How American culture wars and real wars have polarised the world
The US has alienated many countries and cultures around the world with its double standards. Today, ‘Democratic exceptionalism’ risks further fracturing western societies
I have frequently used the concept of American exceptionalism to explain US foreign policy. For all intents and purposes, American exceptionalism is an ideology that embraces the whole US political spectrum, from Democrats to Republicans.
Former President Donald Trump’s MAGA (Make America Great Again) slogan is also a form of American exceptionalism, although it seems less determined to use force to impose American principles and values around the world.
In his book World Order, Henry Kissinger defined such exceptionalism as the belief that American principles are “universal and that the governments that do not practice them are not fully legitimized”. The notion is so rooted in “American thinking” that it induces the belief “that a part of the world lives in an unsatisfactory, provisional, situation and that one day it will be redeemed [by America]”.
The ultimate consequence of such a doctrine is a latent conflict between the US and those countries that do not align with American “universal principles”. Since the end of the Cold War, this conflict has paradoxically become more evident. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, of 469 US military interventions worldwide since 1798, more than half – a total of 251 – took place between 1991 and 2022.
In two-and-a-half centuries, American principles, inherited from the American Revolution against the British crown and codified in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, have played a significant role in shaping global democracy and freedom, dramatically improving humankind’s way of life and progress.
In the 20th century, the US provided an outstanding contribution to the cause of freedom and democracy, and to the successful struggle against totalitarianism. But in recent decades, fissures have gradually surfaced on certain core values and principles, bringing into question the country’s global leadership.
Regarding one of the pillars of US leadership, the capitalist economy, there are cultures and traditions where the interests of the community still trump individualism – and this affects market choices. Such choices include to what extent markets should be regulated, whether certain trade terms should be accepted, how the demands of international financial institutions should be implemented, and whether sanctions against certain nations should be enforced.
Over the last four decades, neoliberalism has been the epicentre of such tensions. Its obsession with the hidden hand of the market, privatisation, deregulation and laissez-faire economics has produced massive inequalities and financial meltdowns, which in turn have triggered recessions and further inequalities.
The net outcome has been an age of global anger that has not spared western democracies, as confirmed by the political turmoil that has shaken US and European societies in recent years.
In a nutshell, those once indisputable “dogmas”, such as the Washington Consensus or There Is No Alternative (TINA), are now being openly challenged.
Other fissures are appearing with regards to cultural values and traditions. There is a highly polarised debate within western societies on the promotion or curtailing of civil rights, primarily affecting identity issues, such as gender, gay marriage, LGBTQ rights, family values and abortion rights.
Recently, the net perception has emerged that some core values of American (western) exceptionalism are being updated through liberal-woke, activist-driven identity politics. This reality is reflected in the heated cultural debate devouring both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Is it then possible that, in the democracy versus autocracy mantra that President Joe Biden has been using since he entered the Oval Office, the word “democracy” might now have a wider meaning, which could also include woke culture? This updated meaning appears to be affecting Europe as well, with EU institutions clearly reflecting such a trend through specific initiatives shaped by politically correct culture – an approach that is generating hostile reactions in various EU member states.
Struggle between good and evil
Are we thus facing an updated American exceptionalism that could be better defined as Democratic (Party) exceptionalism – a version that would identify both enemies abroad (such as the autocratic Russia, China and Iran) and at home (Trump and his followers) by using elements of woke culture?
What is certain is that Manichaeism, which interprets history as an endless struggle between good and evil, is now the main tool used to portray and frame such positions and narratives. This is true at the global level, with regards to the war in Ukraine and conflicts in other hot spots, such as China and Iran – but unfortunately, Manichaeism is also increasingly colouring the debate within many western societies.
It is a binary logic, a mindset that risks further radicalising the “us versus them” notion. And this same logic is shaping international relations, which are fast approaching a point of no return.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent speech celebrating the annexation of four Ukrainian regions partially occupied by Russian troops sounded a death knell for any chances of reconciliation with the West, suggesting the emergence of an unbridgeable abyss.
A few excerpts speak volumes: “They [western nations] see our thought and our philosophy as a direct threat. That is why they target our philosophers for assassination,” Putin said, adding that western elites “brazenly divide the world into their vassals – the so-called civilised countries – and all the rest, who … should be added to the list of barbarians and savages”.
He added: “What, if not racism, is the West’s dogmatic conviction that its civilisation and neoliberal culture is an indisputable model for the entire world to follow … [Western elites] have already moved on to the radical denial of moral, religious and family values.”
In that vein, Putin posed a number of questions, including: “Do we want to have here, in our country, in Russia, ‘parent number one, parent number two and parent number three’ … instead of mother and father? … Do we want to drum into their [our children’s] heads the ideas that certain other genders exist along with women and men and to offer them gender reassignment surgery?”
Calling such policies “unacceptable,” Putin accused the West of targeting “all societies” with a “complete renunciation of what it means to be human, the overthrow of faith and traditional values, and the suppression of freedom”.
We are witnessing not only an abyss between Russia and the West, but also one within the US itself. This conclusion can be drawn from Biden’s speech in early September, when he declared that “America is at an inflection point – one of those moments that determine the shape of everything that’s to come after.”
Biden’s Democratic exceptionalism seems aimed not only at its perceived external enemies, but also at a large part of the American people: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic … There is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.”
American exceptionalism has alienated many countries and cultures around the world with its double standards. Democratic exceptionalism risks further fracturing and alienating parts of western democratic societies that have already, and copiously, been penalised by neoliberalism’s inequalities.
The forthcoming US midterm elections will provide some indication of which narrative will gain the upper hand, and the consequences could go beyond the US.
Recent elections in France, Sweden and Italy – where far-right parties were quite successful – could presage the verdict on 8 November.
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