American Exceptionalism has long meant that Americans reject the old Balance of Power politics in favor of some moral, or at least lawful order of international relations. Instead of ceding “spheres of influence” to other great powers, Americans ask, like Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Because America rejects spheres of influence as a way to organize the world, other countries think that America considers the entire world to be its sphere of influence. America is in everyone’s face, so many of them push back.
On the other hand, there is good reason to be skeptical of spheres of influence. Timothy Snyder describes what can happen when spheres of influence are conceded and contested in his book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Vintage Books, 2010). Between 1933 and 1945 over 14 million people were killed by bad government policy in operations not related to combat.
But the confrontation with America is cultural as well as political. Japan, the world champion at importing cultural ideas and making them its own, is now asserting its cultural identity by drafting a new constitution that purports to have a distinctively Japanese concept of individual liberty, which does not include disturbing the public order. America has few enemies, but even its friends push back.