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American Exceptionalism and the Need for Equal Accountability Before International Law

By Suhyla Behiry

April 4, 2024

In Response to Our New, Non-Polar World

As we enter an era of tremendous change on a global scale, we witness shifting international alliances, a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a not-so-subtle disregard for the values the United States once claimed to represent. Speeches from the White House, peppered with demands for human rights and democracy, do not carry the same weight they did in years past.

As an Arab born in the United States, I grew up watching U.S. presidents on the television describe the necessity of war in the Middle East to protect human rights and democracy. These were the lengths nations would go to protect civilians, I innocently thought. I decided to study political science and international affairs to make sense of all I learned about the Middle East from U.S. television. However, what I discovered through my studies left me disoriented, an experience many students in my shoes are increasingly going through. I recall the urgency with which the university has responded to the invasion of Ukraine, bringing in prominent Ukrainian leaders and anti-Russian activists to campus—even using the 2023 commencement ceremony as an opportunity to raise awareness for the cause. As Gaza is being invaded currently, I feel disappointed but no longer surprised by the lack of action from both Georgetown and the United States at large.

The United States and Europe’s own disregard and unequal application of international law is what emboldens other countries to do the same. Putin points to the invasion of Iraq as he invades Ukraine. As U.S. presidents carved out exceptions for human rights abuses in the name of fighting terrorism, Arab leaders have learned that targeting dissidents can be excused if they can be labeled terrorists instead. Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu points to the lengths the United States went to following the September 11 attacks in its anti-terror campaign to justify his brutal invasion of Gaza. U.S. exceptionalism has bred bitterness, discontent, and a deep sense of indignance by governments and peoples around the world, for vastly different reasons.

The world is being remade, and the laws and norms that govern it are being rewritten. As Nesrine Malik so aptly put it in her essay, the only way for countries like the United States to remain relevant is through consensus and consultation. Continuing to engage with the world through brute force and unilateralism, particularly without the respect and power it once held, will only isolate the United States in the decades to come. To create an international system where all countries are forced to adhere to international law, the United States must be willing to come to the table as an equal and hold itself to the same standards of justice and accountability as other countries.

Suhyla Behiry (G’24) is a graduate student in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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