Tag: US exceptionalism

Tuesday Morning Debate Reaction

The final 2012 Presidential debate was a decisive “victory” for President Obama on both style and substance. Romney’s tack to the center left him with no other arguments than to invoke the resolve fairy and to call for a large increase in defense spending.

The dominant narrative among the pundit class seems to be that Obama won and that Romney did well enough for the debate not to matter. I’ve decided against making judgments about the political impact of debates, so I won’t comment on that.

The dominant narrative among international-affairs commentators is different. We found aspects of it downright painful.

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Podcast No. 6 – The Brain-Melt Episode

The sixth episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. In it, I and PTJ discuss academic administration before turning to the foreign-policy rhetoric of the 2012 campaign. This leads to under-developed ideas about American cultural identity, liberal order, Europe’s troubles, and why supplanting trans-Atlanticism with trans-Pacificism isn’t gonna be easy.


  • Introduction
  • Dan and PTJ Blather about Admin Stuff
  • The Foreign Policy Rhetoric of the 2012 Campaign
  • Can American Culture Handle Relative Decline?
  • Would a Commitment to Liberal Order Work?
  • From Liberal Order to Liberal “Space”
  • The Impact of Europe’s Crisis on American Identity
  • Trans-Pacificism is a Hard Sell
  • Dan and PTJ Engage in Self-Congratulatory Claptrap
  • End Matter

Note: the publication date of the podcasts remains in flux, but I am aiming to have them appear Friday-Sunday each week.

A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Comments or thoughts on either this podcast or the series so far? Leave them here.


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.]


Think Harder, Professor Ratner

Steven Ratner has written a “Think Again” piece on the Geneva Conventions in the new issue of Foreign Policy. (This explains why FP rejected my proposal for a Think Again piece on the same topic about three months ago.)

Ratner’s list of assumptions that should be rethought include:

“The Geneva Conventions are Obsolete”
“The Geneva Conventions Don’t Apply to Al-Qaeda”
“The Geneva Conventions Turn Soldiers Into War Criminals”
“The Geneva Conventions Prevent the Interrogations of Terrorists”
“The Geneva Conventions Ban Asassinations”
“The Geneva Conventions Require Closing Guantanamo”
“No Nation Flouts the Geneva Conventions More than the US”

A couple of other questionable assumptions mentioned in my original proposal might be added to Ratner’s list:

1) “The Geneva Conventions reflect international consensus on how to weigh humanitarian concerns against national security interests.” Not really. International consensus is now far more progressive than the original treaties. Part of why the Bush Administration gets away with so much is that a huge gap exists between current norms and the outdated letter of the law.

2) “The Geneva Conventions represent timeless principles.” No. Treaties are historical constructs that can be and are often amended as needed. Serious gaps in the law are widely acknowledged: the lack of accountability for private security forces and non-state belligerents, the ambiguity about detainee status determinations, among others. My view: these should be addressed through the negotiation of a new Additional Protocol.

Ratner also reifies some rather unsubstantiated assumptions himself. Let me focus on one: the argument that the US should comply with Geneva because if we don’t we undermine the conventions themselves:

“It is enormously important that the US reaffirms its commitment to the conventions, for the sake of the country’s reputation and that of the conventions… in losing sight of the crucial protections of the conventions, the US invites a world of war in which laws disappear.”

I’ve heard this a few times before, but I’m not sure I buy it. The argument is that US noncompliance with Geneva will affect the rest of the international community’s shared understanding of the rules and norms.

But isn’t it possible that US exceptionalism stands an equal chance of galvanizing pro-Geneva sentiment instead? Certainly this was the case with the International Criminal Court. The US opposes the Rome Treaty and has used several mechanisms including domestic legislation and bilateral treaties to make attempt to undermine the court. Yet in some ways this has only seemed to strengthen the rest of the world’s commitment to the ICC, and it’s the legitimacy of the US in matters of humanitarian affairs that has been undermined. Similarly, 80+ countries are moving ahead with a ban on cluster munitions, shrugging their shoulders at the US which isn’t interested.

I think that arguments that US behavior risks undermining regime norms, which are principled rules shared by the entire international community, reflects a certain arrogance. We never assumed that Milosevic’s use of concentration camps “undermined the POW rules,” only that it represented a violation of those rules to be condemned and punished. In fact, the international response reaffirmed the rules, just as international condemnation of US practice is now doing.

Of course you might argue that the US has disproportionate influence on regime norms because of its soft power. But I would suppose it’s US soft power that is being undermined here, not international norms.


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.


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