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American exceptionalism bulletin, 2008

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[Oct 13, 2008]

... Soldier-scholar Andrew Bacevich talks about his hot new foreign policy book, a less-costly Afghanistan strategy, and why he's disappointed ...

[Oct 2, 2008] Obama the change Asia needs By Chandran Nair

Oct 2, 2008 |

The rest of the word may not be voting, but even to the most casual observer, it is already widely assumed by commentators that most non-Americans would prefer Barack Obama to win.

Especially since becoming the Democratic Party's candidate, the international media has been filled with commentaries suggesting it is not just Europeans who see Mr Obama as the candidate of change – but also most Asians, Africans and Latin Americans.

Given the foreign policy views of John McCain, the Republican candidate, this assumption is not surprising. Mr McCain's continued support for the war in Iraq, and the constant emphasis on his experience in Vietnam – another war where US reliance on military might to change hearts and minds ended in failure – impress few outside America.

But it is also hubris: yet another example of how too many commentators lazily assume that their vision of a United States as ultimately a force for good in the world – whatever its short-term failings – is shared by others.

What is going on is easy to explain. After George W. Bush's two terms as president, the world's chattering classes want to see their faith in the American dream and its supposed self-correcting democratic traditions restored.

The best way to do this? Elect the country's first black president. That way redemption is delivered and American exceptionalism once again held up as a beacon for everyone else to aim for.

Hold on. Many people in the rest of the world may still admire America's traditional support for liberty and the rights of individuals – notwithstanding the battering both have taking under the Bush administration.

But after the past eight years the bar has been set very low – too low.

Simply electing someone who is black and spent part of his childhood living in a predominantly Muslim country offers no guarantee of real change in America's foreign policy mentality.

For sure, if elected, Mr Obama would want to rebuild the US's reputation around the world. But before anyone outside America is called upon to endorse him, we need to know a lot more about his thinking on several key issues.

First – and most important – will he replace America's exceptionalist view of itself with an awareness that leadership will require a far more sophisticated understanding of its position in a global community of nations?

Even if arguably a waning superpower, it will remain a dominant force in global affairs. But it will have to acknowledge that its rights and powers have accompanying duties and obligations – in particular to involve other countries in debates that accept they have legitimate interests, even if these sometimes clash with those of America.

Where such a change would be most immediately apparent, and where it could also bring the most significant short-term returns, is in the Middle East.

An apology for the invasion of Iraq would be a good starting point, along with a commitment to work with all of that country's neighbours, including Iran, towards building a stable and peaceful region.

Second, would the US under Mr Obama show leadership in building global co-operation that will be necessary to deal with the threat of global warming?

A useful sign of intent would be an undertaking to agree to international agreements, particularly the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, that will play a key role in shaping the world's long-term future.

Of course, this will require taking on various domestic sectoral interests, but no one ever said that contributing to global leadership was easy.

Third, would he start working with rather than against the United Nations, with the goal of making it a more effective organisation?

Fourth, will he acknowledge that the Group of Eight nations is an archaic body formed out of the geopolitics of the second world war, but which now needs urgently to be expanded to include China, India, Brazil and an African representative?

And finally, will he make changes to agricultural policy, removing the farming subsidies and support for bio-fuels which between them are having a disastrous effect on the poorest people of the developing world?

Given Mr Bush's abysmal foreign policy record, it is abundantly clear that the US needs a new approach. Mr McCain so far looks to be offering more or less the same. This should not mean, however, accepting Mr Obama by default. Unless he can demonstrate that the US will finally end its claims to exceptionalism, commentators should refrain from endorsing him.

If Mr Obama can demonstrate a willingness to work towards the creation of a better, fairer and freer world in which America's role is about facilitation not coercion, then maybe we can offer him conditional support.

For now, while we may not be voting in this November's election, we need to let the US know that its claims to exceptionalism no longer stand up to inspection and cannot be the basis for foreign policy.

The writer is founder and chief executive of the Global Institute For Tomorrow

The demise of american exceptionalism

anna missed

Lots of Republicans, particularly Senator Brownback and VP hopeful Sarah Palin, have lately been making an open case for American exceptionalism.

