American Exceptionalism Requires a Foreign Policy of Realism and Restraint

By Robert Moore

The election of President Trump has sparked significant debate about America’s role in the world and the meaning of American exceptionalism. Is American leadership indispensable to the world, or have we overstretched our military resources at the risk of our own security and fiscal solvency? Are the increasingly influential realists on the political left and right more clear-eyed than the idealists who have led U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, or are they just neo-isolationists who want to empower geopolitical competitors?

Such debates aren’t new. They’ve been ongoing in some form since early American leaders argued over the young republic’s relations with England and France. This core argument of U.S. foreign policy was revived as Trump won the Republican nomination while denouncing his party’s support of the Iraq War and defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ardent internationalist.

Such debates aren’t new. They’ve been ongoing in some form since early American leaders argued over the young republic’s relations with England and France. This core argument of U.S. foreign policy was revived as Trump won the Republican nomination while denouncing his party’s support of the Iraq War and defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ardent internationalist.

This is not neo-isolationism, but rather a historical view of how our nation’s unique qualities developed. Geographical advantages allowed the American experiment in self-governance to take place with little foreign interference or influence, something that was impossible in Europe. The first 130 years of America’s existence was focused largely on domestic development and growth.

The World Wars and the threat of communist ideology required the United States to become more involved in global matters during the twentieth-century, but our historical default has always been a defensive outlook that is protective of our values and wary of a costly and reckless foreign policy that could threaten them.

George Washington famously warned against “foreign entanglements” in his farewell address, and Thomas Jefferson pledged “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.” Modern observers may dismiss these as the fear of a fledgling nation against the threat of colonial Europe. But this distinctly American aversion to imprudent foreign policy persisted long after the founding era. “All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide,” said Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln understood there would always be few existential threats to the United States from beyond our borders. That exceptional security frees us to pursue a defensive foreign policy, leading the world by example instead of through war. The preservation of our exceptionalism, not its export, should always be our highest priority on the global stage.


This piece was originally published by The National Interest on July 31, 2019. Read more HERE.