Tag: Exceptionalism

3rd Presidential Debate, Foreigner Version: If you’re not an American, you’re Mentally Ill or something

Did anyone else find the third presidential debate just appallingly narcissistic and self-congratulatory? Good lord. Good thing America is around to show you bubble-headed foreigners the way to freedom. I could run through all the offensive, ‘America-is-tasked-with-upholding-the-mantle-of-liberty’ patronizing condescension, but why bother? (Nexon does a nice job here.) I told my students to watch it, and in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have. It was so embarrassing, and in class this week I kept trying to explain why we talk down to the rest of the world like this while my students rolled their eyes in disgust.

I keep saying this – running around the world telling people how exceptional and bound-to-lead we are is a great way to alienate the planet and convince them of exactly the opposite – to not to follow us. We’d have a much easier time with the world if we could back off the blustery, Fox News nationalism and actually speak maturely. But Americans couldn’t give a damn about the rest of the world, no matter how much we posture about our world historic role to lead it.  Our ODA totals are disgrace for a coutnry as wealthy as we are. We don’t learn languages much. The only time we worry about casualties in the war on terror is when they are own; our clear disinterest for all the collateral damage we have done since 9/11 speak volumes to the rest of the planet.

So instead, here is the debate foreigners heard:

Continue reading


That Exceptional Feeling

A crass, gaudy, all-American display.

Someone named Steven Walt has published an article, wildly posted on the Internet, entitled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”. I don’t know who Mr. Walt is, but the bio says he is a professor at Harvard University.  Unfortunately we are seeing too much of this type of thinking coming out of America’s college professors. I should take the time to offer a point by point rebuttal to Mr. Walt’s article. …But I have found that people like Mr. Walt don’t really listen to facts or care too much about history. —  D. Hancock, RedState.com

Academics often use words differently than their less-credentialed counterparts in the general public. The divergence usually doesn’t matter; who cares if most people misuse the phrase “quantum leap“? Yet the consequences can still be disconcerting, as with the ways scholars and the right-wing appreciate the term “American exceptionalism.”

For academics, “American exceptionalism” is a phrase that either has a specific historical meanings (for instance) or that broadly connotes a flawed and ad-hoc theory based on unfalsifiable beliefs. For conservatives, such as D. Hancock, “American exceptionalism” is an unreservedly good thing:

Mr. Walt has the right to speak his mind – this is part of what makes us exceptional.  But I and most Americans have the right to disagree with him, and in this point disagree quite strongly.  Because a large part of what makes us exceptional is the knowledge that we are, and can continue to be, exceptional.  Ideas like those from Mr. Walt and the few who consider themselves part of some sort of world society concern those of us who understand not just the privilege but also the responsibility of being an American.

Steve Walt, cosseted cosmopolitan world-government-loving Harvard egghead.

RedState, something of a Republican answer to DailyKos, has thousands of posts with messages like D. Hancock’s. Last week, a conservative talk radio host criticized the U.S. women’s gymnastic team for a “soft anti-American feeling” for not exercising in red, white, and blue outfits, speculating that the team didn’t want to offend foreigners by “showing our exceptionalism” and lamenting the fact that Americans have “lost, over time, that jingoistic feeling.” (See also.)

Of course, he’s insane. Americans are plenty patriotic, and it’s hardly the case that the NBC coverage of the Olympics has failed to sate ordinary levels of nationalist exuberance. After all, American conservatives and Chinese Communists alike agree that the country that wins the most gold becomes the next hegemon. (I’ve been reloading the medal count table several times a day, too.)

A lot of people using the term think it’s synonymous with “good.”
Google N-gram of “American exceptionalism” and “American
Exceptionalism,” 1920-2008.

But whether conservatives are objectively correct (they’re not) about levels of patriotism in the United States is not the issue. It’s the fact that the term “American exceptionalism” to them is an affirmation of everything good about the United States.

Unsurprisingly, then, a draft history curriculum in Nebraska is attacked because it fails “to promote American exceptionalism“:

“We need to specifically reject this concept that all ideas are equal or all cultures are equal,” [Nebraska Board of Education member John] Sieler told Fox News Radio. “All cultures are not equal. All ideas are not equal and we need to state that in a positive manner instead of glossing over this and having some ‘Kumbaya let’s all get along, everybody’s wonderful’ feeling.”

Sieler said he’s received at least 30 emails from constituents who are upset that the draft process was not open to the public. Among the chiefs concerns — no mention of American exceptionalism.

“I strongly believe in American exceptionalism,” he said. …

Sieler said the state needs to adopt a specific statement recognizing American exceptionalism.

