Has America had sufficient of struggle?

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On a Tuesday night in March, veterans of America’s struggle in Afghanistan are sitting at an outside patio bar in Washington, DC. The presence on the menu of steak tartare, lobster ceviche and truffled chips is the one clue that this can be a rarefied resort in Georgetown, one of many capital’s most costly neighbourhoods. The ambiance in any other case is a fug of “fucks” and spent hopes.

One of many vets says he was shot within the hamstring (“the ass”, his mates right him with glee). One other misplaced his leg to an improvised explosive system in Kandahar in 2012. He recovered within the close by Walter Reed Nationwide Navy Medical Heart.

Sooner or later throughout remedy, he snuck out of the ability to a bar. He was simply knocking again his first drink when a younger couple he didn’t know requested him about his harm. “I misplaced my leg in Afghanistan 5 weeks in the past,” he answered.

They have been shocked: “Can we nonetheless have troops in Afghanistan?”

Virtually a decade later, US troops are just beginning their final pull-out from the nation. They have been first despatched by President George W Bush in 2001, a month after the September 11 assaults; he referred to as it “civilisation’s struggle” and went on to topple the Taliban. His successor, Barack Obama, ordered a troop surge which took US forces there above 100,000 and he spoke in 2012 of People in Afghanistan answering “the decision to defend their fellow residents and uphold human dignity”.

However the US expertise tells a harsher story. Up to now, the enterprise has value it an estimated $2tn and a pair of,448 lives. Greater than 20,700 Americans have been wounded, with a whole lot shedding limbs. Analysis means that a few fifth of the 775,000 US troops who’ve served in Afghanistan, some on greater than 5 excursions, undergo from despair and post-traumatic stress dysfunction. Greater than 45,000 veterans or service members have died by suicide since 2013. Most US veterans now say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t value preventing.

A platoon posted in Kunar province in 2008 dig earth for sandbags to reinforce a bunker
A platoon posted in Kunar province in 2008 dig earth for sandbags to bolster a bunker © Tim Hetherington/IWM

Final month, US president Joe Biden introduced that this chapter in American history would lastly shut. The two,500 remaining US troops are to be withdrawn by September 11 — the twentieth anniversary of the 2001 assaults — with no signal of successful. In addition to its impression on the navy, the struggle has shaken one thing deep in America’s sense of itself. A shift seen throughout the political spectrum has begun to probe the worldwide function of the US and even the concept of American exceptionalism, a notion that the nation is a novel pressure for good on the planet.

Adherents of America’s ethical exceptionalism have a tendency to achieve again to the US’s creation story — in 1780, future president Thomas Jefferson mentioned America was the “empire of liberty” — and the creed has had profound political penalties for wartime and peacetime alike. The US formed multilateral establishments such because the UN, Nato and the worldwide financial and monetary system that emerged after the second world struggle.

However the superpower has additionally tended to absent itself from multilateral pacts when it has not formed the principles or dangers coming beneath unfavourable scrutiny — whether or not it’s the International Criminal Court in The Hague or a collection of worldwide agreements in regards to the rights of girls, youngsters and organised labour; some limits on torture and cluster bombs; even entry to the moon. Within the postwar interval, the concept has been used to justify navy intervention, coups and covert exercise in every single place from Greece and Vietnam to Nicaragua and Iraq.

The unlikely standard-bearer for a much less exceptionalist US was Donald Trump, who mentioned in 2015 that the notion of American exceptionalism was “insulting” to the world and that he “by no means preferred the time period”. It was Trump who, as president, struck a cope with the Taliban in 2020 and promised to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan in 2021, only a few months forward of Biden’s eventual date.

Now a brand new wave of teachers, veterans and coverage specialists is attempting to upend the consensus on American exceptionalism, enjoying rebel David to the international coverage institution’s Goliath. Some goal not solely to query the militarisation of US international coverage, but additionally its ethical underpinnings and claims that the world requires America as its chief. One new anti-exceptionalist think-tank, the Quincy Institute, is even uniting reverse factors on the political compass, from George Soros to a Koch brother.

