Critics of American exceptionalism dismiss it as dangerous, nationalistic arrogance, pointing to unilateralism as evidence of a defiant refusal to play by the global rules. Jim Wallis warned of the Bush administration’s “theology of empire.” Kevin Phillips denounced “hubris-driven national strategic and military overreach” fueled by blind faith and religious excesses in the American empire’s illusory, crippling belief in its own exceptionalism.
Without a sense of America’s special role in the world, we are reduced to multilateral cooperation under global values created by multilateral committees. That was certainly not the position of the United States in the cataclysmic world wars of the twentieth century-and millions of people have reason to thank God that it wasn’t. Is American exceptionalism the “delusion” that we are different? Or is it the conviction that when we can do something to prevent horrible evils, and others won’t act, we have an obligation to do so, based on the blessings God has poured out on us and the ability God has given us to do something about such evils?
I believe that if we do not act in such circumstances, we become morally culpable. Now, there are times when terrible things are happening, but the consequences of our intervention would be as horrible or even more horrible than what we’re trying to stop: North Korea is a good example. Probably no country in the world is routinely committing more atrocities against its own people and crushing more human rights on a daily basis than the North Korean government. If we were to attempt to intervene militarily either unilaterally or multilaterally, in the first week or two alone, the intervention likely would cause the deaths of between five hundred thousand and a million North and South Koreans and several thousand Americans. The only institution that functions in North Korea is their military, and they would respond to any attempt by us to intervene with massive attacks on South Korean and American facilities. The disproportionate death toll among Koreans as well as Americans seeking to intervene would outweigh the intended good of such action.
The same thing would be true of any intervention in China. We know there is systematic abuse of human rights in China, but once again unilateral intervention by the United States must always be a last resort. Short of that, whenever people are having their rights or their lives trodden down, we have an obligation to express our concern, to do what we can to alleviate their suffering, and to help bring about their freedom.
One of the criteria for just war is the question of proportionality: Will the suffering caused outweigh the human benefits of success, and will the cost of success therefore be too high? If Christianity at its outset had said we oppose slavery and we call upon slaves to rebel against their masters, Christianity would have been even more viciously persecuted and driven even further underground. So Paul said that if both masters and slaves were Christians, the relationship and the institution would be transformed. When a sufficient number of both masters and slaves became Christians, slavery ended in the Roman Empire.
During the Reagan years, although the United States didn’t militarily intervene in the Soviet Union, we made it a part of every one of our diplomatic negotiations with them to express our concern for the plight of the Refuseniks: Jews who were being systematically discriminated against and persecuted. Eventually we were able to help achieve their right to leave the Soviet Union and emigrate to Israel. Hundreds of thousands of them did so.
When we can act to fight great injustices, we have an obligation and a responsibility to do so.