I mention this in part because you may have encountered pushback on this in your classroom (as I have) and in part because you may not realize that you and your students are speaking what amounts to a different language. Assigning Walt’s Foreign Policy article might be useful precisely because Walt (despite D.  Hancock) is no squishy librul. Doing so could lead to a useful discussion of a theme latent in Morgenthau and complementary to contemporary discussions of constructivism: how does power and status generate identity?

For IR scholars more generally, the question is whether such beliefs have independent causal effects. Does it matter if the citizens and a good chunk of the ruling class of the unipole believe that their state is so constituted that it should not be responsible to international institutions?

[Ed. Note: Readers interested in Duck discussions of the nature of American Exceptionalism, particularly in the context of foreign policy and of conservatism, might check out this, that, and also this, and especially this. More good stuff in the labels.]


Nationalism is not Neoconservatism

Donald Douglas over at American Power weighs in with a laudatory post about Brian Rathbun’s recent article — an article in which neoconservatism is equated with and defined as “moral nationalism.” “Moral” here means that neoconservatism offers something other than a set of factual observations on which to base foreign policy, but instead spins out a normative justification for the rectitude of particular policies, particularly policies involving the use of military force in pursuit and promotion of American ideals and values. Douglas, an avowed neoconservative, is very much in favor of this characterization of his position, especially since “moral nationalism” arguably stretches back to the founding of the United States — if neoconservatism goes back that far, then it is clearly a venerable American tradition instead of a novel upstart doctrine. For support on this point, Douglas calls in the big guns: none other than Robert Kagan, who traces “the rhetoric of greatness, moralism, and mission” back through several hundred years of American foreign policy history in order to make just this argument.

Unfortunately for all three of these folks, the equation between “moral nationalism” and neoconservatism just doesn’t hold up. Moral nationalism — or, better, a moralistic tone or sympathy in American public policy — has in fact been characteristic of the United States since before its founding. But to call Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman “neoconservatives” is to strain the meaning of the term beyond all recognition, and certainly beyond any conceivable analytical utility. Sure, taking these important icons from the past into the neoconservative fold has important political implications. But analytically speaking, it’s nonsense — and ideologically slanted nonsense at that.

Setting aside for the moment the theoretical issues involved in Rathbun’s decision to equate the analysis of elite opinion with the analysis of foreign policy (more on this in a moment), the basic argument of the article is that not all US “conservatives” are realists. Given the historical association between realism and the political right wing, this is an interesting if not particularly earth-shaking claim. Rathbun evaluates the claim by running a factor analysis on a data-set of elite mail survey repsonses; the analysis reveals three clusters of responses, which Rathbun labels “realist,” “nationalist,” and “isolationist.” Right away there’s something odd here, because this looks like two apples and an orange: realism and nationalism are perspectives or attitudes, while isolation is a policy. Conceptually, one could be a realist or a nationalist and prefer either isolation or its opposite, and perhaps even prefer different policies under different circumstances. Along similar lines, one could only be an isolationist under this description if one always and eternally rejected involvement in global politics, and volumes of historical scholarship have made it abundantly clear that a) no one, even the so-called “isolationists,” ever actually argued that during a policy debate, and b) the very term “isolationism” was a piece of political labeling by the opponents of a policy of remaining uninvolved in European affairs during the 1920s and 1930s. And so-called “isolationists” were perfectly happy to press for US involvement in the Pacific and in Latin America; what they didn’t want to do was to get involved in a European war. So there never were any such people as “isolationists,” strictly speaking.

What there were — and what there have always been, and continue to be — were people who argued that the United States ought to retain its freedom of action in world politics, and not bind itself to multilateral or universal institutions and rule-structures. In other words, they preferred unilateral policies. That said, unilateralism vs. multilateralism describes not a policy debate, but the possible outcomes of such a debate. A state’s pursuit of unilateral or multilateral policies is the kind of thing that stands in need of an explanation; it’s not an explanation itself. Further, those preferring or advocating unilateral or multilateral policies rarely, if ever, do so in those terms; rather, the positions taken in a debate point in a unilateral or multilateral direction, and may not (indeed, probably don’t) actually use the terms ‘unilateral’ or ‘multilateral’ in so doing. If we want to account for different positions on US foreign policy. we have to look at the terms of the debates in which advocates engaged, and not simply look at the kinds of policies that supposed adherents of each side of the debate argued for or against — doing so is likely to get us into real conceptual trouble, because we might have mis-assigned a speaker to one side or the other prematurely and thus be confused at their advocacy of a position that they “shouldn’t” be advocating. (Or, even worse, we could find ourselves attempting to make logical sense of a coalition in support of a policy that was formed on more instrumental grounds, such as the “coalition” that voted to support the present Iraq war. Different people had very different reasons for voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and it would make a mockery of the term to claim that everyone who voted in the affirmative was, for example, a neoconservative.)

