How to Be a “Normal” Great Power?

Would the world necessarily be a better place if America returns to normal and bases its foreign policy solely on the national interest? Is President Putin not concerned that in a world of self-interested powers we will see more genocides and suffering?

History has a way of playing tricks. In the latest turn of the Syrian crisis, President Vladimir Putin of Russia wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he attacked American exceptionalism and blamed it for the current crisis of the international order.

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Putin wrote.

In his view, US policy toward Syria best illustrates the dangers inherent in the American notion of exceptionalism. The US urged military intervention in Syria and were prepared to bypass the UN Security Council not because they believed that the intervention would work, but to preserve the status of America as an exceptional power that can invoke moral imperatives and its “right”, rather than international treaties, to justify its actions.

We must acknowledge that Putin has a point. Washington’s policy toward Syria is confused and confusing. America was prepared to bomb Syria, but it was reluctant to take responsibility for what is happening on the ground. America has declared President Assad a war criminal but shies away from advocating regime change, fearing jihadists will take power in Damascus.

But is America’s problem in Syria its sense of exceptionalism, or its waning ability to make a difference?

We all are special, but very few of us are exceptional. In the wake of WWII, there were only four exceptional powers left in the world. Their exceptionalism was very different from the common belief held by every nation that it is unique and chosen by God. Their exceptionalism was recognized by others and was at the heart of their foreign policy. These exceptional powers were the United States, the Soviet Union, Germany and Israel.

Both Soviet and American exceptionalism predates WWII. The war just made it more apparent. Both the Soviet Union and the US were ideological states born of revolution, and both sought to transform the world. Their exceptionalism was closely related with their status as super powers and their role as the ideological poles in the Cold War global order. The US and the Soviet Union were exceptional not simply due to the role of ideology in their foreign policy; they were also exceptionally powerful.

German and Israeli exceptionalism was different in nature. Germany built a post-war identity around its responsibility for Hitler’s crimes, and Germany’s exceptionalism was very much about its eagerness to contribute to the common good. In the case of the European Union, Germany’s exceptionalism was manifested in Bonn’s readiness to foot the bill when other nations concerned about national interests were reluctant.

Israeli exceptionalism was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust. And it is expressed in the paranoia, shared by most powers, that somebody seeks their destruction, though in Israel’s case, the paranoia is more justified. This is why the international community has accepted Israel’s status as a closet nuclear power. Yehuda Elkana once said there are two very different versions of Israel’s exceptionalism, which can be summed up in two similar sounding but very different statements: “Never again” and “Never again to us.”

These four versions of exceptionalism were imbedded in the architecture of the Cold War.

In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Germany and Russia returned to normal, while America’s exceptionalism was reasserted and Israel’s exceptionalism was questioned. Germany has become exceptionally normal, while Russia tries to achieve normality through its passionate resistance to values-driven foreign policy.

But would the world necessarily be a better place if America returns to normal and bases its foreign policy solely on the national interest? Is President Putin not concerned that in a world of self-interested powers we will see more genocides and suffering?

Moreover, is American exceptionalism the best explanation for US policy toward Syria? Americans’ belief in their superiority is not the root cause of America’s interventionism, but rather its isolationism. America could be exceptional without being hegemonic or interventionist. Before WWI, America felt itself so different that it did not want to have anything to do with the rest of the world.

In this sense, the Syrian crisis has revealed less the dangers of America’s sense of exceptionalism than the limits of America’s capacity for exceptionalism. The crisis contradicted the cliché that the majority of Americans do not believe it is up to the US to intervene in all world crises. Moralism divorced from calls for action is what characterizes American public opinion today. Economic and political crises have caused many Americans to question the superiority of their institutions.

The question, though, is: will the world be a better place if the American government embraces normality? While it’s good news that American bombs are not killing innocent people in Syria today, the bad news is that innocent people are killed every day both by the government and the rebels.

In short, Russia’s ambition to restore the normality of 1913, when the world was divided between a few European empires, is as utopian as America’s ambition to preserve the normality of 1993, when the US could do anything it considered morally right.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.