09/15/2014 03:08 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Emulating 'Exceptional' America

Jung-Pang Wu via Getty Images

Emulation is the highest form of flattery -- or so it is claimed. The truth of that assertion, though, depends on what form the emulation takes and, indeed, how the initial action originally was construed. Those ambiguities become evident when we consider how American actions in the GWOT has helped shape the behavior of others. Recent events in the Middle East underscore both the radiating influence of the United States as a model and the often perverse effects that can lead to. In truth, the awkward reality about the phenomenon of unintended consequences actually has been apparent for decades.

The most striking example that America has set for the world was its invasion and occupation of Iraq. That unilateral act was taken without the imprimatur of any international body, with no casus belli and at variance with norms of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states which Washington had been promoting vigorously for thirty years. The logically obvious question of "what if other governments are now tempted to do the same?" was never asked in policy circles - or in the wider foreign policy community. Enmeshed in the passionate emotions of the post-9/11 years, paralyzed by the Bush administration's scare mongering, the country set itself down the path to war with hardly a qualm. Furthermore, it cavalierly assumed the prerogative to run the affairs of another country grounded on a very different culture than the United States, without requesting the consent of the Iraqis whom it sought to mold into a preconceived pattern. On this audacious plan, there was nearly no serious examination of the ethics or the implications.

Now eleven years later another government embarks on a similar enterprise. Russia's interference in Ukraine marked by its annexation of Crimea provokes consternation and denunciation in the West. Are the two attitudes reconcilable? Before attempting a response, let us note precisely what the similarities and differences are. In the former category we note the following. The absence of a legitimizing mandate from the United Nations Security Council is most significant. The unilateral determination of need and justification is another. An ad hoc referendum was organized in Crimea but there has been no formal survey of opinion in other districts of eastern Ukraine.

Differences are more striking. Putin did not launch a direct invasion. Rather, he encouraged the pro-Moscow secessionists to take up arms, lent them material support including weapons, sent advisers, and in the latest phase may have dispatched a limited number of military units. Russia also has stepped forward to deal directly with the government in Kiev as self-declared representative of the Russian speaking community. There has been no approximation of the American tutelary regime put in place in Baghdad. In addition, the Russian action was based on quite different grounds. They were two-fold. First, there is assertion of the principle of self-determination. The "Russians" of Ukraine, it is argued, should have the right to decide whether they want to be part of Russia, part of Ukraine or autonomous. Their incorporation into Ukraine was done through the artifice of transforming the Republic boundaries of the old Soviet Union into international boundaries.

The other basis for intervention has been old-fashioned realpolitik. Putin has made this argument candidly in a number of public statements, its most concise formulation being in his address to the Russian parliament in March. As he stated, it was intolerable that places that had been an integral part of the Russian lands for more than 300 years not only should be separated from it, but pressed to join a military alliance (NATO) that is a creature of the Cold War when it and the Warsaw Pact were hostile rivals. This is seen as unacceptable in military terms and, more broadly, as the centerpiece of a strategy to marginalize Russia on European affairs.

Hence, the Russian justifications for its conduct vis a vis Ukraine contain nothing analogous to the American claim that it was "liberating" the Iraqis from tyranny and opening a bright future by superimposing a democratic cum capitalist creed.

Of course, there was a Realpolitik element in American thinking about Iraq as well. Saddam's alleged possession of WMD after all was the public rationalization for the use of force. His government was hostile to the United States, he had fought one war against the United States in the wake of the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he constituted a perceived threat to America's allies in the Gulf, and he stood in the way of Washington's design for a security configuration in the region that conformed to its national interests. Discounting the overlay of democracy promotion, the 2003 invasion drew from same well of realist calculations as has Putin's actions in Ukraine.

The open question is whether the American precedent influenced Putin's way of thinking about Ukraine, making it easier for him to take the decision to resort to force. Obviously, there is no way to give a confident answer. The psychology of one man, much less a group of men, is impossible to decipher with such fine differentiation. What reasonably can be said is that the observation of norms is always affected to some immeasurable degree by precedents and examples. Only in those cases where a country's integrity is directly jeopardized by military action, or threatened military action, does the survival imperative dictate a resort to arms regardless of what others have done under other circumstances.

Most certainly, Iraq has provided Putin with a very convenient debating point in use in defense of his actions and in support of his accusation that the West, and especially the United States, is hypocritical in presuming to set universal standards which it does not itself observe. The Russians also draw analogies with the NATO intervention in Kosovo that entailed sustained airstrikes against Serbia under conditions, and in the name of principles, that bear a much closer similarity to the Ukrainian case - although in Kosovo there was a severe humanitarian crisis. There, too, the West acted without any enabling UNSC resolution.

Among other countries who might be encouraged to employ military force to reach their objectives is China in the South China Sea. Fortunately, the PRC has no irredentist claims and historically only exceptionally has been in the empire building business insofar as it meant ruling directly alien peoples. However, as its global reach expands, Beijing inexorably will find that it has substantial stakes in farther regions of the world for economic reasons. It already has a major presence in Africa, Latin America, and increasingly in the Middle East energy sector as well as in neighboring Southeast Asia. It is foreseeable that at some indefinite point China could see an important stake threatened by either adverse internal developments or the intrusion of another, regional power. That may make it reasonable for leaders in Beijing to consider some intervention of their own by some means or other. This is what the United States has been doing routinely in the same regions for a combination of economic and broad security reasons - and doing so even after the Cold War's end eliminated its only strategic rival.