So if we shift our gaze from policies to policy debates, what do we find that might separate realists from nationalists, and from liberal internationalists and the other kinds of schools of thought we might find? I’d say that first of all we need to stop thinking in terms of “schools,” since positions on foreign policy are rarely coherent enough for that moniker. Individual policymakers also pick and choose among the elements of the supposed “schools” when the occasion seems appropriate. So we need to start with the content of policy debates, and look for ways of analytically parsing out their elements so as to make sense of the patterns and combinations that we see in practice. [This signals a methodological difference between Rathbun and me, in that the factor analysis he employs is a technique for inferring the existence of real-but-not-directly-observed variables that cause outcomes, where my ideal-typification of existing debates is a more pragmatic, or instrumentalist, use of data. But I’m going to forego that discussion for the present post.]

So what are those elements? Two of Rathbun’s proposed three analytical dimensions — whether the US should be more powerful than other countries (“rank”), and whether the US ought to remain distant from other countries (“separation”) belong, as far as I am concerned, in the same category as “isolation” — these are policies, not justifications for policies. Rathbun’s other dimension, “distinction,” strikes me as more promising, although Rathbun cashes it out in a way that is not as clear as it could be. The root of “distinction,” I would argue, is a claim that the United States is both exempt from those rules and exempt from them on the grounds that the United States represents something special, distinctive, higher — something that trumps the rules in force for merely ordinary polities. These two aspects combine to form a venerable commonplace in US foreign policy debates: exceptionalism.

Exceptionalism puts the US in a category all its own, and is reasonably contrasted with stances like realism that maintain that the United States is a state like other states and needs to play by the rules of international politics (the realists — the “rules” in question here are understood not to be social products, but are instead held to be more or less inevitable consequences of life in the anarchy of the international system). But realism is not the only opposite of exceptionalism, and in fact most anti-exceptionalists in the United States have not actually been realists. They are, instead, committed to a variety of positions that situate the United States within some larger polity or universal set of standards, making the US the agent of that broader perspective. Some anti-exceptionalists accept the universalism of the exceptionalist commonplace, but reject the exemption from the rules claimed by exceptionalists; we sometimes call these people “liberal internationalists” and we think of Woodrow Wilson. Of course, we also call these people “militant nationalists,” particularly when we’re talking about Theodore Roosevelt, but a closer look at TR’s actual policy justifications reveals pretty quickly that Roosevelt was more interested in a US-led club of “civilized nations” then he was in the sort of go-it-alone unilateralism preferred by exceptionalists when they felt the need to forcibly intervene in the affairs of other countries; the distance between TR’s club of civilized nations and Wilson’s League of Nations are considerably less than we sometimes recognize. Other anti-exceptionalists avoided the language of “civilization,” preferring the more exclusive civilizational polity of ‘the West’; the logic was similar (US submerged in a larger policy/group, albeit as that group’s leader), but the implications were different inasmuch as ‘the West’ was not something one could join by choice. Hence, a mutually armed standoff, which we now call “the Cold War” (yes, Truman and Acheson were Western-Civilizationists, not exceptionalists, as I have argued in detail elsewhere).

So where does neoconservatism fit in all of this? The really intriguing thing about neoconservatism is that it manages to rehabilitate exceptionalism, but do so in such a way as to detach it from its traditional association with policies of refraining from “entangling” involvement in European political machinations, and only reluctantly and unilaterally intervening in such high-level global political and military activity when absolutely necessary — “isolationism” — and join it to a vigorous promotion of universal ideals (“civilization,” as GWB said for the first time on 20 September 2001, and numerous times thereafter). Borrowing a page or three from Reagan — actually, scratch that, writing a page or three that Reagan used as a script — neoconservatism represents a reconfiguration of the basic elements that have been floating around US foreign policy discussions for generations. That reconfiguration uses elements, and thus has some similarities with, the older uses of exceptionalism, which implied something like “build the perfect democracy here at home and let human history gradually conspire to make the world like us” (which, contra Kagan, is more or less what both the US’s founders and Robert A. Taft were saying — the US needed to be powerful, sure, but only so that it could serve as a magnetic pole to attract and defend its universal ideals, and most certainly not so that it could invade other countries and force “regime change”). In contemporary parlance, exceptionalism, whether it’s the Clinton/Albright “indispensable nation” or the beacon of civilization so often referenced in discussions of the War on Terror(ism), means something like “actively intervene in the world so as to make it resemble the ideal, and do not be too troubled about the niceties — after all, the US is unique, and represents the best of humanity, so how could it do wrong?” Contrast even Wilson’s militant liberalism, which took the European powers to task and took the United States into the First World War mostly for violating neutrality rights. That’s no “coalition of the willing,” the preferred option of neoconservatives (and it has to be their preferred option, because an exceptional/indispensable nation can’t be bound by its alliance to less-perfect countries if those alliances get in its way). And Wilson — and TR, and FDR, and Truman, and Hamilton, and Washington — were certainly no neoconservatives.

