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‘American Exceptionalism’ and Our Warped Foreign Policy ‘Idealists’

Michael Gerson complains [1] about the “abandonment” of “American exceptionalism”:

During the Barack Obama years, the United States retreated from internationalism in practice. At first, this may have been a reaction against George W. Bush’s foreign policy. But Obama’s tendency became a habit, and the habit hardened into a conviction. He put consistent emphasis on the risks of action and the limits of American power.

One of the more tedious arguments from hawks over the last eight years is that the U.S. “retreated” under Obama. This was always false, and there was no real “retreat” from the world. Nonetheless, the lie became a habit and it has since hardened into conventional D.C. wisdom. Obama didn’t “retreat” from internationalism, but the purpose in promoting this falsehood was to identify internationalism with extremely meddlesome interventionism and to treat everything else as the rejection of internationalism. This nonsense made for a somewhat useful talking point so long as hawks didn’t get too specific about what they meant, but when forced to describe what Obama’s “retreat” was they had to acknowledge that they meant that he didn’t start or escalate enough wars to their satisfaction. According to them, Obama’s big failing is that he didn’t involve the U.S. enough in the killing of Syrians. To put it mildly, that is an odd understanding of what internationalism means.

The abuse of the concept of “American exceptionalism” has been similar. Once again, hawks insisted that Obama didn’t believe in it, misrepresented his words to shore up their garbage argument, and then repeated the lie for years until it became automatic. In the process, they ended up defining “American exceptionalism” so narrowly that no one except advocates for a very aggressive foreign policy could qualify as supporters. Gerson’s complaint that Obama emphasized risks and costs of direct military action in Syria reflects this. If a president doesn’t use American power to inflict death and destruction somewhere overseas, or if he even pays closer attention to what it will cost the U.S. to do so, Gerson thinks that amounts to an “abandonment” of what makes America unique. That’s profoundly warped, but unfortunately it is what passes for “idealism” in foreign policy commentary these days.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "‘American Exceptionalism’ and Our Warped Foreign Policy ‘Idealists’"

#1 Comment By bacon On February 21, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

If one was born between about 1940 and 1965, as most of our political, military, and business leaders were, one came of age in a world where the United States was the predominant power in almost every sphere and, it seemed, always had been. Being an American meant being a citizen of the most important country in the world and being an American leader in any field must have been a heady feeling. Seeing this preeminence fade requires explanation and, as for any major change, those who don’t like what is happening blame their political opponents. Since there is no shortage of American exceptionalism across the spectrum of American political opinion the attempts to affix blame occur in a target rich environment.

A less satisfactory (but maybe more helpful in the long run) way to think about having to share the space at the top is to step back a bit and look at the 20th century, particularly the last half, as a disinterested observer might. Prior to WWII such an observer wouldn’t have said the US was more advanced than the UK, France, or Germany. Then came the war and every economy with the potential to compete effectively with the US was nearly destroyed, not only in Europe but the in the Soviet Union, China, and Japan, infrastructure was wrecked and the work force needed to repair the damage was decimated. By contrast, the industrial capacity of the US was expanded and modernized by the war, our infrastructure was undamaged and our casualties were relatively light. In the race for postwar 20th century dominance we had an insurmountable head start.

American exceptionalists mostly ignore our head start, preferring the idea that we rose to the top in a struggle with equals and won because we are, well, exceptional. The problem with that attitude is that it leads too easily to the conclusion that our fall is due to something Clinton or Bush 43 or Obama did or didn’t do and can be reversed by some sort of foreign intervention rather than doing the less glamorous and much harder work of repairing American society. We have the resources and talent to stay at the top, but hawkish foreign adventures and populist scare tactics and self pity won’t do the trick.

#2 Comment By up from “meritocracy” On February 21, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

Gerson, Boot, Krauthammer, Kristol, miscellaneous malefactors surnamed “Kagan”… all evidence of the ill effects of contemporary consequence-free society, in which adult delinquents keep their jobs and status despite overwhelming evidence of bad judgment and/or bad faith.

If we held elite pseudo-meritocrats to the same minimal standard as corporations and elected officials they would have been out of business a long time ago.

#3 Comment By Mark Thomason On February 21, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

Well put.

This is exactly what Hillary and those around her were promising. It is one big part of why she was rejected, to the shock and surprise of those who believed their own consensus.

Many American voters figured that out, even without the “help” of pundits inside the Beltway.

#4 Comment By rayray On February 21, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

This is extraordinarily important context, thank you for it.

Also worth noting, America benefited from the very high tax rates (compared to now) that were in place for the war effort – so that as commerce recommenced and incomes rose the government had the money to invest in infrastructure, education, the arts, etc. The GI Bill being a prime example.

