The Burning City Upon a Hill
On Jan. 8, 2021, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “Being the greatest country on earth is not just about our incredible economy & our strong military; it’s about the values we project out into the world. I believe in America, and American goodness.” This expression of American exceptionalism — just two days after insurrectionists inspired by Pompeo’s boss, President Donald Trump, attempted to challenge the peaceful transfer of power in the nation’s capital — showed a stunning lack of self-awareness. The attack on the Capitol was the culmination of four years of the United States serving not as a “shining city on a hill,” as President Ronald Reagan liked to put it, but rather, as a burning city on a hill. Into this smoldering heap of national disunity steps the 46th president, Joe Biden.
Biden is faced not just with historic challenges but also a historic opportunity: to reconstruct the American national story. The old story was that the United States was exceptional at home and therefore should play a special role abroad. This story was never correct in any normative sense (the United States is not better than any other state, it’s simply different and extremely powerful), but there was bipartisan consensus on accepting — or pretending — that it was. Trump shattered this consensus once and for all by being the first post-World War II president to publicly reject American exceptionalism and its foreign policy consequences. While it will be tempting for Biden to pretend Trump never happened, it will fail for one important reason: The old bipartisan foreign policy consensus cannot be restored. Deep fault lines have appeared between radically different visions of what the United States represents at home and abroad. The new administration should take a hard look at the U.S. role in an era of the “liberal international order” and whether it can do better going forward. In other words, it should reevaluate the story of American exceptionalism at home and abroad.
From Consensus to Disarray
A strong belief in American exceptionalism affects not just diplomatic rhetoric but also actual foreign policy. That is, it did until the 45th president. Trump not only failed to match Pompeo’s run-of-the-mill exceptionalist rhetoric, but furthermore, his “America First” foreign policy agenda was a direct rejection of it. In the last four years, the United States has experienced a serious challenge to its dominant post-World War II narrative of an exceptional great power in world history perfecting liberal democracy at home (with intermittent setbacks) and promoting liberal internationalism abroad. Trump revived a debate last seen in 1940 over whether the United States was to be a country united by a set of self-perceived exceptional ideals (“civic nationalism”) or by religion and skin color (“ethnic nationalism“). As Charles Lindbergh, future spokesman for the America First Committee, said during the Blitz in 1940, the United States should not interfere because the white race is not under threat. From Lindbergh to Pat Buchanan in the 1990s, “America First” has had very specific connotations and implications throughout U.S. political history. In situating himself within this tradition, Trump represented the contestation of civic nationalism on behalf of ethnic nationalism. This had serious implications for foreign policy: The United States could not represent anything exceptional on the world stage because it no longer stood for anything exceptional at home. Indeed, this is why some of the fiercest critics of Trump were so-called neoconservatives of the Bush era and Republican national security professionals — those who actually did believe the United States was exceptional and therefore had a special role to play in world history. The answer to the question of whether Trump signified change or continuity in U.S. foreign policy is therefore clear: He represented fundamental change in the post-World War II historical context. This is because he rejected not only the “liberal international order” but also the American story underpinning it. Analyses focusing merely on discrete policies miss this narrative aspect entirely.
It is clearly tempting for Biden to attempt a simple restoration of the old exceptionalist narrative at home and abroad declaring that, “America is back.” But, in doing so, Biden could potentially fall victim to a false choice: exalt American exceptionalism or accept the “America First” narrative. There is a third option: acknowledge that the United States is not an exceptional nation in any normative sense and realize that pretending it is will not match the seriousness of this moment. As Biden himself pointed out in his inaugural speech: The last four years have been characterized by an “uncivil war” at home and chaos abroad that has shocked allies and delighted adversaries. Biden’s real challenge is forging a new, more honest post-Trump national consensus on what the United States means at home and therefore abroad. A credible foreign policy must rest on a credible — and shared — national story.