The US has questioned its function on the planet earlier than, not least because it grappled with whether or not to enter the second world struggle and within the wake of Vietnam. But if this anti-exceptionalism positive aspects the mental higher hand as geopolitical dynamics shift and the US enters a brand new competitors with China, it is going to completely change how America pertains to the world and the claims it makes on the Twenty first century. Will the US actually countenance any imaginative and prescient of worldwide geopolitics the place it isn’t sole superpower?

There are indicators that senior figures throughout the Biden administration are sympathetic to a re-evaluation of the primacy of American exceptionalism. In an interview with the Monetary Occasions, nationwide safety adviser Jake Sullivan says he has “not particularly heard” the president use the time period and that he doesn’t know what Biden would say if requested if he was an “American exceptionalist”.

He says Biden is extra involved with “American function, American capability . . . It hasn’t been about wording. It’s been about underlying propositions and rules guiding our international coverage.” Sullivan himself has grappled with the phrase, saying some definitions of it have been related to deep issues and risks, and has sought to sketch out a extra restricted imaginative and prescient.

Within the DC bar, the 2 veterans rely themselves as patriots and don’t remorse their navy service — certainly, they nonetheless work for the US authorities within the area. (They requested anonymity to talk freely.) However they not settle for ethical or strategic arguments for America’s abroad navy operations and reject what they see because the continuation of an imperialist, exceptionalist international coverage.

“I used to be raised with the idea that we’re at all times the nice guys on the aspect of proper,” says the primary man, who now rues America’s expansive community of greater than 750 abroad navy bases. “I don’t consider the nationwide bedtime story any extra.”


For a lot of of its home advocates, American exceptionalism provides the comforting notion not solely that America is globally greatest — by dint of wealth, energy, structure, ethos, geography or some other benefit, whether or not pure or attained — but additionally morally justified on this standing. Presidents and political figures all through its historical past have eagerly promoted America as a singular instance to the world.

To Abraham Lincoln, invoking the nation’s 1775-83 revolutionary battle towards the British, America “held out a fantastic promise to all of the individuals of the world to all time to return”. On the eve of the 1861-65 civil struggle, fought over the way forward for slavery, People have been God’s “virtually chosen individuals”, he mentioned. Within the nineteenth century, the concept that the US was destined to unfold its dominion led to first home after which abroad expansionism. To Jay Lovestone, a US communist, American exceptionalism meant US capitalism was so superior it might by no means conform to Marxist expectations for revolution.

Soldiers sit with a dummy used to draw enemy fire at a Korengal Valley bunker in 2007
Troopers sit with a dummy used to attract enemy hearth at a Korengal Valley bunker in 2007 © Tim Hetherington/IWM

American exceptionalism has been a capacious idea. Some have used it to justify the isolationism that adopted the primary world struggle, others its triumphant intervention within the second. The chilly struggle gave rise to a brand new interpretation, the pursuit of an everlasting transatlantic structure that will additional US hegemony because the world’s solely superpower.

More moderen US presidents have referred to as on American exceptionalism virtually as proof of patriotism. For Invoice Clinton, the US was “the indispensable nation”. For Obama, it was the idea that America was constructed on “a core set of values” urging it on to do higher. Since 2012, American exceptionalism has fashioned an official plank within the Republican platform, prophesying “one other American Century”.

For probably the most ardent believers, one picture has developed endurance. In 1961, shortly earlier than he turned president, John F Kennedy instructed Massachusetts lawmakers that, “We will be as a metropolis upon a hill — the eyes of all individuals are upon us.” Ronald Reagan too spoke incessantly of Eighties America as a “shining metropolis on a hill”. The reference is to a 1630 sermon by English Puritan John Winthrop, who emigrated from England to discovered the Massachusetts Bay Colony that yr — a group he needed to be a mannequin of Christian charity and which he thought to be divinely impressed.

The retired Princeton historian Daniel Rodgers wrote a 2018 e-book about Winthrop’s sermon. He argues that the concept that the US has at all times acted benignly — inherent to American exceptionalism — is a “harmful delusion”. “The concept there’s a sort of timeless God-given energy to the People merely will get in the best way of actually cautious examination of what a really highly effective nation on the planet can and must be doing,” he says. The notion that America was an exception to the principles that govern each different nation’s historical past has led to blindspots, he provides: “America has had instances of nice ethical lapse.”