While the notion of exceptionalism has always been important in American identity politics (especially since the 50's), it is only recently that it has left the dog whistle reservation and entered into the public debate, and is now explicitly mentioned by name. Its ironic, that since the Nixonian era of red-baiting, that the republicans have become the standard bearers of American exceptionalism - in that they have consolidated under them methods that have eventually led to the demise of said exceptionalism, while at the same time still appearing to idealize it.

A serious accounting of American exceptionalism needs to differentiate its more domestic interpretation (or red-neckism) from a more deeply rooted differential, that (at least) explains why the American system has so far managed to avoid the base antagonisms between labor and capital, and to as a result, circumvent the slide into either socialism, communism, or fascism as experienced in Europe. And so thus became unique, or exceptional. Because it was Alexis de-Tocqueville who in 1831 coined the exceptionalist label, it useful to return, for structure, to what he conceived of as the 5 values critical to America's success as a democratic republic:

  1. liberty
  2. egalitarianism
  3. individualism
  4. populism
  5. laissez-fare

For the sake of continuity, I would reinterpret these values as such. The three main pillars of which would be

1) a laissez-fare economy,

2) an equitable and apolitical judicary&legal system, and

3) a system that favors individualism over state power structures (as a matter of both foreign and domestic policy - which as an end result produces a meritocratic but egalitarian society that highly values individual initiative over statism.

Such a system, in order to be successful must have as its primary ingredient, as it is indeed founded upon such values must have, a sense of fairness and equality, that informs all three pillars, i.e. a level economic playing field, equal opportunity, and freedom of choice and association. And because such a system, that is based essentially on trust, is especially fragile, it must be free of any unfair advantage, exclusive privilege, corruption, cronyism, and etc. as these easily contaminate the entire system. Which gets back to the the original observation of the irony of how the Republicans have appropriated the notion of American exceptionalism. And have used it to destroy the real prospects of American exceptionalism from becoming anything more than a lofty self serving ideal.

Since the early days of Nixon's red-baiting and race-baiting, when exceptionalism first became a rhetorical tool to define anything except Republicanism, as being something "other" than exceptional America - much progress has been made in moving past mere demonization and well on to the effect of transforming both foreign and domestic policy into a militant, corrupt, and regressive image of ideal America. Especially the last 8 years, where the Bush administration has rung the final potential and future out of American exceptionalism. By predicating the international disposition of the United States, along with ugly two wars, on the exceptionalist notion that every citizen of the world longs to be an American, and that its our duty to do what is ever necessary to make it so. To disassemble the checks and balances of government. To politicize the judicial branch into an arm of a singular party. To de-regulate the financial sector to permit unimaginable insider advantage and corruption. And to socialize the financial losses when the results reach the predictable catastrophic conclusion.

Beyond the standard popular venicular, I don't know whether there ever was such a real codified thing such as American exceptionalism. Because if there ever was a chance of it becoming an actual fact, the Republican base has long long ago moved beyond simply prostituting it to instill fear of the other, and well on to if not preventing it from becoming a real potential, then killing it out right.

Raymond Leon Roker The End of American Exceptionalism Bacevich on Moyers

Sometimes there is an interview, an interviewee, and an interviewer that brings it all so tightly into focus. This is one of those moments. Bill Moyers -- who I've celebrated on this site before -- caught up with Boston University Professor of International Relations Andrew J. Bacevich, on a recent broadcast of Bill Moyers Journal.

I won't spend too much time dissecting Bacevich's eloquent and brilliant critique of American foreign policy, all of which is found in his book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. I just implore you to at least do what I did and watch the two-part interview.

Before any right or left knee-jerking ensues, note that Bacevich takes both political camps to task (questioning whether either Obama or McCain, for example, will bring substantive change to America's geopolitical center of gravity. The short answer: No). And he has a stinging indictment of the self-serving Democratic leadership of Pelosi and Reid. He asks all Americans to take a look at themselves, from support of the troops (beyond flag pins) to energy conservation. He draws clear lines of accountability from the general public directly to the halls of power. Bacevich never let's you easily and conveniently point the finger at rogue political leaders, showing them as part of the continuum that includes the American citizen.