As I said at the outset, I can certainly see and understand the political value of a claim that neoconservativism is as old as the republic. But this is mere propaganda, as is the neoconservatism recasting of all of US foreign policy history as debate between militant nationalists (like themselves, they argue) and conservative isolationists (which is quite ironic, since those conventionally labeled “isolationists” were the traditional upholders and utilizers of the very rhetorical commonplace — exceptionalism — now so central to neoconservative thinking). Exceptionalism is as old as the republic, but the implications that neoconservatives draw from it are relatively novel. What this implies about the desirability of neoconservatism I am not entirely sure about; I personally don’t think it implies much of anything, but others might disagree.


Public diplomacy? We don’t need no stinking public diplomacy!

The BBC reports:

US President George W Bush has appealed for people to give his strategy in Iraq a chance – holding up Israel as a model for defining success there.

He said America would like to see Iraq function as a democracy while dealing with violence – just as Israel does.

Speaking at the US Naval War College, Mr Bush said success in Iraq would not be defined by an end to attacks.

His remarks come as members of his Republican party are increasingly turning against the war in Iraq.

The US president characterised the war in Iraq as primarily against al-Qaeda forces and their use of “headline-grabbing” suicide attacks and car bombings.

He said: “Our success in Iraq must not be measured by the enemy’s ability to get a car bombing in the evening news.”

The terms of success set out by Mr Bush included “the rise of a government that can protect its people, deliver basic services for all its citizens and function as a democracy even amid violence”.

Mr Bush suggested Israel as a standard to work towards.

“In places like Israel, terrorists have taken innocent human life for years in suicide attacks.

“The difference is that Israel is a functioning democracy and it’s not prevented from carrying out its responsibilities. And that’s a good indicator of success that we’re looking for in Iraq.”

Is this an unreasonable analogy? No, it isn’t. Is it a stupid &^@!)# thing to say? Hell, yes.

The Bush Administration still hasn’t figured, or at least adapted to, a basic rule of global media: US officials must assume that any messages intended for domestic consumption can, and will, be scrutinized abroad. And arguments that resonate well with an American audience may fair very, very poorly with important international audiences.

Consider that while the Bush Administration has certainly displayed a more unilateralist bent than the Clinton Presidency, the international backlash against Bush even before Iraq was far out of proportion to his substantive changes in US foreign policy. At least part of the problem was that Bush, Cheney and the gang were so relentlessly focused on their “Mayberry Machiavellianism” at home that they either didn’t pay attention to, or didn’t care, how their rhetoric–much of which worked well in the American context–would be interpreted abroad.

Which brings us full circle. Will Bush’s words be twisted in the coming days in the Arab world? Perhaps. I’d lay good odds that the coverage will not be favorable. Will they make an enormous difference? Probably not. But what’s the upside to handing your opponents a big shiny quote that the US wants Iraq to look like Israel? I think you all know the answer.

(image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Iraq



Mark of Zenpundit, one of my favorite people in the blogsphere, recently announced that he’s joined some outfit called “Chicagoboyz.” Now, I’d never heard of them, but they’re clearly much higher up on the foodchain than the Duck. If I read Reynolds I would, apparently, find many links to them.

Their politics? I quote from the masthead:

Some Chicago Boyz know each other from student days at the University of Chicago. Others are Chicago boys in spirit. The blog name is also intended as a good-humored gesture of admiration for distinguished Chicago boys including those pictured above (we claim no affiliation), and others who helped to liberalize Latin American economies.

Anyway, if Mark’s posting there I’ve got to add it to the good old RSS reader, right? Well….

Passed along without much comment, this Chicagoboyz post from Lexington Green keying us into important issues for the “Anglosphere Institute”.

What are the deepest roots of Anglosphere exceptionalism? Some of the most commonly attributed sources are wrong: Protestantism, for example. England was exceptional long before Protestantism. Alan Macfarlane, from an anthropological perspective, has taken the story back into the Middle Ages. His predecessor F.W. Maitland, from a legal perspective, took it back a little farther. The Victorians and Edwardians (Stubbs, Maitland, Acton) agreed that the English retained from their Saxon ancestors something of the “liberty loving” ways of their Teutonic forebears, as depicted by Tacitus almost two thousand years ago. This type of thinking fell into disfavor in the 20th Century. But I think the Victorians were on the money.

