Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

Beyond US Exceptionalism: Stephen Walt and America's "Core Values"

[Graffiti on Beirut's Bliss Street. Image by Ziad Abu-Rish] [Graffiti on Beirut's Bliss Street. Image by Ziad Abu-Rish]

In a recent post entitled “What’s going on in Israel,” Stephen M. Walt effectively undermines the “claim that Israel has always been interested in a fair and just peace.” Walt, like many others, notes the persistence of this “pernicious narrative.” On Israeli policy, he concludes the following:

What is going on, in short, is slow motion ethnic cleansing. Instead of driving out Palestinians out by force – as was done in 1948 and 1967 – the goal is simply to make life increasingly untenable over time, so that they will gradually leave their ancestral homelands of their own accord.

Walt is no stranger to opprobrium and dismissal. He was subject to a disturbing range of ad hominem attacks and gross misrepresentations in reaction to his analysis of the “Israel Lobby” with John Mearsheimer. There has also been a myriad of sober and engaged critiques of those arguments. My interest here is neither in the “Israel Lobby” nor in Walt’s or his detractor’s position therein. My interest is in a different aspect of Walt’s understanding of US foreign policy: the part that has little to do with Israel and more to do with everywhere else.

Walt’s writings are some of the more refreshing to emanate from foreign policy analysis. While he is left of center in those circles, he is nevertheless squarely located within them. Walt has played a very important role in shaping the US public debate on several foreign policy issues, to say nothing of his academic contributions. Despite these important achievements, there is a persistent aftertaste of anxiety after most of Walt’s posts. The source of that anxiety is that despite his critical stance towards US support for Israel’s brutal policies, Walt leaves intact—indeed he perpetuates—a deep-rooted exceptionalist narrative about US benevolence, global leadership, and integrity.

Walt asserts that “the Israel lobby makes it virtually impossible for US leaders to put any meaningful pressure on Israel to change its behavior, much of which is now antithetical to core American values.” Let us set aside the issue of whether or not the Israel lobby is the key explanatory variable of US support for Israel. Let us set aside the fact that Walt himself had previously asserted continuity in Israeli policy from 1948 through the present; an assertion which contradicts his claim that the conduct of Israeli governments is only now antithetical to any set of “core values.” Again, my interest is less in Walt’s take on US-Israeli relations and much more in his understanding of the United States and its relationship to the rest of the world. What exactly are “core American values”?

The “core values” claim is normative in nature. It sets up the United States as the sole or exemplary repository of such values. Walt does not list these values; an educated guess conjures notions of equality, fairness, and democracy. Where in these “core values” can we locate the United States’ settler-colonial history, its genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of Africans and African-Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, the persecution of Communists, and the profiling of Arabs and Muslims? Indeed, Walt’s failure to detail these “core values” presents American exceptionalism as unequivocally self-evident. Such a core-values claim about the United States could be equally applicable to Azerbaijan, Denmark, and Syria, rendering it meaningless to assert that such values are core components of the United States political system or political culture. Claims about “core American values” position the United States as (normatively) separate from the rest of the world and thus (again, normatively) exceptional. This is no less the case when the intent in referencing “core American values” is to critique a particular policy.

Let us now turn to the relationship between the United States and the rest of world. Walt argues that “given the current ‘special relationship’ between the US and Israel, America’s standing in the region and in the world is inevitably tarnished as long as Israel persists on the course described.” The problem here is not the assertion that a US alliance with Israel tarnishes US regional and global standing. The problem is the assumption that, absent such an alliance, the United States would be in good regional and international standing. It is as if US diplomatic, economic, and military support for dictatorial regimes throughout the world, historically and in the present, would not tarnish that hallowed standing. It is as if the US government’s coercive pressure on third world states to adopt neoliberal economic programs would not tarnish that standing. It is as if US corporations’ exploitation of various communities’ land, water, and labor rights would not tarnish that standing. What standing? It did not exist when the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. It did not exist when the United States supported the Contras in Nicaragua. It did not exist during the US campaign to shower Vietnam in napalm and Agent Orange. It did not exist when the United States helped orchestrate a coup to overthrow the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran or Salvadore Allende in Chile.

Alongside this seemingly self-evident but historically inaccurate standing is yet another hallowed myth of a US commitment to “human rights, non-proliferation, democracy, and the legitimacy of military force.” For Walt, the US-Israel special relationship “forces US leaders to adopt contorted and hypocritical positions” on all of these otherwise steadfast principles. It is as if US support of Israeli settler-colonialism notwithstanding, US policy is otherwise fully committed to these principles. But as has been all too clear, contorted and hypocritical US positions are not limited to the relationship with Israel. What Walt characterizes as hypocrisy and exceptional are in fact norms. US foreign policy commitments to “human rights, non-proliferation, democracy promotion, and the legitimacy of military force” are conditional and dependent. When their advocacy facilitates the attainment or preservation of primary interests, or in rare cases have no bearing on them at all, such principles are a welcome basis for action. But when these principles threaten US primary interests, they are abandoned. US policies of extrajudicial killings, indefinite detention, torture, and extraordinary rendition are only some of the most recent cases in point.

Walt has consistently self-identified as a "realist" and overwhelmingly based his analysis of US foreign policy in terms of US interests. He plays an important role in an uphill struggle to define what these interests ought to be. But ultimately, Walt’s stubborn embrace of US exceptionalism amounts to a dismissal of US empire abroad and a history of settler colonialism at home. Indeed, Walt has addressed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, US support for Arab authoritarian regimes, and a number of other “inconsistencies.” It is these qualifications that are at the source of that aftertaste of anxiety. How many incidents of hypocrisy, injustice, and brutality does it take to finally admit that ostensibly disparate and tangential phenomena are in fact systemic? There are no “core American values,” at least none that make the United States any different from the rest of the world. The United States does not occupy a hallowed regional and global standing. This is not a result of perception but of experience. There is no hypocrisy; there is power and privilege. Perhaps it is the most damning indictment of all that US policy can so consistently deliver harm while even its most earnest critics sustain the celebration of its standing and its values.

2 comments for "Beyond US Exceptionalism: Stephen Walt and America's "Core Values""


I think this is unfair on Walt

Ronan Fitzgerald wrote on July 17, 2012 at 09:05 AM

That seems to be exactly the point made in this article. Stephen Walt can write an article criticizing notions of American exceptionalism, but then go on to write other articles where he reaffirms that exceptionalism.

Richard Harris wrote on July 20, 2012 at 06:29 PM

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T