Home/Daniel Larison/American Exceptionalism, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Rules

American Exceptionalism, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Rules

Andrew comments on Mormon Americanism:

I raise this because such an understanding of America’s unique and divine status among nations has profound foreign policy implications.

It’s possible that Romney’s narrow and hegemonist understanding of American exceptionalism is informed by his religious views, but I’m not sure how we would be able to tell. There are many observant Mormons in America and around the world that don’t subscribe to the American nationalist triumphalism that Romney embraces, and there are quite a few non-Mormons that approve of this triumphalism and describe it in virtually identical terms. If we want to account for why Rubio, Ryan, and Santorum (among many others) understand American exceptionalism in exactly the same terms of U.S. global hegemony as Romney, we have to look at what Bacevich called the ideology of national security in The Limits of Power or the “credo and the trinity” he described in Washington Rules. Bacevich described the credo this way:

In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States–and the United States alone–to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world. In a celebrated manifesto issued at the dawn of what he termed “The American Century,” Henry R. Luce madfe the case for this spacious conception of global leadership. Writing in Life magazine in early 1941, the influential publisher exhorted his fellow citizens to “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” Luce thereby captured what remains even today the credo’s essence. (p. 12)

We also have to acknowledge that Obama accepts the same basic assumptions as his partisan opponents, which he confirmed with his recent “American century” rhetoric at the Air Force Academy. The disagreement between Obama and Romney is one between adherents of modestly different forms of a hegemonist view of American exceptionalism. As members of the national political class, they have adopted the “credo” as their own. Would certain religious convictions make a person more likely to embrace this “credo”? Perhaps. However, the simpler explanation is that anyone with national political ambitions must accept the “credo” regardless of his religious beliefs, and he will tend to accommodate his prior beliefs to the “credo” rather than change the “credo” to fit those beliefs.

Believing a nation to be favored by God doesn’t necessarily imply that the nation is free to do whatever it wants. If the belief is a genuine one, it implies that the nation has duties to God and cannot act contrary to God’s will. Indeed, being favored by God theoretically imposes a higher standard of conduct on the nation in question. Replacing or conflating God’s will with whatever is expedient or useful for the nation would appear to a genuine believer to be the worst kind of blasphemy and impiety. Of course, the belief could just as easily be turned into a license for aggression if that is what one wants to do with it. In other words, it is more likely that Romney is an aggressive American nationalist and hegemonist and then interprets (or ignores) teachings of his religion in a manner most consistent with that view.

Joanna Brooks has corrected some of the misconceptions about Mormonism and the Constitution that Gary Wills promoted recently:

Yes, Mormon leaders have taught that the Constitution was “divinely inspired,” and many Mormons believe it. But that belief is not really a point of doctrine. Neither the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence are Mormon scripture. Not to millions of Mormons who live in the US, and certainly not to the millions of Mormons who live in other nations around the globe.

Similarly, one would likely find little sympathy for Romney’s nationalist triumphalism among Mormons from other countries and the antiwar Mormons here in America that have a very different view of how the U.S. should act in the world. If one wants to find the sources of Romney’s hypertrophied Americanism, a good place to start would be some of the absurd articles produced by National Review in the last few years.

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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