And, offered up almost reluctantly, you learn of Bacevich's real life tragedy: the loss of his son, a soldier in Iraq, in 2007. He then reminds us of, and without a hint of condemnation, the obscenity of America sending troops on their third and fourth Mideast deployment while we at home merely "chill out."

Lastly, if you needed a more resounding assurance of what public television does right, this is it. And I doubt you could easily find a more studied and restrained agent of the socio-political introspection we desperately need.

Is This The 'End Of American Exceptionalism'?


Chapter One

The Crisis of Profligacy

Today, no less than in 1776, a passion for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness remains at the center of America's civic theology. The Jeffersonian trinity summarizes our common inheritance, defines our aspirations, and provides the touchstone for our influence abroad.

Yet if Americans still cherish the sentiments contained in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, they have, over time, radically revised their understanding of those "inalienable rights." Today, individual Americans use their freedom to do many worthy things. Some read, write, paint, sculpt, compose, and play music. Others build, restore, and preserve. Still others attend plays, concerts, and sporting events, visit their local multiplexes, IM each other incessantly, and join "communities" of the like- minded in an ever- growing array of virtual worlds. They also pursue innumerable hobbies, worship, tithe, and, in commendably large numbers, attend to the needs of the less fortunate. Yet none of these in themselves define what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century.

If one were to choose a single word to characterize that identity, it would have to be more. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors. A bumper sticker, a sardonic motto, and a charge dating from the Age of Woodstock have recast the Jeffersonian trinity in modern vernacular: "Whoever dies with the most toys wins"; "Shop till you drop"; "If it feels good, do it."

It would be misleading to suggest that every American has surrendered to this ethic of self-gratification. Resistance to its demands persists and takes many forms. Yet dissenters, intent on curbing the American penchant for consumption and self- indulgence, are fighting a rear- guard action, valiant perhaps but unlikely to reverse the tide. The ethic of self- gratification has firmly entrenched itself as the defining feature of the American way of life. The point is neither to deplore nor to celebrate this fact, but simply to acknowledge it.

Others have described, dissected, and typically bemoaned the cultural-and even moral-implications of this development. Few, however, have considered how an American preoccupation with "more" has affected U.S. relations with rest of the world. Yet the foreign policy implications of our present- day penchant for consumption and self- indulgence are almost entirely negative. Over the past six decades, efforts to satisfy spiraling consumer demand have given birth to a condition of profound dependency. The United States may still remain the mightiest power the world has ever seen, but the fact is that Americans are no longer masters of their own fate.

The ethic of self- gratification threatens the well- being of the United States. It does so not because Americans have lost touch with some mythical Puritan habits of hard work and self- abnegation, but because it saddles us with costly commitments abroad that we are increasingly ill- equipped to sustain while confronting us with dangers to which we have no ready response. As the prerequisites of the American way of life have grown, they have outstripped the means available to satisfy them. Americans of an earlier generation worried about bomber and missile gaps, both of which turned out to be fictitious. The present- day gap between requirements and the means available to satisfy those requirements is neither contrived nor imaginary. It is real and growing. This gap defines the crisis of American profligacy.

Power and Abundance

Placed in historical perspective, the triumph of this ethic of self- gratification hardly qualifies as a surprise. The restless search for a buck and the ruthless elimination of anyone-or anything-standing in the way of doing so have long been central to the American character. Touring the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, astute observer of the young Republic, noted the "feverish ardor" of its citizens to accumulate. Yet, even as the typical American "clutches at everything," the Frenchman wrote, "he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications." However munificent his possessions, the American hungered for more, an obsession that filled him with "anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation."

Even in de Tocqueville's day, satisfying such yearnings as well as easing the anxieties and fears they evoked had important policy implications. To quench their ardor, Americans looked abroad, seeking to extend the reach of U.S. power. The pursuit of "fresh gratifications" expressed itself collectively in an urge to expand, territorially and commercially. This expansionist project was already well begun when de Tocqueville's famed Democracy in America appeared, most notably through Jefferson's acquisition of the Louisiana territory in 1803 and through ongoing efforts to remove (or simply eliminate) Native Americans, an undertaking that continued throughout the nineteenth century.

