The Iran Deal and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism

Donald Trump’s decision to leave the nuclear agreement reflects a view that America has unique rights in the world—but not unique responsibilities.

President Trump speaking in front of a large American flag
Then–President-elect Trump at a rally in December 2016 (Mike Segar / Reuters)

Who, or what, is to blame for Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear agreement? There are lots of candidates: Trump’s assumption that any deal not negotiated by him is a rip-off, his obsession with undoing Barack Obama’s legacy, Israel and Saudi Arabia’s desire to prevent any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. These all surely played a role. But underlying them is something more fundamental. Trump is violating the Iran deal because of how he interprets American exceptionalism.

When it comes to foreign policy, American exceptionalism has two different meanings. The first involves responsibilities. Because America’s power is unique, and because its democratic traditions are unique, America bears a special global burden. The key historical moment in this narrative is America’s reluctant entry into World War II. Why did America expend blood and treasure fighting totalitarianism in far-off lands? Because to whom much has been given, much is required.

The second meaning stresses not America’s global responsibilities but America’s global rights. The United States, because it is exceptional, should enjoy exceptional freedom to behave as it sees fit. In this second narrative, the key historical moment is America’s refusal to join the League of Nations after World War I. Other nations may require the fetters of international institutions and international law. But the United States, because of its deep-seated democratic traditions and inherent morality, can make its own rules. It need answer only to itself.

The two meanings are not mutually exclusive. Most presidents invoke them both, to varying degrees. George W. Bush tilted toward the second. He exempted the United States from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and the global norm against preventive war. But he also believed the United States had a special responsibility to speak out on behalf of dissidents, to fight global poverty and AIDS. Obama tilted more towards the first meaning. Unlike Bush, he acknowledged that America—as the world’s largest polluter and its largest producer of nuclear weapons—had a special responsibility to lead global efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses and weapons stockpiles. But, for Obama too, America’s exceptional power, and supposedly exceptional moral instincts, gave it the right to exempt itself from international law. The Obama administration would never have supported other governments’ right to conduct extrajudicial executions via drone, in nations half a world away. But it did so routinely.

What makes the Trump administration unusual is that it is almost all “rights exceptionalism” with virtually no “responsibility exceptionalism.” A core theme of Trump’s campaign was that the United States bears too much of a burden for safeguarding other nations. He’s contemptuous of foreign aid and Obama’s belief that America had a moral obligation to admit refugees. In his speech to the United Nations last September, Trump invoked the words “sovereign” and “sovereignty” 19 times. Yet even as he denied that international law or norms bound America’s behavior, he lectured American adversaries like Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela on how to conduct their internal affairs.

His new national-security adviser, John Bolton, may be even more extreme. He has a long history of calling for the United States to bomb other countries, including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. But while dismissive of the sovereignty of America’s adversaries, he’s extremely jealous of America’s own. In fact, he’s spent his career arguing that the United States need not abide by international law or even the international agreements it has already signed. Bolton played a key role in the Bush administration’s 2001 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. He worked furiously to emasculate the International Criminal Court (ICC)—even opposing its investigation into war crimes in Darfur because he feared such work might help it gain the legitimacy to one day prosecute Americans. “Our leaders,” Bolton declared last year, “should not expect nor should they seek the approval of the internationally high-minded.” Which is a snarky way of saying the United States should disdain international efforts to protect the environment or human rights. In explaining last year why the U.S. should “strangle the ICC in its cradle” rather than let it investigate credible charges of torture against U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Bolton insisted that “The U.S. has done more than any other nation to instill in its civilian-controlled military a respect for human rights and the laws of war. … [T]he U.S. is perfectly capable of applying our own laws to their conduct. These laws and procedures do not need to be second-guessed by international courts.” This from a man who is pushing Gina Haspel—who has admitted to overseeing torture and helping to destroy the evidence that documented it—to run the CIA.

The Trump administration’s decision to openly violate the Iran deal—and demand that Iran negotiate a new one more favorable to the U.S.—is a brazen example of this “rights exceptionalism.” Trump and Bolton are not saying it’s acceptable for other nations to welch on their international commitments. Indeed, they have both attacked American adversaries like North Korea and Iran for allegedly doing exactly that. They’re not saying international law doesn’t matter. When it comes to Chinese militarization of the South China Sea, Trump is happy to invoke international law. What the Trump administration is saying, in essence, is that international law and international commitments should bind lesser nations, but not the United States.

Barack Obama did not believe that. He could not believe it because his experience as an African American, and his familiarity with American foreign policy in Indonesia, where he had spent part of his childhood, made it impossible for him to believe that the American government possesses some intrinsic righteousness. For him, what made America exceptional was its capacity to progress beyond its ugly history. Trump and Bolton, by contrast, perhaps because they are  privileged white men who have never lived outside the United States, have never reckoned with that history. Asked about General Augusto Pinochet, who murdered thousands after the CIA helped to topple Chile’s democratically elected leader, Bolton once said, “Chileans have made their choice, and have lived with it.” Even when America is responsible for dictatorship and death, it is not responsible.

In the early Cold War, when the United States government was outlawing membership in the Communist Party, and hawkish intellectuals were proposing preventive war against the Soviet Union, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned that the “pride and self-righteousness of powerful nations are a greater hazard to their success than the machinations of their foes.” That’s a good epitaph for the Iran deal. The United States is today led by insular, self-satisfied men who demand that other nations fulfill their commitments to the United States while denying that the United States has reciprocal commitments of its own. In their hands, American exceptionalism is a danger to the world.