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.