A Tale of Two Bombings and the Story of American Exceptionalism
Two major tragedies have been the focus of news in the past weeks. The first was the American air strike against a hospital in Kunduz, which American authorities have labelled a breach of the laws of war, albeit an unintentional one and thus not a war crime. The second was the intentional Russian bombing of a hospital in Aleppo. The two strikes had similar results. In Kunduz, 42 people were killed while in Aleppo 50 have died. Both hospitals were affiliated the Doctors Without Borders (MSF). I should make clear at the outset of this discussion that I do not intend to excuse or exonerate any parties involved in these tragedies, but the difference in the way each has been handled speaks volumes about the differences in goals, ambitions and moral integrity between the United States and those other nations who would contend with us for dominance in the globe. Moreover, the quality of these differences demonstrates why American exceptionalism is deserved and necessary for a peaceful and prosperous global order.
The immediate aftermath of these two events illustrate the major differences in the moral conduct of the US and Russia. While the American government immediately acknowledged the tragic mistake, even refuting the erroneous excuse provided by allies, opened an investigation and began to consider how to compensate the victims, the Russian government and its Syrian ally have so far been tight-lipped, willing to ignore and refuse any responsibility or moral action to redress its wrong (total denial seems to be a recurring strategy to excuse Russian aggressive action). Moreover, while the American strike against the hospital was a mistake, albeit one of gross negligence, the Russian attack against the Aleppan clinic was not only an intentional targeting in violation of the laws of war, it was not even the first example of a Russian airstrike against a medical facility. Indeed, such strikes even seem to be a tactic.
Often it is not daily conduct which lays bare the moral quality of an actor, but those acts they take when in the breach. As we can see from the Russian example, it is far easier to violate the rules deliberately and refuse to brook criticism than to follow them as scrupulously as possible and weather condemnation when the inevitable mistake occurs. While the Russian strike will likely be forgotten in a few months, even by MSF, the same group is still deeply involved in the American case. Because of this fact it is rare, almost unheard before the emergence of the American Republic, that a major world power would chose the second course over the first, but despite our ability to play Russia’s game, we refuse. This is the core of American exceptionalism and proves why the American global position must be maintained, for if we are not pre-eminent, powers such as Russia are. If so then openness and the possibility of reform give way to closeness and obstruction.
The exceptional American use of power is even more evident in our recent military excursions. While the propriety of our invasion of Iraq is open to question and the success of our mission in Afghanistan is far from clear, I would like to shift the focus away from these major questions to examine our conduct in each case. In both countries, the US operated without imperial ambitions. Despite claims of a conspiracy for oil, we have extracted no wealth from either Afghanistan or Iraq, paying fairly for whatever we export from those countries. Quite to the contrary, the US supported each country substantially during the course of our occupations, in the case of Afghanistan paying over 90% of its national budget, without the desire or the intention to maintain a permanent, hegemonic presence in either nation or fixing unequal, extractive contracts for multinational companies, unlike the British did even in neutral countries like Iran.
This parallels our behavior at the end of World War II where we stationed thousands of troops across Europe not to bring the continent into our pocket, but to protect them from the Soviet Union and any potential resumption of hostilities between France and Germany, a presence which allowed for the longest period of peace in Europe in two thousand years and the creation of the European Union? Only Rome achieved such peace and only at the cost of imperial domination. What other nation has come so close to empire only to give it away, literally and repeatedly? What other nation will?
This lack of aggrandizement is ironically a source of much of the world’s complaints about American power. Beyond our openness with our mistakes, we are a new phenomenon in the history of the world, which creates new grievances. This might seem strange to say, for while our government is old; older, in fact, than any constitution in Europe with the exception of England, Switzerland and small entities like the Vatican, the structure of the world we have encouraged is unprecedented. Every other global hegemon that has proceeded us, including the British, ruled over people with direct force. While the populace of the world may have muttered under their breaths and groaned under the yoke, there was a tacit acceptance of empire by most. On those infrequent occasions when rebellion emerged, such as the Sepoys in India, order was restored, often with the use of other “loyal” colonial forces. In the new world of American dominance, however, there is no such clear dictation of power.
