I spent Wednesday afternoon meandering across the web, looking at how the American media were covering allegations that the National Security Agency had spied on yet another foreign leader. “Don’t Tap My Phone,” screamed the banner headline at Huffington Post, above a grim-faced German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Obama to Merkel: We’re Not Spying On You,” announced the lead story on msnbc.com. Then I tacked right, to see how the websites of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Red State, National Review, and The Weekly Standard were handling the story. They weren’t. None of them featured the allegations at all, though it had been the subject of a Jay Carney White House press briefing just hours before.
This is part of the reason America is struggling as a superpower: our nationalists don’t give a fig about the nationalism of anyone else. American conservatives sometimes say that unlike American liberals, who believe in surrendering power to global institutions, they believe in the nation as the sole legitimate source of authority in international affairs. And that’s true when defending our nation’s prerogatives. Had news broken that Germany was tapping our president’s cell phone, Limbaugh would be musing about fire-bombing Dresden again. But the American right is indifferent, if not hostile, to non-Americans defending their nation’s honor. NSA spying on foreign leaders is only the latest example. In Colorado, they’re now issuing drone-hunting licenses so Americans can shoot down any airborne spy planes that trespass their property. And yet there’s scarcely any sympathy on the right for the Pakistanis and Yemenis who are upset that the U.S. sends drones over their countries, though those drones regularly kill people.
This isn’t American “exceptionalism”—the belief that the U.S. is fundamentally different, and better, than other nations. It’s what the international relations scholar John Ruggie has called (PDF) American “exemptionalism”—the belief that America need not play by everyone else’s rules. The notion isn’t completely absurd. As a superpower, which many smaller countries look to for protection, the U.S. does have special burdens that may sometimes require a special freedom of action. It’s easy for Belgium to say it won’t take military action without United Nations approval. It’s harder for the U.S., the country that gets disproportionately blamed if a Security Council deadlock prevents it from stopping genocide or protecting an ally from harm.
But American foreign policy has been most successful when the U.S. has been more, rather than less, sensitive to other countries’ pride. A good example is the Marshall Plan, which the United States funded but let the nations of Western Europe design, even though they organized their postwar economies in ways that looked socialistic to American eyes. Another is NATO, which at least in theory meant that the U.S. had obligations to smaller, weaker European nations, not just the other way around.
In the unipolar era that followed the Soviet Union’s demise, the U.S. didn’t show this kind of deference very often. Many conservatives, and some liberals, thought it didn’t need to. But that unipolar era is ending. In a world where other countries have more power relative to the U.S., it’s increasingly dangerous to believe we can do things to them we would never tolerate them doing to us. Many decades ago, the man sometimes called Obama’s “favorite theologian” argued that the “pride and self-righteousness of powerful nations are a greater hazard to their success than the machinations of their foes.” It would be nice if Obama remembered that, if even if Fox News won’t.