At a G-20 conference in April 2009, President Obama was asked if America had a unique role in the world. Instead of explaining what makes America great (or even taking the usual tactic of apologizing for America’s greatness) the President responded: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism . . [whatever America has] to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.” Every nation thinks highly of itself, it seems, and America should get over the idea that it is anything special.
In a new publication entitled Why is America Exceptional?, Matthew Spalding takes a different view of America and her role in the world. Every nation, Spalding explains, “derives its meaning or purpose from some unifying quality—an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history.” But America is different: it is a nation dedicated to a set of principles, proclaimed to be self-evident in the Declaration of Independence and secured in the United States Constitution.
The principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence are the standards by which all governments (not just America’s government) should be instituted and are to be judged. America is the only nation explicitly founded upon the principles of human equality and natural rights, but these principles are applicable to all men and all times, as Lincoln said. What do these truths mean for our international relationships? “The primary responsibility of the United States is to defend the freedom and well-being of the American people,” Spalding argues, but because of the principles to which it is dedicated, the United States, “more than any other nation, . . . has a special responsibility to defend the cause of liberty at home and abroad.”
Applying America’s first principles to foreign affairs is the task of Heritage’s new series, Understanding America. This series explores what the United States’ commitment to the principles of liberty—as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and secured in the Constitution—means in the world. Do these principles require isolationism to be the primary mode of foreign policy? If not, how much should America intervene? Does the Declaration of Independence require us to recognize every nation as sovereign? What does the common defense require? Is there a principled form of national defense? These are some of the issues that will be explored in the coming months.
The Declaration of Independence is not simply a document for domestic affairs whose influence ceases upon leaving our borders. Understanding America will explore what the Declaration’s principles mean abroad. Then, perhaps the next time the president is asked to explain America’s role in the world, he will proclaim—and defend—its exceptional principles.
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