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US exceptionalism makes it a poor choice as world leader

With a growing list of US military interventions around the world, and their accompanying human rights abuses including the ongoing shame of Guantanamo Bay in the background, it is difficult to imagine a more unsuitable candidate as the leader of the free world than the American president. Indeed, as American hegemony is imposed on the rest of us with increasing frequency, the term “free world” itself has to be called into question. How can the people of the world be “free” when America takes upon itself the “right” to dictate how countries are governed and by whom? Equally, how can the people of America believe that their country is a force for good when it often destroys democracy, using very undemocratic means, in the name of protecting democratic freedoms? The refusal to accept democratic election results in Palestine and Egypt spring to mind as two recent examples.

According to Seumas Milne in the Guardian, “The Middle East is now in an unparalleled and unprecedented crisis. More than any other single factor, that is the product of continual US and western intervention and support for dictatorships, both before and after the ‘Arab spring’, unconstrained by any system of international power or law.” The key word is towards the end of that paragraph. America’s “unconstrained” interventions around the world, particularly in the Middle East, take place beyond the scope of the international laws and conventions by which the rest of the world are judged and expected to abide. Far from making the United States an aspirational model for other countries, this in fact makes it a poor choice to be world leader in anything, least of all international politics.

The doctrine of exceptionalism as practised by the US has its roots in its days as a British colony, which fed into the belief that the culture and very nature of the nascent state had unique qualities. Despite the apparent lack of imperial ambitions (in stark contrast to European states), this was supposed to make it able to rule foreigners “benignly”. Hence, it soon acquired a number of colonial possessions in the likes of Puerto Rico and Hawaii, among others.

In the modern era, US exceptionalism is manifested in a number of ways; for example, its refusal to allow UN inspections of its America’s massive arsenal of nuclear weapons. This policy has been adopted by Israel, despite the General Assembly approving a resolution in 2012 calling on the government in Tel Aviv “to open its nuclear programme for inspection”. As usual, the United States was one of six member states voting against the resolution, the others being Israel itself, Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. The latter three are so dependent on US aid that their votes against UN resolutions which require Israel to comply with international norms are virtually guaranteed. Canada, of course, has an extremely pro-Israel, right-wing government and is far from the immigrant-friendly state that its own myth making would have us believe. Like his predecessors, US President Barack Obama is blind to Israel’s nuclear hypocrisy, which has been called “the elephant in the room“, not without reason.

Infamously, the US government has refused to ratify the Rome Statute which founded the International Criminal Court, even though it is a signatory. To do so would oblige American citizens to be subject to international law and open to prosecution for human rights abuses. In refusing to allow its people and, tellingly, its soldiers, to be judged by international standards, America stands alongside Sudan and, surprise, surprise, Israel. The ICC is pursuing the president of Sudan, which has never claimed to be a democratic state in any case, so its own claim to exceptionalism is at least understandable, if not acceptable. The US and Israel, however, both claim democratic status; in fact, this is used to justify any number of undemocratic activities, including alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the US and Israeli governments make every effort not to be judged by international standards. Hypocritically, they often proclaim to be setting democratic norms, which is transparently nonsensical, as is the argument that Israel is held to different standards to other rogue states. This is trotted out regularly by pro-Israel lobbyists seeking to divert world attention from Tel Aviv’s ongoing abuse of international laws and conventions, crimes against the people of Palestine and apparent immunity from accountability. Most recently, this was cited by British actress Maureen Lipman as one reason for her not to vote Labour at the next election; party leader Ed Miliband’s support for recognition of the state of Palestine is, she claimed, support for a “ludicrous piece of propaganda”. She threw in the “anti-Semitism” argument for good measure.

For those of us who believe that international law should be upheld regardless of who breaches its tenets, US hegemony over world affairs, and Israeli influence over US foreign policy (about which see The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by Professors John J Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt) should be a cause for serious concern. Not only has America no right to claim even a modicum of neutrality as a broker in the so-called peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, it has no right to claim that it is policing the world for the good of everyone else.

America, it must be understood, does nothing unless it is deemed to be in its own interests, which have a nasty habit of matching those of its politicians, often to their benefit. The exception could arguably be its no-questions-asked backing of Israel, but broadly-speaking the rule is that US interests take priority. Such a selfish approach is illustrated by the world oil market. Although not a member of OPEC, the United States has major oil reserves and last week it was claimed that it was holding too much in storage; it is “on track” to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer. Which begs the question, why have successive governments in Washington, influenced heavily by neoconservative ideology, gone to war in order to “protect” oil supplies from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? The answer, of course, are those ubiquitous “US interests” and the fact that exceptionalism is a cornerstone of neocon ideology. Put bluntly, America wants to use oil from the rest of world and, when the sources dry up, as they must, it will have its own oil supplies to fall back on. As is said, very selfish, and that is another reason why it is totally unsuitable to be a role model for the rest of the world.

American, and Israeli, exceptionalism, therefore, is something that we should all question. Israel is not being subject to “one law” while others are judged by another; as a supposed democracy (the “only one in the Middle East”, according to its supporters), Israel should be accountable for its actions, as should the United States. Only when international law is truly international in purpose and implementation can we ever expect justice to prevail for all people and all nation states. Until that time, US hegemony should be interpreted for what it is; a practical exposition of the doctrine that “might is right”, which is anything but a force for good in an increasingly dangerous world.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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