American Exceptionalism and Neoconservativism

16 July 2005, 1238 EDT

Jonathan J. Monten, a graduate student at Georgetown, has just published a piece called “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism, and Democracy Promotion in U.S. Strategy” in International Security. Jon is one of what I hope will be a growing wave of scholars seeking to combine (in a coherent manner) structural realism with arguments about the role of ideology and identity in world politics. This is a research program Stacie Goddard and I recently advocated in our own article, “Paradigm Lost? Reassessing Theory of International Politics” (European Journal of International Relations, v11, n1, 2005).

Jon’s argument, though, should be more interesting to our readers for its specific claims about how to understand neoconservativism in the context of American exceptionalism.

His core claim:

[P]eriods of activist democracy promotion can be explained by both the expansion of material capabilities and the presence of a nationalist domestic ideology that favors vindicationism over exemplarism. While power is an important factor, long-term variation in the United States’ democracy-promotion strategy also turns on subtle but sugnificant ideational shifts in the doctrine of liberal exceptionalism. The founders, grounded in a political-realist and Calvinist view of politics, were skeptical towards the capacity of the United States to effect democratic change abroad, distrusted the concentration of power necessary to implement an activist foreign policy, and resolved to limit the U.S. liberal mission to demonstrating the success of an experiment in self-government. The character of liberal exceptionalism began to shift in the late nineteenth century. Various reform movements such as Progressivism and the Social Gospel, both political reactions to post-Civil War industrialization and modernization, produced a different set of normative and instrumental beliefs about the nature of progress and the efficacy of U.S. power to create a more perfect social and political order.

Jon goes on to argue that:

Empirically, neoconservatism is situated within a long tradition of vindicationism…. [It is] consistent with a history of nationalist ideologies rooted in liberal exceptionalism, and specifically emerging from a late nineteenth-century Progressive and Social Gospel understanding of political progress and the capacity of American power to effect democratic change in the international system.

What is exemplarism?

Exemplarists argue that the United States should promote democracy by offering a benign model of a successful liberal-democratic state. The United States should focus on perfecting its own domestic political and social order, and close the gap between the ideals of the American Creed and the actual performance of U.S. political institutions. By this logic, the mechanism of change in international politics is the moral force of the U.S. example. Exemplarism appears to be a more passive and less ambitious approach to democracy promotion. Nonetheless, it advances the overtly strategic claim that the United States can “better serve the cause of universal democracy by setting an example rather than by imposing a model.”

Vindicationalism, in contrasts, holds that:

[T]he United States must move beyond example and undertake active measures to spread its universal values. It must, in Brands’s phrasing, actively use its power to “vindicate the right” in an otherwise illiberal world. The exemplarist expectation that other states will emulate the U.S. example is viewed as at best inefficient and at worst utopian; the United States should expedite this process of democratization, through intervention and force if necessary. Those advocating the concept of the United States as evangelic also tend to be more optimistic about the quality of democracy at home: U.S. institutions, if flawed, are comparatively superior and fit for export.

Jon’s argument follows the general parameters of hegemonic-stability and power-transition theory: when a great power is rising in the international system, its population and elites will see its growing strength as vindication of its national identity and core values. Thus, it will have both the opportunity and the inclination to try to reshape international politics according to those values. In the US case, periods of increasing relative power are likely to trigger “vindicationalist” rather than “exemplarist” variants of American exceptionalism. Jon looks at American foreign policy after the Spanish-American War – which is more or less when US ’emerged’ as a global player – and after the end of the Cold War, but his analysis could be extended to the post-World War II era as well.

In our own work (joint and separate), Patrick Jackson and I have painted a much more complicated picture of the shaping and reshaping of varieties of American exceptionalism. Still, I think Jon’s article is a great way to kick off a discussion I’ve been wanting to have at the Duck for some time about US grand strategy, American exceptionalism, and neoconservativism.

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