Preferring to remember their collective story somewhat differently, Americans look to politicians to sanitize their past. When, in his 2005 inaugural address, George W. Bush identified the promulgation of freedom as "the mission that created our nation," neoconservative hearts certainly beat a little faster, as they undoubtedly did when he went on to declare that America's "great liberating tradition" now required the United States to devote itself to "ending tyranny in our world." Yet Bush was simply putting his own gloss on a time- honored conviction ascribing to the United States a uniqueness of character and purpose. From its founding, America has expressed through its behavior and its evolution a providential purpose. Paying homage to, and therefore renewing, this tradition of American exceptionalism has long been one of the presidency's primary extra constitutional obligations.

Many Americans find such sentiments compelling. Yet to credit the United States with possessing a "liberating tradition" is equivalent to saying that Hollywood has a "tradition of artistic excellence." The movie business is just that-a business. Its purpose is to make money. If once in a while a studio produces a film of aesthetic value, that may be cause for celebration, but profit, not revealing truth and beauty, defines the purpose of the enterprise.

Something of the same can be said of the enterprise launched on July 4, 1776. The hardheaded lawyers, merchants, farmers, and slaveholding plantation owners gathered in Philadelphia that summer did not set out to create a church. They founded a republic. Their purpose was not to save mankind. It was to ensure that people like themselves enjoyed unencumbered access to the Jeffersonian trinity.

In the years that followed, the United States achieved remarkable success in making good on those aims. Yet never during the course of America's transformation from a small power to a great one did the United States exert itself to liberate others-absent an overriding perception that the nation had large security or economic interests at stake.

From time to time, although not nearly as frequently as we like to imagine, some of the world's unfortunates managed as a consequence to escape from bondage. The Civil War did, for instance, produce emancipation. Yet to explain the conflagration of 1861–65 as a response to the plight of enslaved African Americans is to engage at best in an immense oversimplification. Near the end of World War II, GIs did liberate the surviving inmates of Nazi death camps. Yet for those who directed the American war effort of 1941–45, the fate of European Jews never figured as more than an afterthought.

Crediting the United States with a "great liberating tradition" distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.

If the young United States had a mission, it was not to liberate but to expand. "Of course," declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, as if explaining the self- evident to the obtuse, "our whole national history has been one of expansion." TR spoke truthfully. The founders viewed stasis as tantamount to suicide. From the outset, Americans evinced a compulsion to acquire territory and extend their commercial reach abroad.

How was expansion achieved? On this point, the historical record leaves no room for debate: by any means necessary. Depending on the circumstances, the United States relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation, or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and then brazenly proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and, when the situation called for it, launched full- scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we blithely jettisoned solemn agreements that had outlived their usefulness.

As the methods employed varied, so too did the rationales offered to justify action. We touted our status as God's new Chosen People, erecting a "city upon a hill" destined to illuminate the world. We acted at the behest of providential guidance or responded to the urgings of our "manifest destiny." We declared our obligation to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ or to "uplift little brown brother." With Woodrow Wilson as our tutor, we shouldered our responsibility to "show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." Critics who derided these claims as bunkum-the young Lincoln during the war with Mexico, Mark Twain after the imperial adventures of 1898, Senator Robert La Follette amid "the war to end all wars"- scored points but lost the argument. Periodically revised and refurbished, American exceptionalism (which implied exceptional American prerogatives) only gained greater currency.

When it came to action rather than talk, even the policy makers viewed as most idealistic remained fixated on one overriding aim: enhancing American influence, wealth, and power. The record of U.S. foreign relations from the earliest colonial encounters with Native Americans to the end of the Cold War is neither uniquely high- minded nor uniquely hypocritical and exploitive. In this sense, the interpretations of America's past offered by both George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden fall equally wide of the mark. As a rising power, the United States adhered to the iron laws of international politics, which allow little space for altruism. If the tale of American expansion contains a moral theme at all, that theme is necessarily one of ambiguity.

