The United States—independent and exceptional?
4 Jul 2014|

Today, America marks its Independence Day, the anniversary of one of humanity’s greatest achievements—and boldest experiments. Despite a looming hurricane and a myriad of other challenges ‘foreign and domestic’, here in central Florida the 4th of July 2014 is shaping up to be another great celebration of the American experience. But, it’s also timely to reflect on an example of the USA demonstrating that it really is independent—and exceptional—in ways that some countries criticise, but that others rely on.

Last week, the United States announced that, despite media reports hinting to the contrary, President Barack Obama wouldn’t sign the 1997 Ottawa Treaty that bans the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel landmines. Instead, the Administration announced a hedging approach that moves the US towards eventual signing. Significantly, that includes an undertaking not to replenish its stock of three million anti-personnel mines when those begin to expire in ten years’ time.

One hundred and sixty-two countries have signed the Ottawa Treaty—the US is one of 35 that haven’t, holding that position through three presidencies from both sides of politics, against strong international and domestic pressure. It’s not surprising that Obama didn’t change that stance. His military chiefs advised against it, Congress had already blocked money for Treaty implementation and Senate ratification would be unlikely. Yet opposition to the Treaty contradicts US national behaviour on landmines: it hasn’t used any anti-personnel mines for years; has destroyed millions of its ‘dumb’ mines and unilaterally replaced them, at great expense, with ‘smart’ ones that pose much less humanitarian risk; and is the biggest spender on landmine clearance world-wide. Arguably, it has done more to uphold the spirit of the Treaty than some countries that are parties to it. So why not accede to the Treaty and reap the reputational benefits, while adding US support to an important humanitarian norm?

US reluctance to join international agreements isn’t new: America has a long record of holding out on treaties that most others sign (such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea); or of Senate resistance to ratifying those it signs—even intuitively attractive ones in the inoffensive class of International Humanitarian Law, like the Ottawa Treaty. The reasons may include commercial implications for American businesses or ideological opposition to abrogating US sovereignty. But they can also lie in one of the ways in which America is exceptional—the fact that, as the ultimate guarantor of much international security, American hard power actually matters. Unlike most of the Treaty’s signatories, the US has real obligations in places like South Korea, where landmines are part of an ally’s active national defences. It’s interesting that the 35 non-signatories include countries that still use mines as part of their everyday border defences in dormant interstate wars: foregoing that capability without an adequate alternative is much more risky for them than for most other countries. They can be forgiven for evaluating critically the utility and legitimacy of each military capability in their own circumstances, rather than accepting the judgments of an international community with less at stake. From time to time, they’ll come to different conclusions.

The country most exposed to those international security challenges is the US. As I’ve written in these pages, it underwrites much of the international system and many countries rely on it to do so. That confers exceptional responsibilities on America which sometimes necessitate exceptional behaviour—the oft-observed ‘exceptionalism’ that has become a pejorative term in many circles. Yet America does not shy from such behaviour, even when, as with landmines, it becomes a burden rather than a licence for free action. President Obama explicitly embraced American exceptionalism in last month’s speech at West Point—but was careful to set it in the context of international norms. This ‘responsible exceptionalism’ may continue to be troublesome for America’s international-relations image in the 21st century, more a source of criticism and exertion than of reward. But there will always be a few countries relying on it, in their own exceptional circumstances.

Australia, as a potential beneficiary of American exceptionalism in an unpredictable future, should respect the role that it imposes on the US and give it room to act responsibly, even when that means acting differently from us. This doesn’t mean conceding to the American view, but making our own decisions for our own reasons and leaving the US to do the same. It also means not joining popular international band-wagons for their own sake, but only when doing so is in our national interest. Occasionally, that might make us exceptional—or perhaps just independent. Which, as today observes, is a good thing to be.

Andrew Smith is an independent researcher based in the United States. Image courtesy of Flickr user Internet Persona.