US defence spending compared to 10 major countries combined in 2019

Critics have loads of ammunition, pointing to cold-war operations spanning assassination plots, destabilising regime adjustments or outright battle in Korea, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Indonesia, Cuba and plenty of extra. The US is an distinctive energy in the best way it has deployed its wealth and largesse, but additionally its pressure: it’s the solely nation to have detonated nuclear weapons in wartime. Within the Seventies, congressional investigations uncovered a collection of covert actions abroad by the CIA to undermine governments. Within the wake of the September 11 assaults and invasion of Afghanistan, the US established a global network of torture “black sites”. It’s in no place to lecture others, argue some.

In an e-mail, creator Suzy Hansen, a critic of America’s international coverage, says: “The behavior of militarised response, the presumption that the nation can act with impunity and, frankly, the convenience with which the navy kills individuals overseas . . . has additionally contaminated all the American challenge and People’ psychology.”

The shining, distinctive metropolis on the hill will not be all its promoters declare for it. After Winthrop arrived in America, he went on to sentence democracy as “the meanest and worst of all types of authorities”.


There aren’t many causes that may unite the liberal hedge-funder George Soros and one of many conservative Koch brothers, billionaire industrialists who constructed a community of Republican donors. However in 2019, each Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the Charles Koch Basis gave $500,000 apiece for the founding of the Quincy Institute for Accountable Statecraft. Occasions on the institute have questioned, amongst different issues, whether or not exceptionalism ought to nonetheless be seen as “an untouchable third rail in US politics”.

It’s named after John Quincy Adams, the sixth US president, who warned as secretary of state in 1821 that America risked turning into “dictatress of the world” if it selected pressure over liberty. America, Quincy argued, “goes not overseas, in quest of monsters to destroy” and must be a “well-wisher to the liberty and independence of all”.

Lora Lumpe facing right out of the frame
Quincy Institute chief government Lora Lumpe: ‘Regardless of [Biden’s] good resolution on Afghanistan, American exceptionalism is alive and effectively’ © Nate Palmer

Lora Lumpe, an professional on what she calls US “hyper-militarisation”, was working for the Open Society Foundations when she reached out to the Charles Koch Institute to collaborate in a bid to problem the militarisation of US international coverage. “We each got here at it from our corners, which had sort of demonised the opposite,” she says. She has since joined the Quincy Institute as chief government.

The institute has put its marketing campaign to withdraw from Afghanistan on the forefront of its latest efforts. US media now often options Quincy’s viewpoints; the institute says it was featured in 196 op-eds and options final yr, in publications starting from The New York Times to Teen Vogue.

Quincy could have time on its aspect. In 2011, only 8 per cent of People believed “there are different international locations which can be higher than the US”, in accordance with the Pew Analysis Heart. However that proportion rose to 21 per cent in 2019, says Pew, and it’s even increased — 36 per cent — amongst 18 to 29-year-olds (up from 12 per cent in 2011). For younger voters on the left, it rises to 47 per cent. (The 2 surveys have been performed by completely different strategies so may not be immediately comparable.)

The latest temper discovered echoes on the high too, even when Trump made an unlikely bedfellow for some sceptics of American exceptionalism. Sam Lengthy, 33, arrived in Afghanistan in 2013 as a Marine Corps captain with a romanticised view of the counterinsurgency work he thought his crew could be doing. However he grew to despair that Washington’s international coverage elite was continuously pushing to increase the struggle, a misgiving that put him uncomfortably near Trump, who blamed “stupid leaders” for prolonging it.

Of Trump, the Democrat-leaning Lengthy says: “It pains me that that man, with all his flaws, with all his dishonesty, with all his narcissism and his complete lack of worldliness and his complete lack of an understanding of different locations, was the one who mentioned: What the hell are we doing? That is silly.”

One Quincy piece was written by another soldier turned anti-exceptionalist: former Marine Corps first lieutenant Gil Barndollar. Earlier than he arrived in Afghanistan for his second tour in 2013, serving in Helmand province after assembly Lengthy throughout coaching, he had been an intern in 2004 on the American Enterprise Institute, a hawkish think-tank he describes as “the beating coronary heart” of the push for the 2003 Iraq struggle.

