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Editor's note: Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author of the forthcoming "Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump".
In my recent study of 14 presidents since 1945, Do Morals Matter, I found that Americans want a moral foreign policy, but have been torn over what that means. Americans often see their country as exceptional because we define our identity not by ethnicity, but rather by ideas about a liberal vision of a society and way of life based on political, economic, and cultural freedom. President Donald Trump's administration has departed from that tradition.
Of course, American exceptionalism faced contradictions from the start. Despite the founders' liberal rhetoric, the original sin of slavery was written into the U.S. Constitution in a compromise that allowed northern and southern states to unite.
And Americans have always differed over how to express liberal values in foreign policy. American exceptionalism was sometimes an excuse for ignoring international law, invading other countries, and imposing governments on their people.
But American exceptionalism has also inspired liberal internationalist efforts for a world made freer and more peaceful through a system of international law and organizations that protects domestic liberty by moderating external threats. Trump has turned his back on both aspects of this tradition.
In his inaugural address Trump declared: America first. "We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first." He also said,"we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example." He had a good point: When the United States sets a good example, it can increase its ability to influence others.
There is also an interventionist and crusading tradition in American foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson sought a foreign policy that would make the world safe for democracy. John F. Kennedy called for Americans to make the world safe for diversity, but he sent 16,000 U.S. troops to Vietnam, and that number grew to 565,000 under his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Likewise, George W. Bush justified America's invasion and occupation of Iraq with a National Security Strategy that promoted freedom and democracy.
Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been involved in seven wars and military interventions. Yet, as Ronald Reagan put it in 1982, "regimes planted by bayonets do not take root."
Avoiding such conflicts has been one of Trump's more popular policies. He has limited the use of American force in Syria, and wishes to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by election day.
Protected by two oceans, and bordered by weaker neighbors, the U.S. largely focused on westward expansion in the nineteenth century, and tried to avoid entanglement in the global balance of power that was centered in Europe. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, America had become the world's largest economy, and its intervention in World War I tipped the balance of power.