Excepted from The Limits of Power by Andrew J. Bacevich. Copyright @ 2008 by Andrew J. Bacevich. Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

[Oct 01, 2008] Andrew J. Bacevich on How America Will Change

In an effort to start making sense of what is an indisputably confusing situation, we asked some of the most thoughtful people we know the question: How will America change as a result of the economic downturn? Here's Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor at Boston University and the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

We can now finally chuck overboard all of the bloated and self-congratulatory language of the post-Cold War era: the claims made of a Sole Superpower serving as the Indispensable Nation during a Unipolar Moment at the End of History. Each and every one of these notions was pernicious from the moment it was uttered. Events have now decisively demonstrated each to be absurdly false.

When it comes to statecraft, the chief lessons of the Bush era are these:

A season of reckoning is upon us. To say that is not to imply that the United States is now condemned to an irreversible downward spiral. It's not. It is, however, time for us to clean up our act and to put our own house in order. When it comes to foreign policy, that means restoring a balance between our commitments and the means that we have at hand to meet those commitments.

And that means, above all, revisiting and revising the deeply defective notion of open-ended "global war"--World War IV!--as the proper response to the threat posed by violent Islamic radicalism. We need a new framework for national security strategy, one that junks the global war on terror in favor of an alternative that is affordable, sustainable, and relevant to the variety of challenges that we face. Realism and modesty must become our watchwords.

One might think that a presidential campaign would provide the occasion to debate strategic alternatives. Unfortunately, there is precious little evidence that the current campaign is going to produce such a result. In that regard, the final lesson of the Bush era has been to demonstrate just how vapid and unimaginative our politics have become.

--Andrew J. Bacevich

Posted: Wednesday, October 01, 2008 10:30 PM with 17 comment(s)


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timteeter said:

"And that means, above all, revisiting and revising the deeply defective notion of open-ended "global war"--World War IV!--as the proper response to the threat posed by violent Islamic radicalism . . .

One might think that a presidential campaign would provide the occasion to debate strategic alternatives. Unfortunately, there is precious little evidence that the current campaign is going to produce such a result."

I agree. However, it was a foregone conclusion that, in the current political climate, no candidate was going to say the obvious, even admitted now by the Bush administration, that the "war" on terror needs to give way to something more like a long-term multinational police operation. Anyone who points this out will suffer the fate of John Kerry. We can only hope that a President Obama will be able to articulate how we should recalibrate our efforts.

October 1, 2008 10:46 PM

MichLib said:

Thoughtful article, but I think you give too much credit to Bush. And I take exception to some of the observations.

"We can now finally chuck overboard all of the bloated and self-congratulatory language of the post-Cold War era: the claims made of a Sole Superpower serving as the Indispensable Nation during a Unipolar Moment at the End of History. Each and every one of these notions was pernicious from the moment it was uttered. Events have now decisively demonstrated each to be absurdly false."

This attitude of national pride and even bravado was not only common after the Cold-War but throughout history at times more than others. Ever since Manifest Destiny this has been a typical American attitude. It's not even always a bad thing such as it has been with Bush - it's motivated Americans to consistently be innovators, from being the first to fly and the first to fly to the moon, to developing the worlds largest economy. America has usually been seen as the "shining city on a hill" that those who don't come here to live, wish to be like Americans - for example, my cousins in Eastern Europe *insisted* on "authentic" "Made in the USA" Levi jeans for Christmas in the mid-1990s. The US has protected Europe nobly especially during the World Wars and has consistently been a leader in world aide projects and the like.

To dismiss all that as "absurdly false" is pretty ignorant of real history. And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's all been good. Except it's actually more the fact that Bush's Administration (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, usual suspects) are more consumed by greed than likely any previous administration. I won't go through the laundry list of examples for this but the insane amount of Halliburton contracts in Iraq is one that speaks for itself. But why else would that clique construct a worldview (wholly different from the description of America's history I wrote of above) that centers around a perpetual "war on terror" that will traverse the entire globe and pit 'us vs them' and on and on? It's all the power of money. It smells of Orwellianism. The whole thing almost makes me believe Bush is more innocent than anyone thinks - that he truly buys into all the great stuff in history and is just too dense to realize that the ones around him are taking advantage of him. Almost...

October 2, 2008 12:09 AM

teplukhin2you said:

Wow. So now we're turning against liberal internationalism as well? Let's throw the baby out with the bathwater!