Read the rest if you are so inclined. Basically, we wind up with the nuclear family being the engine of liberty, because Scandanavians supposedly didn’t live in extended families, so gay marriage is bad or something.

I should note that Brian Downing’s The Military Revolution and Political Change seems to loom large in the think of the Anglosphere community types. Who knew?


Blame America Last

We have all heard the charge before that some in the public sphere always “Blame America First” whenever there is a negative outcome in world politics. Critics charge that these folks are quick to find some connection, however remote or irrational, between American action (or inaction) and the ills of the world. To be fair this characterization is obviously a stereotype, however it isn’t entirely inaccurate. There are certainly some voices that consistently (though not always) go to great lengths to assign blame to American policies.

However, we rarely see the flip-side of the “Blame America First” argument mentioned: “Blame America Last”. Those who subscribe to this view go to great lengths to deny any responsibility when it comes to American action or inaction. American policy makers are seen as consistently noble and capable, doing what they can in a selfless attempt to make the world a better place—any negative outcomes cannot be assigned to our policy makers since a) their motives were noble and who, after all, can blame a noble man for trying, and b) the outcome was destined to be bad; the situation was determined by forces outside the control of American capabilities.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer puts forth just such a “Blame American Last” argument in his attempt to explain why Iraq is crumbling. Does he blame the Republican administration for its flawed strategy and handling of the war? No. Does he blame Democrats for creating dissention and doubt at home by their mere mention of troop redeployments and pull-outs? Oddly, no. Does he blame the Iraqis themselves for their inability to create a stable ruling coalition that can govern for the greater good and establish national stability? Yes. Krauthammer states that:

“…unless the Iraqis can put together a government of unitary purpose and resolute action, the simple objective of this war — to leave behind a self-sustaining democratic government — is not attainable.”

I have to somewhat agree with Krauthammer on this point. Where we would diverge–and diverge sharply–is the imlpication that this failure does not lie with the current administration.

To absolve the Bush administration is to ignore that many of the reasons Krauthammer puts forth for why establishing a stable government that acts in the national, not sectarian, interest were known to policy makers well before March of 2003. Krauthammer’s foundational claim is that “the root problem lies with Iraqis and their political culture”. To underscore that claim he provides a number of observations and examples of this defective political culture. Here are just a few:

  • The problem is the allegiance of the Iraqi troops. Some serve the abstraction called Iraq. But many swear fealty to political parties, religious sects or militia leaders.
  • [T]he problem here is Iraq’s particular political culture, raped and ruined by 30 years of Hussein’s totalitarianism.
  • What was left in its wake was a social desert, a dearth of the trust and good will and sheer human capital required for democratic governance. All that was left for the individual Iraqi to attach himself to was the mosque or clan or militia.
  • At this earliest stage of democratic development, Iraqi national consciousness is as yet too weak and the culture of compromise too undeveloped to produce an effective government enjoying broad allegiance.
  • It was never certain whether the long-oppressed Shiites would have enough sense of nation and sense of compromise to govern rather than rule

I find it hard to argue with Krauthammer on many of these points. However, all these points do, in the end, is undermine the overall point of the article–that the Iraqis themselves are to blame for their lot and there is little the administration could have or can do to bring about a different outcome.

Many who thought that the Iraqi operation was both unecessary and unwise repeatedly warned that the probability of establishing a stable Iraqi democracy in the short term by US intervention was neglible mostly due to preexisting conditions on the ground. We were well aware of these preexisting conditions–sectarian animosity, lack of experience with democratic institutions and political culture, Stalin-like dictatorship that cultivated a culture of distrust and violence amongst Iraqis (particularly different religous and ethnic sects)–and the difficulties they can pose to the establishment of democracy. Combine that with the shoddy record of establishing democracy through military intervention as well as the existence of a skilled transnational group able to stoke the fires of sectarian distrust and violence and the probability of success nosedives.

Krauthammer might be right–that going forward only the Iraqis themselves can alter the current course of the country. But the idea that the administration has no role to play in the current status quo is absurd and myopic (just the sort of essay I have come to expect from Mr. Krauthammer). No doubt that the region, the world, and US interests will be damaged if the country continues on its present path, drawing in its numerous neighbors in a bloody, prolonged civil conflict. But the responsibility for creating the conditions under which such a scenario could develop rests with the current administration. It is their failure of vision to honestly asses the chances for establishing a stable regime in the wake of Saddam’s fall.