Barndollar, who’s now 39, had believed in “a roughly crusading American exceptionalism” however grew disaffected. He sees himself as a patriot and nonetheless feels it was “paradoxically probably the most significant factor” he has ever completed, however got here to view US nation-building abroad as a folly and discerned within the US a deep-seated creation delusion that had put it on a “pernicious pedestal”.

Gil Barndollar sitting on a bench in front of a road and some trees
Former US Marine Gil Barndollar: ‘It appears [Biden] doesn’t actually wish to be a foreign-policy president, and that’s good’ © Nate Palmer

“It’s best to speak about in all probability simply how fortunate and the way fragile the American experiment is — it’s much more persuasive than some thought of this nation main the world,” says Barndollar, who in 2019, two years after leaving the Marines, turned a senior fellow at Protection Priorities, a conservative think-tank that argues for the “extra considered” use of the American navy.

Quincy has additionally attracted serving congresspeople. Progressive Democratic congressman Ro Khanna, who represents a part of San Francisco, has been a speaker at its occasions and argues towards navy interventions, though he nonetheless sees himself as an American exceptionalist — on home issues, not less than. “America is a novel experiment . . . turning into the primary main multiracial, multiethnic democracy on the planet,” he says, wanting again to not the arrival of the Puritans or the founding fathers whose liberty utilized to a choose group of males, however to an 1869 speech from Frederick Douglass in regards to the composite nation. “[Douglass] actually paints a imaginative and prescient of America as a nation of countries — a common nation,” Khanna says.

In 2019, potential Quincy collaborators held a two-day retreat to bash out whether or not their contrasting beliefs actually might meld. In response to beforehand unpublished minutes of the retreat, Andrew Bacevich, a conservative historian and former self-described cold-war warrior, mentioned American ambitions had did not diminish after the “emergency” of the chilly struggle ended, arguing that America as a substitute “turned the only superpower and used its huge energy even the place the nationwide curiosity was not at stake”.

Bacevich had one other motive too: his son was killed in Iraq in 2007. “His dying haunts me and I wish to forestall it occurring to different People,” he mentioned. Bacevich is now the institute’s president.

However America has skirted such moments earlier than. Bacevich, who served within the Vietnam struggle, believes its classes have been insufficiently learnt. “Each Vietnam and Iraq stay bizarrely undigested,” he has written. “Each conflicts left behind a toxic legacy of unrest, rancour and bitterness” and provide a greater yardstick for US involvement in wars than its lauded contribution to the second world struggle, he famous.

The Vietnam struggle, wherein greater than 58,000 US troops died, galvanised highly effective home protest actions and uncovered social cleavages. However so-called Vietnam syndrome — the following disinclination for struggle accompanied by revelations in regards to the expansive covert function of the CIA — wore off within the Eighties when Reagan set about rebuilding the navy and centered on fears of a nuclear arms race and the probabilities of struggle in area.

In 1991, the US was again to struggle within the Gulf, with President George HW Bush declaring: “The ghosts of Vietnam have been laid to relaxation beneath the sands of the Arabian desert.” The September 11 assaults galvanised a brand new era of volunteers — after which got here Afghanistan.


In ordering the ultimate withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Joe Biden has shocked many — overriding navy recommendation and the received wisdom of Washington’s international coverage institution.

Ought to this be taken as an anti-exceptionalist assertion? Biden’s administration has been at pains to indicate it desires a much less hawkish US international coverage — explicitly rejecting regime-change insurance policies and elevating expectations it is going to downsize the nation’s colossal defence spending and abroad navy presence. However it nonetheless channels the language and ambition of American exceptionalism. In his tackle to Congress final week, Biden described America as “probably the most distinctive thought in historical past” and mentioned: “Now we have, with out hyperbole, the best preventing pressure within the historical past of the world.”

Jake Sullivan, the president’s nationwide safety adviser, says his personal pondering “rhymes with” the best way Biden has thought and talked about international coverage for a very long time. “Relating to the query of the ‘superpower’ . . . I feel the USA does have a definite function to play catalysing and mobilising collective motion to unravel massive issues,” he says. If the US is absent and nobody else has “the desire or the aim”, you get “drift and inaction”.

However the time period “American exceptionalism”, says Sullivan, “will not be itself animating the administration, as a result of we take our lead from the president, who has supplied a view of the function of the USA on the planet that’s distinctly his”.