This created a virtuous cycle, at least initially, where American prosperity could be reinvested into the American commons. Thus increasing American prosperity.

Despite vehement arguments about how lower and lower taxes are necessary for American prosperity, the postwar boom makes the opposite argument.

#5 Comment By Ken Hoop On February 21, 2017 @ 5:50 pm

Iraq war supporter Gerson who led about…errr. was wrong about Saddam’s nuclear threat…doesn’t concede the US played its cards wrong and exhausted itself in Iraq, leading to Obama’s reluctance to gamble that the exhaustion could be reversed elsewhere, Putin saving him from his worst temptation in his weapons deal with Assad.

I myself find the political control of The Lobby as depicted by Mearsheimer and Walt strikingly “exceptional” in world history as applied to a powerful nation.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 21, 2017 @ 6:39 pm

“A less satisfactory (but maybe more helpful in the long run) way to think about having to share the space at the top is to step back a bit and look at the 20th century, particularly the last half, as a disinterested observer might.”

In doing so. I have to challenge the idea that the Us has yet to share the top spot with anyone. We dominate in nearly every major aspect the global landscape. Our ability to exert massive force of men, materials, services and firepower still makes us the most important state on the planet.

We have profound and deep issues economically, still no country is able to match the impact of US capital markets.

We have the most powerful aide services on the globe. Whether said charities re by government, church or private entities, no country on the planet does more in more places with the immediacy of the US.


No we did not have head start. We are just over 200 years old. What we have had is vibrancy, youth, ambition, aggression, will, and unnerving self confidence of can do and will do. And we happen to live on a continent that could for practical purposes sustain the population for more than a thousand years if managed wisely. All of the above is what makes the US exceptional. Not to mention that in that short life we have not been plague with the massive wars within our borders that cripple progress. Our colonial reach has been prudent compared to the other major powers. So that even failures have had nominal impact. I think that may be on the wane. But that wane is is not so monumental so as to topple the country.

What should be of immense caution is to advocate or justify needless adventures in the cause of that exceptionalism. Our exceptionalism need not rob others of their ability and responsibility to act on the world stage. Such behavior would bleed ou exceptional nature and usefulness faster than would be prudently healthy.

#7 Comment By Cornel Lencar On February 22, 2017 @ 12:11 am


I think that there is another term that is even more abused than “American Exceptionalism” and that is “American interests”. I have yet to see somewhere explicitly stated what these interests are.
Why is american interest to be in Afghanistan for instance, now that bin Laden is dead? Why having so many military bases? Why objecting to the Asian Investment Bank? Why antagonize with Russia over Crimea? Why is the american’s people interest to impose its elite’s will all over the world?

#8 Comment By Brian M On February 22, 2017 @ 1:02 pm


Our elites consider THEIR interests to be identical to “American” interests by definition. No need to even think about it any longer. And, our elites interests including making a lot of money and grubbing for a lot of power in our eternal wars. H/T General Smedley Butler: War is a Racket.

#9 Comment By Lyle W Freund On February 22, 2017 @ 2:24 pm

Even a casual examination of our economic rise has to include the boost that arming and supplying the British, as well as our expanding oil industry, gave our economy a kick-start. The GI bill combined with our universities gave us an intellectual advantage over the ruined European economies. Organised labor boosted our middle class buying power, and then came the tax cutters, and the union busters. The forces of globalism gave away much of our technologies to stuff the corporate coffers, and poorly administered social spending emptied out our treasury. In total apathy towards the admonishment to Beware the Military Industrial Complex, we continue to create, build, and sell incredibly expensive weaponry to just about anyone. This will only get worse as long as warmongers and plutocrats run the show.

#10 Comment By rayray On February 22, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

@Lyle W Freund
Perfectly put.

#11 Comment By richard young On February 24, 2017 @ 1:46 am

Obama was as much if not more enamored with “American exceptionalism” than our other Presidents have been. In my judgment, we would do well to banish “American exceptionalism” from our lexicon, and focus on how we can improve what we have (whether we are Number One or not).

#12 Comment By REEFSHARK On February 24, 2017 @ 9:38 am

America has fought a lot of wars. Very few to protect America. What would our GDP look like if we had not destroyed so much capital (human and non-human) by throwing it at real and mainly imagined enemies? The Interstate Commerce Commission supposedly cost the U.S. numerous GDP points? How much have the warmongers in our midst cost us? Exceptionalism is not where you reward a foreign power for attacking one of our warships (one example in a very sick and one-sided relationship)? The song goes on.