First Principles and the Truman National Security Project

Dan posted a while back on the debate over at Democracy Arsenal by members of the Truman National Security Project on what a progressive national security platform would/should look like. He provided a summary-to-date of the discussion, which I shamelessly pilfered for this post:

Michael Singer started by posting a series of common principles that he felt had emerged from the Truman National Security Project’s annual meeting. At America Abroad, Ivo Daalder took issue with Singer’s description of American exceptionalism. Suzanne Nossel also responded to Singer’s post, taking issue with each of the three principles that Singer identified as being common to both “Truman Democrats” and neoconservatives. Singer modified, but also reaffirmed, those three principles.

While I agree with much of the project I believe it has a way to go. First, there needs to be a separation between the first principles of a national security policy and the marketing of that policy. Second, I believe there is an overblown concern about Democrats and the use of qualification and nuance when discussing policy, especially when it comes to the use of force. Finally, Signer’s latest argument regarding hegemony and coercion seems to play against the group’s true “center of gravity”, that being their vision and appreciation for America as a ‘persuasive leader’, one that is ‘centered in the global community’.
The first three principles espoused by Signer were:

1) American exceptionalism: Like the neoconservatives, we believe that America is the greatest country the world has known. We are historically, morally, and intellectually unique. Unlike the necons, however, we believe we must constantly earn our exceptionalism through our moral conduct. Our uniqueness stems from our values, and so we bear a unique responsibility for living up to those values in shaping and influencing the world.

2) The use of force: Like the neocons, we’re comfortable with the use of force for morally good ends. Unlike the neocons, as a general matter, we believe force shouldn’t be the default choice for achieving our ends. We’re neither reflexive doves nor pacifists; rather, we’re pragmatists on the use of force.

3) American hegemony: Like the neocons, we want America to retain its supremacy as the military, political, and economic leader of the world in order that we can maintain our own security, help strengthen the world’s safety and stability, and accomplish morally right goals. We are and should be a unipolar power. Unlike the neocons, however, we believe we must constantly earn and affirm the right to exercise that power.

In Signer’s most recent post, “The Passions of the Left?”, he takes issue with Suzanne Nossel’s qualifications of each of the three principles. His response left me with a few questions and concerns regarding this project, which I discuss in turn below.

First, Signer weighs in on the notion of American exceptionalism:

American exceptionalism: Do we really believe that America is unique, historically graced, and responsible for the world’s greatest ideas? (When Suzanne writes, “We recognize that by claiming exceptionalism, we risk undercutting values and norms whose broad acceptance would advance U.S. national interests,” I fear this is an exception that swallows the rule.)

The first question we must ask about American exceptionalism is whether it is a concept a) that is necessary as a grounding principle of center-left foreign policy and b) whether laying out first principles necessitates that we included how to sell the policy to the public (which is where I see the notion of exceptionalism fitting in, not that it makes it a bad thing).

The notion that one’s country is exceptional is hardly unique to the United States. One can quickly peruse the globe and find signs of feelings of exceptionalism in the rhetoric, symbols, culture, and national myths of just about any state. And while exceptionalism may serve as a useful focal point for collective action (e.g. appealing to exceptionalism in order to recruit the support of the public behind a massive political undertaking such as building and maintaining a global empire in the case of the British, enlarging a states global commitments militarily, financially, and politically in the case of the US, etc.) I am not sure what difference it makes as a guiding principle for foreign policy. Exceptionalism seems like more of a rhetorical justification for some bundle of policies rather than a grounding principle. The question we need to ask is whether a belief in American exceptionalism is required for many of the policies that follow (i.e. whether being comfortable with the use of force and maintaining hegemony require first that we believe in vague notions of American exceptionalism). If these policies would still be possible without a strong belief in exceptionalism (by policymakers, not the public) then I fail to see why it must be a cornerstone of a progressive foreign policy.

Suzanne’s point is a valuable one because it forces us to examine whether the benefits of adopting this principle are worth the potential costs. If the costs outweigh the benefits then again, this principle is more trouble than it is worth. For domestic political purposes is might be necessary, but as a founding principle of a coherent policy it is more likely superfluous and potentially thorny vis-à-vis allies and ‘undecided’ around the globe. This also relates to the 3rd point about American Hegemony, which I will discuss below.

Finally, the notion that we must believe that America is “responsible for the world’s greatest ideas” also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. The greatest ideas in the world have had many roots—for sure, some emigrated from America to other parts of the world but the flow of ideas has been reciprocal. It is impossible to argue that the greatest ideas can be solely credited to Americans since most thinkers from the US who we would credit with such ideas borrowed heavily from thinkers outside of the US. The works of Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and Madison (to name a few) were all heavily influenced by thinkers from Spain, France, Great Britain, and Greece to name just a few locations. This is not say that American thinkers essentially produced “old wine in new bottles”, but surely we can identify a lineage of democratic/liberal thought which made possible the contributions of American thinkers. From this perspective, to say that America is responsible for the world’s greatest ideas comes off more as hubris than national pride.