Sullivan describes the president as optimistic, assured and decided that an “enlightened self-interest” which serves the US and delivers constructive outcomes for the bigger frequent curiosity must be on the core of US international coverage. Biden’s optimism, says Sullivan, “is rooted partly in a humility that claims America will stumble and fall and get knocked down on the mat, however what makes our nation able to nice issues is that we get again up once more, and we study from our errors and we self-correct and we transfer ahead.” Biden, nevertheless, additionally desires to “win the Twenty first century”.

The context of this assertive — but extra fragile — tone is the rise of China and the prospect of America’s relative decline. The shadow that China might in the future dislodge the US threatens many concepts Twenty first-century People take without any consideration about themselves. Biden has publicly pitched a “battle” between democracies and autocracies.

4 years of an isolationist Trump presidency stuffed with U-turns have undermined US standing amongst its conventional allies and companions, and the US has confronted home protests over gun crime, racism, sexism, healthcare and even election outcomes. Realising Biden’s mantra as president — that the US should lead “not simply by the instance of our energy, however the energy of our instance” — will likely be an uphill climb.

Even the historical past of that instance is now unsure. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s ambassador to the UN, mentioned final month: “I’ve seen for myself how the unique sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding paperwork and rules.” Secretary of state Antony Blinken has mentioned he desires to “steadiness humility with confidence” — a place he has taken partly to cope with criticism from international diplomats who spotlight US strife at house. However he’s no much less decided that America ought to lead the world and is dedicated to democracy and human rights promotion past US borders.

The president has made clear his focus is delivering for the American individuals at house. However in late March, at his first press convention in workplace, he mentioned China’s “general purpose” was to turn out to be the wealthiest and strongest nation on the planet. “That’s not going to occur on my watch,” he mentioned, invoking the language of superpower rivalries. “As a result of the USA are going to proceed to develop and broaden.”

Mike Gnoffo standing on a lawn in front of a one-storey house
Former Marine Corps sergeant Mike Gnoffo discovered a way of function and camaraderie in fight however later ‘violence had come to really feel like an obligation’

Although Lumpe and the Quincy Institute at the moment are glad on the subject of Afghanistan coverage, that is the sort of language that alarms her. “Regardless of [Biden’s] good resolution on Afghanistan, American exceptionalism is alive and effectively,” she says following the drawdown announcement, arguing that the default place of each events in Congress is to consider that American energy is limitless. “If China despatched particular operations forces or used deadly drone strikes in a half-dozen African or Asian international locations to fight potential anti-Chinese language terrorism, Washington would lose its thoughts. That’s American exceptionalism.”

Barndollar means that whereas the style in Washington could also be turning towards express assist for US navy interventions and what he says is a propensity for “spreading American blessings with the bayonet”, a fixation with American primacy and an unwillingness to acknowledge the bounds of American energy nonetheless have an effect on international coverage professionals on each the left and the correct. Quincy and different organisations prefer it “have carved themselves a spot within the dialog however they’re nonetheless preventing uphill”, he says, and are in a transparent minority. Anti-exceptionalist conservatives engaged on US international coverage “would all match into half an Irish bar”, he laughs.

Will Biden genuinely usher in a humbler function for the US? “It’s nonetheless an open query, however it appears he doesn’t actually wish to be a foreign-policy president, and that’s good,” says Barndollar.

Mike Gnoffo, a Marine Corps sergeant who served with Sam Lengthy, had been “ecstatic” to deploy to Afghanistan in 2013 after becoming a member of the reserves eight years earlier at 19. Fight gave him the check — and sense of function and belonging — he had been in search of. “Violence had come to really feel like an obligation,” he wrote in 2018, a yr after leaving the Marines.

Gnoffo, who now works within the sports activities trade, argues for the need of US world management, which he sees as certain up with the probabilities of progress, however has grown dissatisfied by what he sees because the function of the US perpetuating struggle, together with the “ineffective” struggle in Afghanistan. “The concept we’ve been strolling round with an enormous stick for 20 years now and breaking shit — actually, what has it constructed, apart from an incredible pile of debt? Demise too,” Gnoffo says. “Possibly American exceptionalism is the fact that we are able to spend that cash and it doesn’t bankrupt us.”

Katrina Manson is the FT’s US international coverage and defence correspondent

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