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Ukraine Crisis Shows Obama Does Not Believe in American Exceptionalism

19/03/2014 12:11 GMT | Updated 18/05/2014 10:59 BST

On his first overseas trip as president in 2009, Barack Obama was asked by a foreign journalist whether he subscribed to American exceptionalism, the idea that America has a unique role to champion freedom and democracy. He responded, 'I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism'.

This is the same as saying he does not believe in American exceptionalism at all, as Dinesh D'Souza has pointed out. The Greek and British empires may have been the cradle and castle of democracy, but America made expansion of liberty a goal in its own right. And grandiose as a foreign policy version of 'Only in America' may sound, American exceptionalism as a theory explains the current Crimean conundrum exceptionally well.

Secretary of State John Kerry also gave the game of an 'unexceptional' approach to world affairs away recently when he said of Putin's actions in Ukraine, 'You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text'. Well, you do if you are Russia or any number of other countries outside the NATO umbrella whose interests trump concern for international law. Sorry.

If anyone, it is Kerry et al who have returned the world to the foreign affairs of centuries past. When Assad crossed Obama's red line in Syria, the US didn't take action but instead asked that Parliament take the lead, like it was the 18th century. France and Britain were left in a game of one-upmanship over the direction of world politics, as they were in Libya in 2011. Shades of Waterloo.

Now Putin's adventurism recalls 20th century brinkmanship. But in many ways Russia has gone beyond the norms set during the cold war and its conclusion. Annexing any part of Ukraine is a breach of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, solemnly signed by the US, UK, Ukraine and Russia. Technically, Britain and America are obliged to uphold Ukraine's borders by any means necessary, whatever the outcome of a Crimean referendum. It's a transgression unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago.

So what changed? All signs point to a belief in Washington that the US should no longer consider itself the exception to traditionally self interested power. Let's assume, for instance, the United States is not alone in believing rights and reason should guide its policy. It is simply one important country among the family of nations. We can expect other countries to reasonably behave in a way the US would under similar circumstances, right? Like peers.

This is why former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton symbolically pressed a red 'reset' button to clear the air with her Russian counterpart on taking office, and cancelled missile defence in central Europe with no quid pro quo. After all, when Gorbachev offered an olive branch to the West, Reagan and Thatcher took it. But instead, the result of the back-slapping has been Russia slapping the red button of an ICBM test.

The tragedy of this new-left, internationalist approach to foreign policy is that it produces the exact opposite of the peace and security it promises. That international relations are still an anarchic society, and power abhors a vacuum are clichés of politics because they are true. In former UN Ambassador John Bolton's phrase, it means American weakness, not strength, is provocative. Because as soon as one power signals it is no longer willing to exert pressure, others fill the void as completely as liquid adapting to the contours of a container.

That's how Russia saw an opportunity in Syria when it so kindly offered to broker the surrender of Assad's WMDs to the UN. Meanwhile, the civil war is out of control, the chemical weapons are nowhere to be seen and it looks like Putin's most heavily armed Middle East autocrat is going to be in there forever. Ukraine is just round two.

So how can the Crimean crisis reflect on this administration when Russia invaded Georgia with impunity on George W Bush's watch? Well, Georgia is not the bellwether for the expansion of democracy and the European trading bloc Ukraine is. And 2008 was no time to rattle the Russian cage; the West needed flyover rights to Afghanistan and was hopelessly mired in Iraq.

But that too can be explained by an overstatement of American exceptionalism. The pipe-puffing Profs over at the American Enterprise Institute finessed it to mean even countries without democratic tradition or yearning would greet allied troops as liberators. The Bush administration put the idea into action in Iraq and got surprised, like Kerry and Clinton have been since.

To be fair, Obama tried to strike a middle path by following up his remarks to the foreign journalist, 'America has an extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone'. Putin has shown he is not interested in partnership. The best partners the US has are in NATO and cutting troop strength sends the wrong message to friend and foe alike.

It is apt to return to the source of the term 'American exceptionalism'. Alexis de Tocqueville first described America as exceptional for its widespread democracy and education in the 19th Century. But Joseph Stalin coined the term itself to sneer at the idea the US alone could be counted on to thwart Russian ambitions. As he orders troops into Crimea, Putin must be smirking that the American president he now faces agrees with him.