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American Exceptionalism and Dissident Conservatives

I don’t want to keep dwelling on the Pletka article all day, but it is just chock-full of terrible arguments that reflect what is wrong with Republican foreign policy today:

There are plenty, many on the left, who oppose the idea of American moral leadership. This is not because they are unpatriotic, self-hating commies (to coin a phrase). Rather, it is because they believe in neither the uniqueness of the American experience nor the superiority of the American system. As Obama so memorably limned, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Obama and those who agree with him just don’t think America is so great, so without fault, that it should claim the right, much less the duty, to mold the world in its image.

Some Republicans might also agree — think Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma or Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. But to move beyond last year’s debacle, the Republican Party must convince the dissenters in its ranks — and of course the American people — that this is an enduring truth.

I’m not sure what Coburn or Lee did to annoy her, except maybe entertaining the possibility of reduced military spending, but this is one nonsensical claim piled on top of another. The misrepresentation of Obama’s quote is very tired and well-known by now, so I won’t rehearse all of that here, but suffice it to say that Pletka is distorting the views of people on both left and right that she is trying to describe. For my purposes in this post, I want to focus on her remarks on American exceptionalism and her definition of it.

The main fault line between Republican hawks and dissenters on the right is not adherence to American exceptionalism in itself. Most conservative and libertarian dissenters against prevailing Republican foreign policy views have no quarrel with the idea that America is exceptional, provided that this is defined correctly and isn’t just used as a nationalist bludgeon to marginalize people who disagree with Republican hawks. America possesses a unique set of political institutions, and our country has enjoyed the benefits of geographical and historical circumstances unlike those of any other great nation. Our constitutional inheritance, while not solely our own, is distinctive and has formed the basis for a liberal and representative government that was at one time extremely rare in the world. Indeed, the more convinced one is of the uniqueness of the American experience, the less one should be inclined to try recreating that experience in every other country on earth.

If that is a short version of what American exceptionalism is, what is it not? American exceptionalism is not enthusiasm for global hegemony or an enormous military, nor is it a belief that the U.S. has a right or responsibility “to mold the world in its image.” There are ways to describe those ideas, but it is wrong and misleading to call them American exceptionalism. Americans may sympathize with other nations that desire to establish liberal and representative governments, and it’s conceivable that our government could occasionally assist them when there is good reason to believe that our assistance is welcomed and constructive, but the recent track record regarding the latter is so poor that the rest of the world would likely be much better off if it were not subjected to continued “molding” of this sort.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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