In Central and Southern America, Washington persists in trying to undermine every leftist reform government however fairly elected. By means more or less subtle, it has participated in plots to topple leaders of Honduras, Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia (succeeding in the first two). The motive is crass: to protect the privileged position of American businesses who benefit from close ties to local oligarchies. China, at some future date, will have greater incentive to meddle in local politics insofar as it has a more critical economic stake in agriculture, energy and mineral deals. The same logic holds for other regions.

The GWOT has set further precedents that may come back to haunt the United States. They fall within the realm of human rights and observance of the rules of war. Torture is the most egregious. For years under the Bush presidency, the torturing of suspects (a loosely defined term) was the official policy of the United States government as decreed officially by the National Security Council. It was conducted at Guantanamo, Begram, army bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, at several "black sites' and on ships at sea. Moreover, prisoners were outsourced to third parties for torture for reasons of plausible deniability and to benefit from those parties expertise. The kidnapping of alleged "terrorists" also was official policy: this occurred mainly on the territory of countries who were passively complicit in the procedure. In addition, the United States arbitrarily arrested and incarcerated under harsh conditions tens of thousands in both Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these actions violate international law, treaties to which the United Stat6es is signatory, and United States law. They also fly in the face of human rights principles for which the United States historically offered itself as the cynosure and which it has set as the standard against which to judge the behavior of other governments.

In regard to these abusive practices, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to establish that American behavior has served as a model for others who, otherwise, would refrain from such practices. Still, it can be legitimately claimed that whatever moral authority that the United States might have possessed on these matters has largely evaporated. Hence, the force of accusations by Washington leveled against foreign governments for human rights abuses is weakened. With that dilution of American soft power, with the softening of the norms of acceptable conduct, the bar has been lowered.

Then, there is the issue of drones and targeted assassinations. This, too, has become an American specialty - following in the footsteps of the Israelis. The justification is a compelling national security interest. The driving factor is the availability of the high tech means to carry out these missions with zero risk to American lives. Official records show no attention being paid to the prospect of other powers following the American example. Nonetheless, we have set a precedent. By what law or logic could the United States protest another power doing the same at some point in the future in a place where its self-defined national interests are deemed to be at stake? In Vietnam/ in Indonesia? Somewhere in Africa or South America? By what law or logic could Russia be condemned were it to do the equivalent in Georgia or Ukraine?
Unwittingly, the United States thereby has altered the balance of intangible ingredients in the world's ethical calculus that cannot but lead to some governments acting with greater impunity.

The United States pioneering activities in setting new norms of international conduct is also exemplified by its comprehensive electronic spying. Thirty-eight heads of government, the leadership of most international organizations, and tens of millions of private citizens have had their communications hacked by the National Intelligence Agency. Much of this surveillance had little if anything to do with matters of national security. Much of it was directed at friends. The reaction has been severely negative. Yet none of the documentary evidence revealed by Snowden or others shows the slightest indication that officials in Washington as much as raised the questions of what the consequences might be from other countries emulating the United States. Is a world in which everyone spies on everyone else desirable, on balance? These officials, including the President, simply assumed that the United States was privileged to do so and had a unique capability for doing so.

The truth is proving to be otherwise. China in particular now claims a free hand to do what the United States has been doing. Its targets are both government bodies and economic entities. Washington has protested loudly about intrusions into the systems of some American corporations. The Department of Justice has gone so far as to indict and place on its "most wanted list" five Chinese accused of doing the dirty deeds. The initial NSA defense was that "the department does ***not*** engage in economic espionage in any domain, including cyber." That proved to be a lie. The NSA has caught spying on plainly financial targets such as the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras; economic summits; international credit card and banking systems; the EU antitrust commissioner investigating Google, Microsoft, and Intel; and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and -- most recently -- China's leading telecommunication's company.

The modified NSA response is to acknowledge that it does engage in economic spying, but unlike China, the spying is never done to benefit American corporations. This Jesuitical formulation cuts no ice outside the United States' territorial waters. Instead, it is viewed as a striking example of American hypocrisy and presumption. Not only is its logic dubious, but it underscores the question of by what right the United States arrogates to itself the powers to dictate what is unacceptable and what is unacceptable behavior. Is it simply the biggest kid in the playground who dictates the rules for the weaklings? The further precedent, therefore, is that others may decide to exercise similar arbitrary powers.

The inability of Americans to face squarely this contradiction in its standards for judging what constitutes unacceptable international behavior stems from the pervasive belief in American exceptionalism. Convinced that the United States was born in a condition of "Original Virtue," most of us take as indisputable the proposition that American is a fount of good intentions and enlightened behavior. When it pursues its national interests, it does so not merely to protect its own interests but also those of other countries who are potential beneficiaries from advancing the principles that animate American actions. A United States that is "good" does "good" things. No other country qualifies for this mission. Fewer and fewer abroad share this belief; the leaders of emerging powers foremost among them.

The gain to the United States? Not a single serious terrorist act foiled. Facilitation of recruitment by those, like IS, who are dedicated to acting in ways that are anathema to American interests and ideals? The loss? The certain increase in the arbitrary use of force in the world. To what extent? We'll never know.