Next, Signer returned to the question of the use of force:

The use of force: Are we truly comfortable with the fundamental proposition that
great ideas are worth dying for, and that great injustices are worth suffering
and pain to rebuke? (I think Suzanne’s nuances here probably improve on my post — she writes, “We are hard-headed about what force can and cannot accomplish, and we’re committed to ensuring that force is used wisely in combination with other forms of power.” — but I still am concerned about what “wise use” ultimately means.)

I am not sure about the nature of Michael’s discomfort regarding the Suzzane’s phrase “force is used wisely”. It seems pretty straightforward—progressives understand the nature of military force (which is only one form of coercion), what it can accomplish and what it cannot, as well as how plans to use force must be executed in order to ensure that goals are met through its use. I do not see how this can be construed as some type of equivocation or ‘nuance’. In fact, if we want to contrast ourselves against the current administration, the Bush team has always maintained—both in rhetoric and practice I would argue—that using force is not enough. It is how you use force, under what conditions, for what goals, etc. The biggest critique of Clinton’s use of force during the first campaign was not that he didn’t use force but that it wasn’t used wisely (i.e. he didn’t use our military in situations that were clearly in our national interest—the whole “we don’t do national building” theme).

Should progressives be afraid to use force? No. Should progressives retreat from honest and frank discussions of what the wise or proper use of military force is and when other types of power and coercion should be utilized? Absolutely not. Again, I think this comes down to mixing principles and the marketing of those principles.

Finally, the issue of hegemony:

American hegemony: Do we truly believe that America is great and good enough to be in a single leadership position over the world? Especially when China — which would surely manage the world in a much different (and worse) fashion than us, looms? (Suzanne writes, “But we don’t think even a hegemon (even one that has “earned” its status) can rule by fiat.” But I believe this drains the concept of hegemony of its core value. In many cases, the ability and threat of fiat is what starts and pulls along cooperation, right?)

While Michael is correct in that many times “the ability and threat to rule by fiat is what starts and pulls cooperation” along, it isn’t what maintains it—at least, it isn’t what has made the current liberal world order as resilient and effective as it has been. Certainly there have been international orders based heavily (if not solely) on sheer power and coercion, but their record of success seems less than ideal. One could argue that the Soviet Union attempted to build its own, separate international order during the Cold War. What the Soviets lacked to a large degree, I would argue, was leadership vs. coercion. Peoples and states cooperated with the Soviets over the long haul not because they necessarily consented to Soviet leadership, but because the Soviets utilized both direct and indirect coercion against them. In contrast, the US liberal order was maintained and more effective (save the occasional French defection) precisely because the US fostered a sense of partnership and leadership. Hegemony (or, successful hegemony) isn’t simply a matter of relative material power, but rather a matter of leadership—without leadership hegemony quickly deteriorates into a game of counter-balancing by other powers which works against US interests. Leadership requires that a first among equals wields power with tact and responsibility.

This does not mean that the US must “allow a global consensus to determine its policies”. Rather, it requires that the US shape and inform a global consensus. In his first post on the subject, Signer himself notes that (post link) “these six principles combine into the single center of gravity for Truman Democrats: we believe in leadership, in inspiring the world community to follow us through our generosity, our values, and our accomplishments.” I agree with Signer, but he seems to have either forgotten his own position on leadership or failed to square with his view on hegemony. The idea that the preponderance of US power should not be treated as a ticket to run roughshod over the concerns of allies and other world powers

Signer ends his post by noting that “We’ve got to have conviction on these three ideas. The exceptions can’t swallow the rules. Then we can get down to details and nuances, and to specifics on hard cases. But we need to work on the big ideas first.” I couldn’t agree more. And it is a consensus about the big ideas/principles that needs to be reached before worrying about how to market these ideas. Conflating the two makes this task more difficult. In any case I am excited that there are a group of thinkers discussing and debating this topic. It is sorely needed.

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Framing Iraq

Bill recently argued that, contra left-wing grumbling, the Bush administration has consistently embraced democratic enlargement as an element of its grand strategy. His post struck a nerve with some commentators, generating the kind of debate I hope happens more often as the readership of this blog expands.

