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Walt and American Exceptionalism

Marion Smith responds [1] to Stephen Walt on American exceptionalism and foreign policy [2] (via Scoblete [1]):

President Obama’s misunderstanding of American exceptionalism has found defenders among international-relations scholars and taken on an aura of legitimacy. Realist theorist Stephen Walt, in a recent article in Foreign Policy, exposes the “myths” of American exceptionalism. Walt echoes Obama’s view — namely that, since many nations have sincerely believed they were exceptional, no nation is truly exceptional.

Smith gets off to a bad start here. Whatever criticisms of American exceptionalism Prof. Walt made in his essay, we already know that Obama doesn’t share them [3]. Smith’s argument is with Walt, but he insists on ascribing views to Obama that the latter doesn’t hold. In fairness, Prof. Walt may have created some confusion when he referred to part of Obama’s 2009 remarks in isolation, but Walt was interested in criticizing American exceptionalism rather than clarifying Obama’s position on it. So, we should be clear that the position Walt is defending has nothing to do with Obama.

Does Walt argue that “many nations have sincerely believed they were exceptional,” and does he conclude from this that “no nation is truly exceptional”? Not exactly. As it relates to foreign policy, he objects to the idea that the exercise of U.S. power overseas is unique:

Although the United States possesses certain unique qualities — from high levels of religiosity to a political culture that privileges individual freedom — the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics.

What we see here is an admission on Walt’s part that America is unique in many ways, but he maintains that its conduct of foreign policy is not what sets it apart. The closest that Walt comes to arguing that “no nation is truly exceptional” is when he says this:

Most great powers have considered themselves superior to their rivals and have believed that they were advancing some greater good when they imposed their preferences on others.

And this:

Among great powers, thinking you’re special is the norm, not the exception.

These statements have the virtue of being true. However, Smith believes he has found counter-examples that disprove Walt’s argument:

How about the American commitment to end European imperialism in North America, leading to the Monroe Doctrine? Secretary of State John Quincy Adams worked so that neither Spain nor France reclaimed their revolting colonies in Latin America.

Our “commitment to end European imperialism in North America” is quite exaggerated here. Quite a lot of North American territory remained under direct British and Russian rule until 1867. If America was committed to ending European imperialism in North America, the U.S. wasn’t very effective in making that happen, was it? Latin American and Caribbean revolutionaries had already done most of the work of ending most European imperialism in the Western Hemisphere, and the position of our government was to endorse the results. Haiti was a different case. U.S. policy was fairly hostile to the new state, and early on the U.S. tried to strangle it out of existence through arms and trade embargoes. How does that fit into the scheme of “promoting a system of justice”?

What the U.S. did commit to doing, at least rhetorically, was to oppose the return of European control over newly-independent republics and to oppose the imposition of Restoration-type governments on the republics of Latin America. Monroe stated [4] that those parts of the Americas that were now independent were “not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” The core of the doctrine was this:

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

While there was undoubtedly considerable sympathy for republican independence movements in Latin America, U.S. policy in this case was to approve of the de facto political arrangements that existed at the time, and to declare opposition to European reconquests and the extension of the monarchical system that was being reimposed in contemporary Europe. That was a sensible, self-interested position for a young, relatively weaker republic to take. It didn’t require much of the U.S., and the U.S. was never compelled to act on it. In practice, Spain was in no position to retake its former colonies, so the U.S. didn’t have to do very much to fulfill that commitment. If European colonies still existed in the Western Hemisphere after 1823, the U.S. left them alone, which is exactly what the Monroe Doctrine required. Until the outbreak of war fever of 1898, the U.S. did not stir itself to eliminate the remnants of Spanish colonial empire in the Caribbean, and at the conclusion of the war took over some of its colonial possession as our own. The independence and liberty of most of the Americas came about without any U.S. effort on their behalf.

Smith offers other examples:

In the 1821 Greek Revolution against the Ottomans and in the Hungarian Revolution against the Austrian and Russian empires in 1848, America continued to stand conspicuously and sometimes precariously for freedom abroad.

In practice, there was no tangible U.S. support for the Greeks or the Hungarians, and as everyone knows the Greeks won thanks to the intervention of three of the Great Powers, and the Hungarians lost badly. The Monroe Doctrine took for granted that the U.S. would remain aloof from European conflicts: “In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so.” “Standing conspicuously” for freedom abroad was all very well, but all this conspicuous standing didn’t amount to very much.

