Are American Values Universal?

Shadia B. Drury

In an effort to distinguish his administration from the rhetoric of global tyranny characteristic of his predecessor’s, President Barack Obama has repeatedly claimed that America’s foreign policy is not bent on imposing American values and culture on the world. Instead, he says that the goal of American foreign policy is to defend universal values—values that are affirmed, acknowledged, and yearned for by all of humanity.

Is this simply an effort to put a positive spin on the same aggressive policies as his predecessors? Or are American values really universal?

There are indeed universal values, but they are not what Americans think they are. Let’s take the most iconic of all American values—liberty. Is liberty a universal value? Even if it is, can it be the basis of American foreign policy?

There are two senses in which to understand liberty as a value. When liberty is defined negatively—that is, in opposition to tyranny, injustice, and arbitrary government—then it is indeed a universal value. Regardless of culture, time, or place, all human beings abhor tyranny, injustice, and arbitrary government. All prefer a government of laws, not of caprice, cruelty, torture, arbitrary detention, military tribunals, or summary executions.

However, as soon as liberty is given a positive connotation, its universal appeal is seriously diminished. Although people around the world long to be free from tyranny, injustice, and persecution, it does not follow that they long for the American brand of liberty—cultural, political, or economic.

Regardless of their political stripes, it is very difficult for Americans to appreciate that the world does not long for their distinctive brand of liberty. George W. Bush thought that liberty was a gift from God to all humankind and that it was America’s responsibility to make sure that all the people of the world could enjoy it. This is not a bizarre or novel idea; it is a classic expression of the doctrine of American Exceptionalism—the belief, long held by many Americans, that their country is an exceptional nation chosen by God to play a pivotal role in his grand design for humanity. The idea has its roots in the Old Testament story of the ancient Israelites as the chosen people of God whose destiny is to establish a Zion that will light up the world, a “city on a hill” that will be an example to all mankind of virtuous living.

Setting aside the genocidal terror of its biblical role model, it is safe to say that no one takes American Exceptionalism as seriously as Americans. In the eyes of the rest of the world, it is simply the peculiar form that American nationalism assumes. Like any garden-variety nationalism, it is chauvinistic in the extreme. It was perhaps best expressed by the bumper stickers that appeared after the American success in the first Gulf War—“We’re number one and don’t you forget it.” It implied that for those who were inclined to forget (let alone deny) that America was number one, there was the American military to jog their memory.

Democrats such as Madeleine Albright (The Mighty and the Almighty, pp. 4–5), Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are proponents of American Exceptionalism and every bit as passionate as G.W. Bush. They also believe that it is America’s duty to secure the liberty of the people of the world; they are just as excited as any Republican by the fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists to pose obstacles to their global mission. Democrats and Republicans regard American liberty and democracy as universal values. What they disagree about is the manner or style in which that mission is to be pursued. Even there, the disagreements are not gargantuan. They all agree that it is not enough to kill the bad guys. You must build roads, schools, hospitals; you must win hearts and minds.

But why must people from distant lands be converted to American-style liberalism? Why not leave strange and distant people alone to choose their own illiberal ways? If unharmed, they are not likely to pose any danger to American security. It is much easier to craft a foreign policy that is not unduly exploitative or unjust than to make the whole world sing the praises of American liberalism.

What Americans of all political stripes have difficulty grasping is how anyone can reject their values. The assumption is that these are human or universal values; the implication is that those who could reject them must be less than human—they must be monsters that deserve to be exterminated. In truth, one need not be a murderous fanatic such as Osama bin Laden in order to reject American liberty. There are good reasons for rejecting American liberty—cultural, economic, and political. I will deal with each in turn.

As understood by Western liberals from John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) to Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), a liberal culture is one in which individuals enjoy freedom from external impediments by government and fellow citizens and thus can do as they please so long as they do not harm others. There was a time when this Western liberal brand was extremely appealing, and for many of us it still is. But that classic conception of liberty has not managed to withstand the onslaught of the electronic age of communication. Exposing the most vulgar aspects of American popular culture to the global village has taken the sheen off American liberty. Far from being universally coveted, it is feared as a symptom of cultural decline, not only abroad but also at home. More and more people are inclined to see liberalism as it was seen by its earliest critics at the very moment of its inception. James Fitzjames Stephen (1829–1894) denounced the liberal conception of freedom on the grounds that freedom is like fire—it is neither good nor bad; it all depends on what you do with it. Now that American culture looks more and more like a pornutopia in the eyes of the world, the daughters of Muslim women who once embraced the liberating influence of Western culture are inclined to don the veil. It is their way of escaping from the pornification of fashion and the commodification of women endemic to a liberal commercial culture—a culture made possible by pushing the limits of the liberal conception of freedom.

In the age of globalization, America’s enthusiasm for economic liberty is by far the most distasteful aspect of America’s brand of liberty. In the absence of the Soviet Union, American capitalism has reached obscene levels of triumphalism. It imagines itself the undisputedly superior economic system that will save the world. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other institutions are designed to implement the principles of global capitalism American- style. Any American who suggests that socialist measures are necessary to dampen the excesses of capitalism is denounced as a traitor to American values. But in truth, unfettered capitalism has magnified the discrepancy between rich and poor on the domestic as well as the international front. So it is not surprising that the unprecedented rapacity of unfettered global capitalism has become symbolic of American imperialism around the world.

The American brand of political liberty is perhaps the source of America’s greatest pride, since it is inseparable from American democracy. But in view of the gridlock, the bribery (in America it is called lobbying, and in other countries it is called corruption), and the millions of dollars necessary to run for office, there is good reason for rejecting American democracy. Surely, there must be better models of democracy. There are also good reasons for rejecting democracy altogether. Countries with low levels of literacy such as Afghanistan would have been better off with a constitutional monarchy than with the sham democracy of the American puppet regime of Hamid Karzai. Moreover, America is not, strictly speaking, a democracy (rule of the demos or the people); it is an oligarchy (rule of the rich). In fact, it is an oligarchy of global proportions, which is not surprising in view of its economy. So, America is hardly in a position to educate the world about democracy.

When it comes to the momentous evils that political liberty is intended to avoid—torture, cruelty, arbitrary detention, and the like—America has not provided a particularly stellar example. In the absence of the inhibiting power of the Soviets, America has come closer than any other empire to creating a global tyranny. It has more than seven hundred military bases around the globe and an unknown number of secret prisons or “black sites” beyond the reach of law where anyone from the streets of any city in the world can be incarcerated, tortured, and held indefinitely without trial or charge. Then there are the ubiquitous remotely operated unmanned aerial vehicles or “drones” that can instantly kill suspected terrorists (along with hundreds of civilians in the way). It is the newest and most convenient form of summary execution.

The trouble is that the United States does not see itself as the world (especially the poor and underdeveloped world) sees it. Instead, it regards itself as an exemplary nation of laws, liberty, and justice. But even if the world could see America as it sees itself, it does not follow that people around the world hunger for American liberty. If American liberalism is to be rescued from opprobrium, it must be severed from American imperialism—which is to say, it must abandon its messianic pretensions and accept itself as one set of values among others—not as the embodiment of the universal values of humanity.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


In an effort to distinguish his administration from the rhetoric of global tyranny characteristic of his predecessor’s, President Barack Obama has repeatedly claimed that America’s foreign policy is not bent on imposing American values and culture on the world. Instead, he says that the goal of American foreign policy is to defend universal values—values that …

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