Maybe the skeptic in me has been wrong all along. Perhaps America is exceptional—only in all the wrong ways.
Last week Nikki Haley resigned as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She claimed to be leaving of her own accord and even heaped effusive praise on her boss, President Donald Trump. As always, the mainstream media made a circus of the whole affair, replete with gossip about internal dissent and speculation over her possible 2020 presidential run—which she vehemently denied. Of course, attention quickly turned to predictions about who, exactly, will succeed her.
Reading the stories and watching the coverage, this author at least was left pondering an altogether different question than the mainstream media talking heads. Whether Haley was disgruntled within the administration, whether she’ll make a run in 2020, or who might replace her is irrelevant. What I want to know is: why does the U.S. even maintain the charade of sending an ambassador to the UN? After all, decades worth of Washington policy decisions have demonstrated two salient truths: 1) the U.S. government, no matter who is president, shows little to no respect for international norms as such; and 2) Washington elites seem certain that the U.S. is the exception to most every global rule or agreement anyway.
Haley, we must remember, was an unabashed neoconservative who supported every catastrophic American intervention over the last 13 years. To listen to her rhetoric on the floor of the UN, you would think she was ready to support another regime change—this time in Iran. No doubt, whoever Trump appoints—given the president’s recent track record of anointing the likes of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton—will be another unreconstructed hawk bent on using American power like a cudgel to get its way in the tribunal. Given that uncomfortable fact, wouldn’t the U.S. be better off just dropping the position of UN ambassador altogether?
There are many international compacts that Washington appears to want no part of. Even “liberal” President Bill Clinton wouldn’t sign on to the international ban on landmines after the military convinced him the nation needed those brutal devices. Even more “liberal” President Barack Obama backed down on his own promise to join the other 161 countries poised to sign it during his tenure.
More recently, Trump pulled the United States out of the seven-nation Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was designed to abort the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Once again, the U.S. struck out alone. The other signees—Germany, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Iran—are all staying in the deal and have vowed to maintain its integrity. We can debate whether this was or was not the right call by Trump, but it sure follows a pattern—our way or the highway.
Then there’s the finer points of U.S. military policy. We’re exceptional—and largely alone—here too. The U.S. has long been, but won’t be for long, the only power with the capacity and willingness to regularly violate international airspace with drones to conduct “targeted killings” of suspected terrorists (and often innocent bystanders). Here again, U.S. security is seen as paramount, and Washington apparently takes for granted that America is the exception to rules and behavior it would likely never accept from other countries.
Take foreign bases for example. When Russia attempts to secure its lone naval base on Syria’s coast, we consider it an act of international aggression. Yet, the United States, by most counts, has 800 such bases worldwide—likely more than all other countries on the planet combined.
Then there is Washington’s blank check to Israel, providing arms and unqualified support despite its detrimental effect on relations with the UN as a whole and Muslims as a people. That’s because, ultimately, U.S. actions demonstrate a willingness to ignore the UN when global opinion doesn’t suit Washington’s goals. That’s why no one flinched when UN General Secretary Kofi Annan declared the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq to be un-sanctioned, illegal, and a violation of the UN charter.
Ever since I was a naive 17-year-old cadet at West Point—when I watched the Twin Towers fall in my home city and buried several family friends—Americans have been asking: “why do ‘they’ hate us?” That’s a complicated question, worthy of intense study, but this much is certain: few Americans are willing to look in the mirror and face the uncomfortable truth that U.S. policies just might play a role. Year after year, in survey after survey, credible international polls show that the most of the world sees the United States as the greatest threat to global peace. Not China, Russia, Iran, or even North Korea, but the U.S. of A. Now, whether America is “the greatest threat” or not, the polls suggest people in other countries are at least willing to say so.
Make no mistake: I love this country. I’m still proud of my service in its Army. I’ve fought in two of its wars. Still, is it such a stretch to ask whether a bit more humility and team play might better endear the U.S. to the world we are—like it or not—a part of?
Of course none of this is a Trump problem. It’s not about political factions. I’ve found much to admire and much to abhor in the policies of the three commanders-in-chief I’ve dutifully served. And, maybe you, the reader, agree with each instance of U.S. contravention of global norms outlined above. That’s fine. But then can we at least end the farce of sending an ambassador to the UN? It’s a club we obviously don’t really want to be a part of.
Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and a regular contributor to The American Conservative. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.]