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An undated handout photo by the National Security Agency shows the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo: EPA

American exceptionalism, seen through the prism of American blunders

The past weeks’ revelations about PRISM, the National Security Agency’s broad electronic surveillance program, follow a grand American tradition of major disclosures that undermine the high standards to which the United States holds itself, and the world.

In this case: How can the US tell other countries to stop using the Internet to pursue their aims at the expense of others when it has been systematically spying on foreigners for years?

This contradiction is nothing new in American foreign policy. It’s the flip side of American exceptionalism. The United States is so eager to cast itself as a pinnacle of various behaviours and values that when it inevitably falls short, it leads to awkward contradictions. That’s a shame, because the United States actually does have substantive differences from many other countries on civil liberties, human rights and democracy. It’s just that its stance ensures any slipups and embarrassments overshadow everything else.

Look no further than last weekend, when the NSA disclosures spoiled the Obama administration’s plans to corner China on its own cyber practices. Instead, publications like the Guardian were running headlines like “US-China summit ends with accord on all but cyberespionage.”

And yet there are real differences between China and the US on cyberwarfare. It’s true both countries attack one another. By some accounts, more than 90 per cent of cyberespionage in the US originates in China. In April, NSA chief Keith Alexander told Congress that 40 new CYBERCOM teams are being assembled and 13 of them will focus on offensive operations. But America’s offense comes from its military and surveillance arm and is predominantly directed towards China’s.

On the other hand, the evidence suggests that a significant percentage of China’s attacks are driven by commercial aims. China’s state capitalist model gives the government broader control over the private sector, and intertwines these state-owned enterprises’ success with that of the government itself.

Chinese corporations narrow the performance gap between themselves and foreign competitors by targeting trade secrets and intellectual property. But it’s in China’s interests to blur the distinction between its practices and the US’s. Why should China listen to American grievances about China’s IP theft when these practices work perfectly well and Beijing can categorise America’s cyber practices as a step too far, also?

In recent interviews, Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the existence of the NSA program, claimed that the NSA has been actively hacking Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009. In the Cold War, the United States ultimately beat the Soviet Union in the eyes of the world through public opinionl, not its nuclear arsenal. It would be wise to use the same tactic here.

It’s not just on the Internet that the US has been caught on the wrong side of its own rhetoric. The 2008 financial crisis raised doubts around America’s claim that it had the best financial system in the world. How can America impel countries with different economic systems to believe in free markets after episodes like Enron, Lehman and Madoff? Of course, with a more nuanced appraisal of the capitalist system, where historical economic successes come hand in hand with a devotion to entrepreneurship, bubbles and cyclicality, it makes more sense.

But the danger is that exceptionalist rhetoric eschews nuance and it lets other countries do the same in their criticism of American practices.

There’s also the US’s plea for other countries to root out corporate corruption, even as it allows corporate lobbyists to guide Washington’s policies. Of course, America’s level of corruption is far lower than in many developing countries. The US’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was breakthrough legislation, but that doesn’t offset American missteps where it has fallen short of the lofty standards it sets for the world.

And don’t forget the country’s various human rights efforts, whether they take the form of democracy-building, foreign aid or UN resolution. Those efforts are more easily advanced without iconic incidents and enterprises like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and drone strikes.

This is the problem with the US’s stubborn brand of exceptionalism: one can’t be nuanced when one is being bullheaded. Nevertheless, it was a more successful gambit when the US was alone as the world’s superpower. But in the last 15 years, the world has changed and America’s exceptionalist rhetoric largely has not.

So what can be done about it? First, the US government, whether it be today’s or some future one, has to lose the presumption that American values are the only values. Other countries do things their way for a reason, perhaps to make that country’s plutocrats even more wealthy, or maybe because a different system or set of values works better given that country’s stage of development.

Furthermore, when America transgresses, it has to be more honest about the transgression. While the resulting transparency may change the country, that’s all right. Change is what happens when a citizenry is informed.

When the United States projects its standards upon the rest of the world, it makes it all the more glaring when the United States falls short of its own mark. Perhaps a more informed citizenry will have a more nuanced appreciation for America’s strengths and weaknesses and impel politicians to reflect that in US policy.

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm. This column is based on a transcribed phone interview with Bremmer.