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Clinton and ‘American Exceptionalism’

Hillary Clinton will give a foreign policy speech later today:

In a foreign policy speech meant to reach out to Republican and independent voters, Democratic President Hillary Clinton on Wednesday will argue for a robust commitment to U.S. leadership in the world and tout the idea of “American exceptionalism.”

This is consistent with Clinton’s curious strategy of trying to get the endorsements from the most discredited and disliked Republican former officials and advisers, but I’m not sure that there are many voters out there that will be won over this way. The only people that care about a candidate’s enthusiasm for this version of “American exceptionalism” are Republican foreign policy hard-liners that are already against Trump or on board with Clinton. Clinton and her advisers don’t seem to understand that her reputation for foreign policy hawkishness is a liability that needs to be kept out of public view as much as possible. Giving a speech in which she invokes one of the main catchphrases of Obama’s hawkish critics gives progressives that don’t like her one more reason to assume the worst about her presidency, and it provides one more excuse for disaffected Sanders supporters to back an alternative candidate. It won’t be lost on a lot of Democrats that “American exceptionalism” was the go-to attack for bashing everything Obama did, and it was at the core of Romney’s ridiculous foreign policy platform.

The bigger problem with Clinton’s use of this slogan is that it is one more indication that her foreign policy will be as meddlesome and overbearing as her critics fear it will be. It would be one thing if we could dismiss this as nothing more than weird Clintonian pandering, but everything in Clinton’s record suggests that she accepts all of the bad assumptions that go with the hawkish use of the phrase. Like the many hawks that support her, Clinton takes for granted that the U.S. has both the right and the obligation to “lead” in response to crises and conflicts around the world, and in practice that typically means that the U.S. has to ensnare itself in foreign conflicts and take sides in the internal disputes of other countries. That is what we can expect from a Clinton administration. It’s important to remember that talking about “American exceptionalism” in this context isn’t just a statement of pride in the unique and distinctive qualities of the American experience. It is an endorsement and an attempted justification of a particularly aggressive foreign policy approach to the rest of the world.

The slogan has been used to complain that Obama has not been aggressive enough in his actions overseas, and Clinton’s use of the slogan reminds us that she agrees with that criticism. The speech will at least put to rest the silly idea that Clinton won’t be a hawkish president. We have every reason to believe that she will be, and there’s no point in denying it.

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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