a thousand miles away, and thus they have begun aggressive action, confident that the United States won’t stop them from building fake islands in the South China Sea, gobbling up Crimea, or putting pressure on Eastern Europe. Decentralized power is wonderful in promoting competition in the sale of goods and services, but it is deadly when it leads to uncontrollable and unstable centers of military power accountable to no one. Pax Americana is not ideal, but it is far better than the chaos that follows from our wholesale retreat from world affairs while bad guys wait in the wings.