In the order created by American power, peoples are now freer than ever to direct their own affairs, to include expressing their distaste with the global order and its dominating force. This is especially true since the end of the Cold War where American interests are less clearly international and interventionist. As a result, multi-polarity has ensued and criticism of the would-be hegemon, previously impossible because of their domination, becomes the inevitable burden of both leadership and exceptionalism.
I do not want to sound like a jingoistic, starry-eyed patriot. It is clear that the US has committed serious crimes in our history. Slavery is an eternal black mark against the Republic as is our treatment of American Indians. We owe our greatness in large part to a geographical expanse that we gained as the result of what could arguably be called a war of conquest: the Mexican War. Moreover, we were tempted into imperialism during the Spanish-American War and flirted with a colonial possession in the Philippines. In our fight against the Soviets, we cut deals with criminals, overthrew regimes that had the support of their people and played in ethical grey areas, but through it all we have experienced close self-examination and scrutiny. Unlike other nations where such shameful chapters are buried or excused, who struggle to accept even a tiny fraction of the pluralism and diversity the US enjoys as part of the very fabric of its existence, we agonize over our faults and struggle to reconcile difference with equality. We endlessly debate how to make up for our failings and put our moral struggles out to the world for free examination.
This exposure is exceptional. It also puts us at what seems to be a moral disadvantage to other nations. Because we are open with our faults, we seem more fault-ridden than those countries, like China and Russia, that keep their iniquities close, explain them away as rational uses of power or protect them as cultural rights and values, turning tyranny into virtue. Our self-scrutiny places us at an apparent inferiority to our critics, who could never match our standard of accountability.
While noting this failure of others and the burden it places on us might seem like a complaint, it is not. In fact, it demonstrates an important point about our exceptionalism, namely that it must be earned, and its price is not easy or comfortable; otherwise the exception should become the rule. We deserve the scrutiny for our faults and the resultant negative consequences. After all, while we are exceptional in enjoying the rewards of our virtue, we must be exceptional in suffering the consequences of our vices. It has always been one of the firmest facets of American character to accept both reward and punishment equally and stoically, however.
It is precisely the American exception and understanding of power that makes it so important for us to maintain our position in the world. Without such exceptionalism, the world order would return to what it previously was; a competition for the domination of one state over another with its consequence of constant warfare. This is not to say that America is the sole source of peace. As we have seen in Europe, which ended its incessant military struggles after millennia of conflict, it is up to states themselves to take the step toward peaceful organization, but what is so essential in preserving American exceptionalism is the space our power provides others to organize themselves and create that peace. It is the stability our exceptional power provides the world that is important. In a Russian or Chinese dominated global system, for example, nations would not have the space to treat with one another on their own terms, but would find co-existence possible only under the yoke. We need only look to the South China Sea for proof of this. American power attempts to keep the seas open to all while China’s building program demands restriction and access only under its unquestioned control, an unexceptional and dangerous proposition.
Morality is not a frequently discussed factor in international relations anymore. We think of ourselves as far too sophisticated to presume it a fungible enough currency to move in international markets, but its capital remains influential and its interest a boon as well as a weight. When we expose ourselves in admitting our mistakes, such as we did in the Kunduz bombing, we seem to put ourselves at a disadvantage. In truth, we improve ourselves by increasing both the efficiency and moral efficacy of our actions. When compared to actors such as Putin who deliberately lie, obfuscate or ignore events in an attempt to demonstrate their moral or political high-ground, we see the clear difference of unexceptional behavior which is, ironically, more easily papered over. As a result, when Putin bombs hospital after hospital, the news is relegated to the back pages, no improvements are made and many more die. It is ironic in light of such seemingly effortless license, therefore, that our openness and subjection to criticism is our strength. While we often lose in the court of international political opinion, suffer the burden of protests and our government becomes the target of popular international disrepute, at the end of the day, when refuges look for a new home or nations a protector, we are the one to whom they turn. While countries claim to abhor our interventionism, they are shutter at losing its potential. While people might speak of our atrocities and “imperialism,” we are the ones they trust when they are in a clinch and when it becomes clear our exceptionalism benefits everyone. It is that exceptionalism, our moral position and our refusal to compromise, even and especially through self-criticism, that gives us and the world the strength and stability we need to grow and prosper. Despite the critics, we have enabled the richest and freest era in the planet’s history. While much of the credit belongs to those nations and peoples themselves, without our exceptionalism, none of it would be possible.