I want to shift the debate a little bit towards the issue of “framing.” George Lakoff’s arguments about political framing have become a hot topic among liberal and left-wing bloggers. Many embrace Lakoff’s work. They believe that one of the major problems for “the left” in general, and the Democratic party in particular, is the degree to which it has been “out framed” by the Republicans. A number of prominent Democratic bloggers and pundits are less convinced. Noam Schieber, for example, argues that the problems of the party cannot be fixed by finding better “buzzwords.”

A full disclaimer: I haven’t read either of Lakoff’s two books on the subject, but the public discussion of Lakoff does seem to focus on buzzwords. This isn’t surprising, given the most frequently touted example is the “death tax.” The gist of the example is that conservatives built opposition to the estate tax by calling it the “death tax.” The phrase “estate tax” invokes a “frame” of taxing wealth (wealthy people have “estates,” which we think of as large tracts of well-manicured land with a castle-like building), while “death tax” invokes a frame of taxing “death” (we all die, most of us don’t look forward to it, so it seems unfair to penalize people for dying).

This is a fairly stilted understanding of framing. Erving Goffman’s seminal work, Frame Analysis, for example, used frames to refer to basic cognitive orderings of the world. Social movement theorists, in contrast, tend to focus on framing as a form of discursive intervention in which actors seek to represent something in a strategically advantageous ways.

This does sound like “popular” Lakoff, but framing is really more complex than choosing labels that invoke pre-given association. One way that scholars understand framing is a process whereby actors weave together a set of arguments, concepts, and associations – with the goal of linking them into a broader narrative suggesting a particular course of action.

Thinking about framing in this manner helps us to understand, I think, why the Bush administration’s supposedly changing justifications for the Iraq War (from WMD to democratization) strike liberals and left-wingers as an act of duplicity, but do not necessarily offend other people. The key issue is that the Bush administration framed Iraq in a particular way, one which many liberals and progressives never accepted.

Bill captures it pretty well in his post. If you look back at a lot of the major speeches and statements by Bush administration officials leading up to the Iraq War, you’ll see a fairly consistent set of causal logics and associations.

The frame in question logically implies that the way to (1) reduce the threat of terrorism, (2) prevent terrorist use of WMD, and (3) prevent non-terrorist WMD attacks against the US is to engage in regime change. Put more simply, tyrannical regimes are the root problem, terrorism (and related threats) are a symptom. Indeed, tyrannical regimes are, by definition, terrorist regimes. Take, for example, Bush’s speech announcing the imminent onset of the war:

Peaceful efforts to disarm the Iraqi regime have failed again and again — because we are not dealing with peaceful men.

Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. This regime has already used weapons of mass destruction against Iraq’s neighbors and against Iraq’s people.

The regime has a history of reckless aggression in the Middle East. It has a deep hatred of America and our friends. And it has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al Qaeda….

Today, no nation can possibly claim that Iraq has disarmed. And it will not disarm so long as Saddam Hussein holds power….

Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them. If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you. As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In a free Iraq, there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms. The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near….

As we enforce the just demands of the world, we will also honor the deepest commitments of our country. Unlike Saddam Hussein, we believe the Iraqi people are deserving and capable of human liberty. And when the dictator has departed, they can set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation….

The United States, with other countries, will work to advance liberty and peace in that region. Our goal will not be achieved overnight, but it can come over time. The power and appeal of human liberty is felt in every life and every land. And the greatest power of freedom is to overcome hatred and violence, and turn the creative gifts of men and women to the pursuits of peace.

Here is a back-of-the-envelope diagram:


The Bush administration’s speeches on Iraq, in this light, served to create and reinforce this frame in public consciousness. They also represented Iraq as a subset of a general case. Diplomats may have had to present Iraq as sui generis when they were asked to defend contradictions in US policy arising from our failure to target other regimes, but the main thrust of the frame described Iraq as an exemplar of the general connection between the “war on terrorism” and democratic enlargement. Iraq was more pressing than other cases, but that was a matter of degree.

For those who buy the frame in its entirety, the “shift” in public justifications for the war is nothing of the sort. Moreover, the frame can easily survive the inconvenient facts that Iraq neither (1) had weapons of mass destruction nor (2) was a major safe have for terrorism. The frame makes it easy to slide between different causal narratives, and even if those lose some plausibility the underlying policy prescription is reinforced by drawing a conceptual equivalency between, for example, tyrannical leaders (particularly of Hussein’s “type”) and terrorism.

(For what it’s worth, I think that conceptual equivalency makes some sense: terrorism is a strategy used by both state and non-state actors as a way of accomplishing various objectives. Nonetheless, the US does officially define terrorism as activity by non-state actors, and the association in the frame derives its power not from this analytical point, but from a conceptual linkage between Iraq under Hussein and Al-Queda.)

UPDATE: Peter Howard has some additional comments on the issue.

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