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American Exceptionalism and Its Discontents

When we move beyond generalities and slogans, it becomes clear who the real cynics are in our foreign policy debates.
american exceptionalism uncle sam halo

James Traub makes some effort to engage with progressive foreign policy arguments, but ends up dismissing them:

There’s a test here worth applying. I don’t think Warren would celebrate the demise of American exceptionalism. Sanders very well might. President Trump certainly would. After all, this is the president who defended Russian President Vladimir Putin by asking, “You think our country’s so innocent?” The United States and Russia do whatever it takes to win; so does everyone else. Here, strangely, Trump joins up with the anti-American left. He is a cynic rather than a realist, but his cynicism has the merit, for the left, of stripping away the veneer of American moralism and placing the United States on the same plane as its rivals. “In the short term,” Bessner says, “progressives would do well to ally with realists.”

Would they really? Does the left so deeply repudiate liberal idealism that it feels a deeper sense of kinship with unsentimental realism?

Traub deserves a little credit for taking the time to consider the arguments of the progressive critics of U.S. foreign policy that he attacks, but in the end he still concludes that “idealistic” meddling is the right way to go. While he does engage some of the left’s foreign policy arguments, he can’t escape his bias against them that they are “anti-American” and that they ought to espouse “American exceptionalism” instead. American exceptionalism is one of those vexing phrases that means different things to everyone, so it is important to nail down what Traub means when he talks about it. He thinks it means “the belief, born with the American Revolution, that the United States has a special destiny to spread its republican—later democratic and liberal—values abroad.” Stated that way, Traub and at least some of the people he attacks might have more in common than he thinks, but that is usually not all that people mean when they invoke American exceptionalism. Even if it were, the manner in which the U.S. “spreads” values makes all the difference in the world.

A little more than ten years ago, the phrase American exceptionalism became a bludgeon that Republican hawks used against Obama in the most cynical way. Attacking Obama’s commitment to American exceptionalism became a convenient way for hawks to denigrate the former president’s attachment to the country and to ridicule his foreign policy all at once. It didn’t matter that Obama professed his belief in American exceptionalism, and it didn’t matter how many times their attacks were debunked. The claim that Obama was somehow opposed to this idea stuck and served as the basis for Romney’s entire foreign policy critique in 2012. Even after Romney lost, we were still treated to the same nonsensical assertions about American exceptionalism.

I review the use of this phrase in the recent past because the American exceptionalism that Republican hawks promoted is a very specific and aggressive strain. It is not just a claim about the uniqueness of the American experience, or a description of the peculiar political and social arrangements that prevailed in our country, but a boastful, arrogant assertion of American supremacy and “leadership” in the world. The exceptionalism that hawks have been talking about for the last decade is one that supposedly validates U.S. interference and intervention overseas, and it is treated as a license to disregard the rules that bind other states. These hawks very much wanted to take ownership of the phrase so that they could accuse everyone else of rejecting it, but in the process they helped to make the phrase become radioactive for lots of Americans that didn’t subscribe to their destructive and confrontational foreign policy views. American exceptionalism doesn’t have to refer to this awful worldview, but in practice it frequently does.

Defenders of American exceptionalism often think of themselves as idealists and view their detractors as realists at best and cynics at worst. Traub does the same thing with his dismissive remarks about possible cooperation between progressives and realists. As he sees it, working with realists for foreign policy restraint and anti-militarism is a repudiation of idealism rather than an expression of it, but the truth is quite different. Take the war on Yemen for example. The “liberal idealists” of humanitarian intervention fame that Traub champions have had little or nothing to say about or against this war. The core of the opposition to U.S. involvement in this nightmare has been the anti-imperialist and progressive left and the non-interventionist and realist right. The most vocal believers in American exceptionalism have been among the worst enablers of Saudi coalition war crimes because they are preoccupied with opposing Iran or because they think that backing despotic clients is what U.S. “leadership” requires. The very people that Traub writes off because of their supposed “anti-Americanism” and skepticism of U.S. power have been the ones taking the moral and, dare I say, idealistic stand against an utterly indefensible war. When we move beyond generalities and slogans, it becomes clear who the real cynics are in our foreign policy debates. As a general rule, they are the ones that wrap themselves in pieties about American values and virtues while endorsing the most horrific policies. The war on Yemen provides one of the most relevant examples, but we could find much the same thing in other debates over intervention as well.



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