Can Exceptionalism Guide U.S. Foreign Policy?

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Is America being exceptional in Bahrain

Writing in National Review, Marion Smith takes issue with Stephen Walt's take-down of America's exceptionalism. In it, Smith offers proof of why the U.S. is uniquely virtuous among nations:

How about the American commitment to end European imperialism in North America, leading to the Monroe Doctrine? Secretary of State John Quincy Adams worked so that neither Spain nor France reclaimed their revolting colonies in Latin America. At the same time, America rebuffed British attempts to secure an imperial foothold in North America through an Anglo-American military alliance. Despite America’s military weakness, Adams — the principal author of the Monroe Doctrine — believed it would be “more candid, as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly” and reject an alliance, rather than appear to “come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.” By championing the cause of the newly independent Latin American republics in Europe, and being the first established nation to recognize the new nations, a young U.S. advanced its principles abroad, promoting a new system of “justice” for one-third of the globe.

Of all the places to defend morality in American foreign policy, Latin America (!) following the Monroe Doctrine would be about the last place I'd start. That aside, Smith offers some forward-looking guidance:

Rejecting the source of our goodness — our true principles — will dash any hopes for future greatness. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” In the 21st century, Americans need to learn from the examples of our earlier statesmen who prudently applied our exceptional principles to the constantly changing circumstances of international affairs.

So what would this mean in the case of, say, Bahrain, where the government has murdered its own citizens and jailed doctors who cared for wounded protesters? The Obama administration had signaled it would go ahead and sell them U.S. weapons anyway, but has now held that up pending a State Department review on human rights. Is forgoing that sale the exceptional thing to do?

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