Samuel Goldman wrote a somewhat provocative post at our State of the Union blog earlier this week:
The wisdom and justice of particular alliances or operations is not the issue. Rather, it is the ideology of “American exceptionalism” according to which all that the United States does is good, and all the good that is done has its source in the United States. From the French Revolution through the Cold War, conservatives resisted the delusion that any nation, class, or individual is the unique representative and judge of the human race. That is the principle on which a decent Right depends.
The definition Goldman gives to American exceptionalism seems to be an exaggerated version of the one Stephen Walt used in his article on the same subject last year. This description may be a case of falling into a rhetorical trap created by the distortions of hegemonists. I believe a more accurate name for the phenomenon Goldman correctly wants to oppose is nationalist triumphalism. According to the triumphalist view, America is the “greatest country in the history of the world” with an emphasis on national greatness, which triumphalists define primarily, thought not always exclusively, in terms of power and wealth.
Obviously, triumphalists are not content merely to describe the political and military reality of American preeminence, but see that preeminence as the natural and appropriate role assigned to America by God or by some sort of destiny. Triumphalists also insist on the absolute necessity of maintaining and even increasing that preeminence for the good of the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all triumphalists claim that “all that the United States does is good,” but one would be hard-pressed to find a triumphalist willing to acknowledge American errors, much less American crimes, except by giving them the most perfunctory lip service. As almost any nationalist would, triumphalists have one ethical and moral standard for the U.S. and those perceived to be on “our side” and a very different, much more exacting standard for everyone else.
Goldman is onto something when he refers to the belief that “all the good that is done has its source in the United States.” Again, triumphalists might not make that claim in so many words, but they do tend to exaggerate greatly the American role in political and economic liberalization around the world while simultaneously denying or ignoring the harm the U.S. has done and continues to do abroad. Given their assumptions about the natural and proper U.S. role as world “leader,” they are also quick to attribute illiberal and authoritarian political developments to a lack of American “leadership.” In its crudest form, the triumphalist argument is that liberty around the world advances or retreats depending on U.S. “leadership” or lack thereof. This is how so many ostensibly conservative Americans embraced the idea of promoting global democratic revolution without much difficulty.
James Poulos had an interesting observation on the triumphalist Republicans’ predicament a few weeks ago:
Thinking that politics will save us is thinking deeply at odds with the best of conservative wisdom — and thinking that all is lost without a certain kind of American leadership comes dangerously close to believing that only politics can save us.
The triumphalists do believe (or claim to believe) that “all is lost without a certain kind of American leadership,” and it is not possible for a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) conservatism to accept this.