Building Back Better: Reconstructing the American Story
For most of its history, the United States was a country defined in glowing contrast to a foreign foe. Before its founding, the New World was contrasted with the Old. Powerful myths developed about the journey of the Pilgrims and the struggle of the Puritans. Indeed, the intrepid Puritans are, in many ways, treated as the original founders of the United States, “fleeing religious persecution” and starting a new life in a new world. While this was never quite true (Pilgrims and Puritans were intolerant of other religious groups as the Quakers and of course Native Americans soon found out), the New World was seen as “exceptional” in world history. The political founding of the United States subsequently signified the first modern republic forged in the fires of Enlightenment values and institutions. The Old World represented oppression, monarchy, imperialism, and class hierarchies. The New World represented democracy, political liberalism, and a fair chance for anyone willing to work hard enough.
As new frontiers were conquered, new villains in the American story would appear: European colonial designs in the western hemisphere; indigenous peoples; Catholic, Jewish, and poor immigrants from old, corrupt Europe; and, of course, African slaves and their descendants who would later become citizens. The “real America” — defined all along as white and Protestant — was continuously perceived to be under siege. Through its history, this diverse and troubled nation would expand and contract its definition of “real American” through a series of trials by fire — the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Spanish-American war, World War I, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, and the “Global War on Terror.”
The exceptionalist narrative at home has always been inextricably linked to the American mission abroad. But, for a long time, the United States was seemingly more ambitious abroad — “saving the world for democracy” in World War I, World War II, and in the Cold War — rather than advancing its own at home. Then, the Cold War ended abruptly and unexpectedly peacefully. Sophisticated analyses of the causes of the end of the Cold War were overshadowed by simplistic answers in which the United States had simply “won,” with victory signifying the American experiment as the end of ideological history. U.S. foreign policy was suddenly unmoored, although there was bipartisan agreement that the United States should continue to be “the leader of the free world” despite that label being outdated at best and incorrect at worst. It is hardly a new insight to point out that the post-Cold War drift was enabled by the lack of a disciplining enemy to concentrate the body politic. And yet, its consequences have played out to a startling degree in the past four years. Rather than rally the nation against a foreign enemy, Trump rallied one part of the nation against another. This, in a nutshell, is what Biden campaigned against, promising to bring unity and to “restore the soul of America.” But what is the soul of America?
As Brent Scowcroft and President George H. W. Bush once wrote, “Without a sense of who we are at home, we cannot know who we are or what we wish to be abroad.” The Biden administration now gets a shot at founding a new era in U.S. political history — one that necessitates forging a new national consensus. But that demands a clear-eyed look at what, exactly, the United States does indeed represent. The myth of American exceptionalism has been a powerful story throughout U.S. history that unfortunately obscures more than it enlightens as seen, for example, in the Trump administration’s “1776 report,” which calls for “a more patriotic education,” confusing criticism and debate for heresy. The strong belief in American exceptionalism has made settler colonialism into manifest destiny, slavery into the “peculiar institution,” and hemispheric imperial designs into the Monroe Doctrine. This blindside has been equally true for the debate over modern U.S. foreign policy, which has focused on the “leader of the free world” part but not on the parts where the United States worked to depose democratically-elected leaders in Iran or Chile, for example, invaded Iraq on flimsy grounds, or used torture as a part of the Global War on Terror.
The United States has never been a normatively exceptional country — how could it be as a country founded on genocidal policies and slavery? That does not mean that the United States does not have distinct qualities and a special role to play on the world stage — indeed, in world history. As the most powerful liberal democracy, it clearly does. The promise of and global attraction to the American story comes not from its spotless record. Rather, it comes from its intermittent attempts to live up to its own original ideals that were thought to make it exceptional in the first place.
The Fourth Founding?
