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Is America still an 'exceptional' nation? / by Greg Cusack, March 9, 2017 Adjust font size:

While there is much about President Trump that I find both abhorrent and worrisome, some of his remarks about foreign policy and the role the United States should play in the world at least hint at his possible openness for some much-needed resets.

Towards Russia

For instance, as tensions between Russia and the United States have increased in recent years, I have noticed with alarm a return to Cold War type language used by politicians — and also widely used in the media — when describing certain actions of Russia. Many Republicans and Democrats alike express as "common sense knowledge" that Russia is an "enemy" of America.

How refreshing, then, to read that he, when pressed to comment on Russia's record in international affairs, observed "we do not have clean hands, either."

Many politicians from both sides of the aisle quickly jumped on this comment as proof that the president was either dangerously naïve about Russia under President Putin or, worse, that he had some kind of secret ties — perhaps in financial interests — to Russia.

I think that a "reset" of our own understanding of America's actions and assumptions is very much needed.

We definitely do not have "clean hands," yet one of the most invoked tropes is that America is an "exceptional" nation. This is political rhetoric raised to religious doctrine, in my opinion.

While we have sometimes behaved better than some, we have often wrought damage worse than many. This "exceptional" nonsense only serves to both blind us to the truth of our own flawed positions, and to distort the beliefs and actions of others.

While I have no intent to defend Russia's actions in recent years, I do believe US politicians and the media do all a disservice when they condemn Russia's actions in Ukraine or Syria without putting its behavior in historical context. Without this wider memory of recent events, Russia can appear as the initiator of sinister actions, rather than as a state responding to events that it regarded as threatening.

From a more balanced, event-inclusive perspective, Russia's motivations and intentions can be understood in a different light that, at the least, does not suggest that Russia is inevitably an "enemy" of the West. Mr Trump has correctly stated that it is preferable if Russia and the United States can find ways to work together rather than remaining locked in opposition.

Towards DPRK

Another area that needs a reset is America's relationship with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

China has long signaled that it would be very helpful if the US would engage in ongoing conversation with DPRK's leaders but, unfortunately, the long-held US position has been that this would happen only after DPRK abandoned all efforts to become a nuclear power.

I think it most depressing that the US apparently thinks that even talking with DPRK constitutes some kind of unearned reward. Interestingly, Mr Trump has not ruled out starting such conversations with DPRK. I agree with Winston Churchill's remark from the '50s: "Talk, talk is better than war, war."

Towards China

Mr Trump's openness to reassessing relations between the US and China is, at best, uncertain.

On the one hand, his rhetoric towards and about China during the presidential campaign, and his phone conversation with the local leader of Taiwan shortly after his election, were hardly the steps of one looking for a more positive relationship. However, after these early provocations he has demonstrably toned down his criticisms about China and, in a recent phone call with President Xi, even affirmed that the US would continue to honor the "one China" policy.

One does not have to agree with China's every territorial assertion to understand why China believes it has a right to be very concerned about developments in waters near its coasts. In fact, it reminds me of long-standing US concerns about matters near its own shores.

While I believe the US must play a helpful role in maintaining peace in the Western Pacific, it is vital that we do not get locked into a mindset that this means "countering China." Just as we have allowed the largely unexamined conviction that relations with Russia are essentially a tug of war — in which one party's "gain" inevitably means the other's "loss" — to distort and limit our relations with Russia, so too do we too frequently see relations between China and the US framed similarly.

One of the concerns I had with President Obama's policies toward greater Asia is that they appeared to combine the creation of competing economic compacts — such as the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership — with that of encircling political/military alliances as the best response to China's rising economic and military strength.

Such a restrain/constrain stance has not only made it difficult for China to view the US posture in a positive light, but it has predictably spurred measures to insure that China has the means to defend her positions.

While it will not be easy — perhaps for both sides — it would be helpful if the US behaved towards China as truly a potential friend and ally rather than as a nation warily watching for a misstep.

Trust is difficult to achieve and easily shaken, and minds long conditioned to be suspicious and alert to the first sign of danger may well find it difficult to achieve the openness of an extended, open hand. The fist, once clenched, relaxes slowly.

In many ways, former President Nixon was hardly the most likely person to have the wisdom and courage to establish formal relationships between the Peoples' Republic of China and the United States. Perhaps Mr Trump can yet "pull a Nixon" and surprise us all.

The author is a retired statesman from the US. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.