As I’ve mentioned before [5] in a previous disagreement with Smith, most Americans sympathized with Russia in the Crimean War against Palmerston’s Britain, which was the leading liberal interventionist power of the day, and the U.S. even sent military advisers (including McClellan) to the Russian side during the war. This came just a few years after the Russians had crushed the Hungarian revolution. During the largest armed conflict in post-Napoleonic Europe, the U.S. leaned towards Russia without becoming directly involved. Of course, this can be explained by traditional hostility to Britain and Great Power politics, but it does not really fit with the idea that the U.S. is uniquely or especially driven by its political principles to pursue a certain kind of foreign policy. If Russia and the U.S. shared a common international rival, it made sense for the two governments to have closer relations. The record of U.S. foreign policy in the 19th century, to say nothing of the 20th, supports Walt’s case.

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10 Comments To "Walt and American Exceptionalism"

#1 Comment By IanH On October 28, 2011 @ 11:51 am

The true irony of Smith’s argument is that France still posses it’s only Latin American colony (French Guiana).

#2 Comment By krogerfoot On October 28, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

Is there, actually, a non-childish case to be made for American Exceptionalism? I ask because I got here a bit late. I mean, is there somewhere a reasoned basis for Exceptionalism as a school of thought and principle of statecraft? Or has it always been an update of the pledge-of-allegiance fetishism from twenty years ago, used only as a club to beat Obama with?

#3 Comment By Jim Dooley On October 30, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

krogerfoot: “Is there, actually, a non-childish case to be made for American Exceptionalism? ”

There is no reasonable case whatever to be made for american exceptionalism. As religion, it is heresy; as country love, or even as a statecraft, it is utter hogwash.

#4 Comment By conradg On October 30, 2011 @ 11:52 pm

One thing I’ve never understood is why, if the US policy in the western hemisphere was based in the Monroe Doctrine, we supported the UK’s reconquest of those Argentine islands in the 1980s. (What’s the name?) The UK is a European colonial power, correct? So why did we take their side in a colonial war in the western hemisphere?

#5 Comment By IanH On October 31, 2011 @ 3:37 am

The Falkland islands are not now, nor have they ever been, Argentine. This whole dispute is based on an arrogant Spanish claim to the islands that dates back before Argentina received independence.

I also think it’s cute how you refer to the decadent, self-indulgent UK as a “colonial power.”

#6 Comment By tbraton On October 31, 2011 @ 7:26 am

“One thing I’ve never understood is why, if the US policy in the western hemisphere was based in the Monroe Doctrine, we supported the UK’s reconquest of those Argentine islands in the 1980s.”

The ironic fact is that Britain’s claim to the Falkland Islands (250 miles off the coast of Argentina and several thousand miles away from Great Britain) only goes back to 1832, nine years after the Monroe Doctine was proclaimed in 1823. The Brits did not declare the Falkands a permanent colony until 1840. The Falklands clearly fall within the sphere supposedy covered by the Monroe Doctrine. So it wasn’t just the reconquest in 1982 that may have been in violation of the Monroe Doctrine; it was the initial conquest that defied the Monroe Doctrine.

#7 Comment By IanH On October 31, 2011 @ 8:47 am

Why does everyone want Britain to give up the Falklands? It only has a few thousand people, mostly British, who want to stay with the UK. It’s not as though it’s in any way similar to India or Kenya.

#8 Comment By tbraton On October 31, 2011 @ 9:34 am

IanH, the fate of the Falklands is not high on my list of concerns. I was merely laying out a fuller hstorical background for the benefit of conradg. But the thought just occurred to me. Since the Falklands have been a colony of Great Britain since at least 1840, why wasn’t the Argentine invasion of 1982 considered an attack on a NATO ally sufficient to invoke the treaty obligations of NATO? After all, Hawaii and Alaska only became states of the U.S. after the NATO treaty was signed, and we would surely invoke NATO if either were attacked. Or does NATO exclude colonies of the signatories? At the time NATO was entered into, both G.B. and France still possessed many colonies in Africa and Asia.

#9 Comment By conradg On October 31, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

Ian, the Falklands are clearly part of the western hemisphere, and Britain’s claim to them is clearly a result of its long-faded colonial empire. To say that they have never been a part of Argentina is like saying that Gibraltar has never been a part of the current Spanish government. True, but irrelevant. The Monroe Doctrine prohibits European colonialists from intervening militarily in the western hemisphere. So why the exception for the UK?

And tbraton, thanks for the history lesson, which makes the situation even less comprehensible. I have no concern one way or the other about the Falklands, I’m just curious as to why the Monroe Doctrine was never seen to apply there.

#10 Comment By Charlie On October 31, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

NATO member states can and do choose to do all sorts of things in the name of the Alliance. But the treaty doesn’t say that ANY attack against one member is an attack against all members. The Falklands are outside the geographic scope of those treaty provisions because they’re south of the Tropic of Cancer. An attack on Hawaii wouldn’t trigger those provisions, either, since it’s not in the Atlantic.