In that spirit, the United States has founded and then re-founded itself at least three times. The first political founding set up the world’s first modern republic, making it distinct from all other countries at the time (after a complex pre-Founding era as the 1619 Project has pointed out). The second attempt at a founding came in the form of the Civil War and the subsequent efforts at “reconstructing” the South into, as historian Eric Foner argues, a biracial democracy. The monumental and long-lasting efforts at obtaining civil rights for black Americans, once this failed, can be seen as the third attempt at a founding and the Second Reconstruction. In this view of U.S. history, American liberal democracy (as opposed to the republic itself) is only 56 years old, dating back to when Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The current era of the “uncivil war” may prove to be the republic’s fourth attempt at a founding, this time as a multiracial democracy. While there is no revolutionary or civil war on the horizon, the state of the American political system is dire. One of its two political parties, the Republican Party, is increasingly an anti-democratic party. Rather than adjust its approach to attract an ever more diverse pool of voters, the GOP is turning to suppressing voters of colors while stoking the fears of the “real Americans” — mainly white Christians, with targeted appeals to certain (especially male) minority voters. As political scientist Nathan Kalmoe argues, in this sense, Republicans today are continuing the tradition of Southern Democrats of the 1850s. Political violence is not only on the rise, but also for the first time in U.S. history, the head of the executive branch successfully stoked an attack on the legislative branch. The party is also increasingly embracing conspiracy theories. In a two-party system, one of the parties leaving the arena of reasoned, fact-based debate leaves the country in dire straits. Lest we think the challenge is Trump-specific, the Economist Intelligence Unit can disabuse us: Their downgrading of the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” was based on trends preceding the 2016 election.
On the one hand, one might think Biden is perfectly suited to guide the United States through this perilous time given his almost naïve, unshakable faith in his own country. On the other hand, that faith can also hamper efforts at a national reconstruction. Repeatedly, Biden’s reaction to violence and extremism at home has been to say, “This is not who we are.” Clearly, that is incorrect. Biden’s potential pitfall is to want to move on and not look back.
It was therefore encouraging to hear Biden’s inaugural speech in which he acknowledged a more honest representation of U.S. history and pointed out how it has been defined by the struggle between two competing stories:
We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world. I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial. Victory is never assured. Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, our “better angels” have always prevailed. In each of these moments, enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.
Biden’s monumental task is to work toward a consensus around the American story that includes “enough of us” — a third attempt at reconstructing the United States but its first attempt at a truly multiracial liberal democracy. That this effort succeeds is a necessity not only for domestic tranquility but also for future U.S. leadership abroad as a liberal great power. On behalf of what interests, principles, and ideas should the United States act in the world? To what ends should it marshal its military, economic, and cultural power? Only when there is broad and deep agreement upon what kind of nation the United States is supposed to be can one forge a durable foreign policy consensus.
The Burning City Upon a Hill
Simply rewinding the tape will not stabilize U.S. domestic politics, nor will it work for U.S. foreign policy. Liberal democratic allies of the United States that depend on the U.S. security guarantee against Russia and other actors will not soon forget the past four years, or assume overlapping interests going forward. The shadow of the Trump years will stretch long onto the future. Whereas in the post-World War II era there was little reason to expect foreign policy to vary widely based on which president was in the Oval Office, this is no longer the case. After all, the past may be prologue — there is no way of knowing who will win the next presidential election (Trump could plausibly win the 2024 election). Without a majority of Americans agreeing somewhat on America’s purpose at home and abroad, allies and adversaries expect instability and will act accordingly. This concerns more than the credibility of Biden as president — this is about the credibility of the American story.
The United States is neither John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” nor Reagan’s “shining city.” Rather, it is a burning city on a hill. While that was always the case to some extent at home, rarely did the fire spread to U.S. foreign policy. The bipartisan foreign policy consensus that characterized much of post-World War II U.S. foreign policy lies now in ashes. While it was probably time to end this historical era of U.S. foreign policy, the question becomes: Now what? By the time the United States figures out how to build back a better foreign policy, the rest of the world may have moved on.
Hilde Eliassen Restad is an associate professor at Bjørknes College in Norway. A Fulbright alumna and graduate of the University of Virginia, she is the author of, among other works, American Exceptionalism: An Idea that Made a Nation and Remade the World and “Whither the ‘City on a Hill’? Donald Trump, America First, and American Exceptionalism” in the Texas National Security Review. She is frequently used by Norwegian media to analyze American politics and U.S. foreign policy and is currently writing a book in Norwegian on the American political system. Follow her on Twitter: @hilderestad