Look how far Progressivism has come: As he prepared to lead the United States into World War I (less than a year after being re-elected by campaigning that he’d kept us out of the war), President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that our intervention would make the world “safe for democracy.” Not quite a century later, President Barack Obama, the modern face of progressivism, addressed the United Nations (which is modeled on Wilson’s failed dream of the League of Nations) and declared that the United States was exceptional—because it was so concerned with helping others.
“Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional—in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all,” Obama declared. “I have made it clear that even when America’s core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights. But we cannot and should not bear that burden alone.”
Well, he’s certainly correct about the “exceptional” part. But perhaps the President needs another reminder that “American Exceptionalism” isn’t based on the self-interests of Americans. Exceptionalism exists because the Founders based our nation on a universal idea. From our very birth, Matthew Spalding writes, the Declaration of Independence has been “a timeless statement of inherent rights, the proper purposes of government, and the limits on political authority.”
The Founders looked to self-evident truths to justify their quest for liberty. This is a universal and permanent standard, and it applies to people in all nations, not simply the U.S.
That has important implications for American foreign policy, but it doesn’t mean American troops should go abroad seeking to impose our creed. Rather, we should spread our ideas as naturally as possible by setting a positive example, using diplomacy, and promoting truth. As Marion Smith writes in a new Heritage Special Report, “America’s Founders actually advocated and acted upon the idea that prosperity at home comes through active trade abroad and that peace is best secured through military strength and foreign respect of U.S. sovereignty and the principles of liberty.”
So where did Obama get his ideas? Political scientist Christopher Burkett writes that Obama’s views are in keeping with his ideological background. “Heirs to the Progressives tend to emphasize that the primary, if not exclusive, purpose of the use of force abroad should be to promote the freedom and welfare of other peoples. Heirs to the American Founders, on the other hand, tend to believe that the use of force abroad should be employed first and foremost for the sake of securing the lives and liberty of America’s own citizens.”
The United States has led the globe for decades, spreading our successful ideas of growth, opportunity, and free trade to billions of people. We will continue to lead—not from behind but by putting our founding ideals right out in front and remaining true to them.