Paging Marty Peretz. Someone let the Henry Wallace brigades in while you were on vacation....

October 2, 2008 12:43 AM

ironyroad said:

Tep, it's not as bad as you think. Bacevich says:

"When it comes to foreign policy, that means restoring a balance between our commitments and the means that we have at hand to meet those commitments."

A reasonable judgment -- about which one can also disagree -- but not an abandoning of liberal internationalism. Certainly, though, a refusal to continue on with a foreign policy that consists of unproductive bluster and promises made on the spur of the moment that cannot be kept.

October 2, 2008 1:27 AM

teplukhin2you said:

That quote isn't evidence of good judgment, it's banality pretending to be wise. I bet Bacevich is for motherhood too. "Vapid and unimaginative", indeed.

October 2, 2008 1:59 AM American Exceptionalism A Double Edged Sword By Seymour Martin Lipset

Chapter One: Ideology, Politics, and Deviance

Born out of revolution, the United States is a country organized around an ideology which includes a set of dogmas about the nature of a good society. Americanism, as different people have pointed out, is an "ism" or ideology in the same way that communism or fascism or liberalism are isms. As G. K. Chesterton put it: "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence. . . ." As noted in the Introduction, the nation's ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissezfaire. The revolutionary ideology which became the American Creed is liberalism in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century meanings, as distinct from conservative Toryism, statist communitarianism, mercantilism, and noblesse oblige dominant in monarchical, state-church-formed cultures.

Other countries' senses of themselves are derived from a common history. Winston Churchill once gave vivid evidence to the difference between a national identity rooted in history and one defined by ideology in objecting to a proposal in 1940 to outlaw the anti-war Communist Party. In a speech in the House of Commons, Churchill said that as far as he knew, the Communist Party was composed of Englishmen and he did not fear an Englishman. In Europe, nationality is related to community, and thus one cannot become un-English or un-Swedish. Being an American, however, is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are un-American.

The American Revolution sharply weakened the noblesse oblige, hierarchically rooted, organic community values which had been linked to Tory sentiments, and enormously strengthened the individualistic, egalitarian, and anti-statist ones which had been present in the settler and religious background of the colonies. These values were evident in the twentieth-century fact that, as H. G. Wells pointed out close to ninety years ago, the United States not only has lacked a viable socialist party, but also has never developed a British or European-type Conservative or Tory party. Rather, America has been dominated by pure bourgeois, middle-class individualistic values. As Wells put it: "Essentially America is a middle-class [which has] become a community and so its essential problems are the problems of a modern individualistic society, stark and clear." He enunciated a theory of America as a liberal society, in the classic anti-statist meaning of the term:

It is not difficult to show for example, that the two great political parties in America represent only one English party, the middle-class Liberal party. . . . There are no Tories . . . and no Labor Party. . . . [T]he new world [was left] to the Whigs and Nonconformists and to those less constructive, less logical, more popular and liberating thinkers who became Radicals in England, and Jeffersonians and then Democrats in America. All Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another. . . . The liberalism of the eighteenth century was essentially the rebellion . . . against the monarchical and aristocratic state--against hereditary privilege, against restrictions on bargains. Its spirit was essentially anarchistic--the antithesis of Socialism. It was anti-State.


In dealing with national characteristics it is important to recognize that comparative evaluations are never absolutes, that they always are made in terms of more or less. The statement that the United States is an egalitarian society obviously does not imply that all Americans are equal in any way that can be defined. This proposition usually means (regardless of which aspect is under consideration--social relations, status, mobility, etc.) that the United States is more egalitarian than Europe.

Comparative judgments affect all generalizations about societies. This is such an obvious, commonsensical truism that it seems almost foolish to enunciate it. I only do so because statements about America or other countries are frequently challenged on the ground that they are not absolutely true. Generalizations may invert when the unit of comparison changes. For example, Canada looks different when compared to the United States than when contrasted with Britain. Figuratively, on a scale of 0 to 100, with the United States close to 0 on a given trait and Britain at 100, Canada would fall around 30. Thus, when Canada is evaluated by reference to the United States, it appears as more elitist, law-abiding, and statist, but when considering the variations between Canada and Britain, Canada looks more anti-statist, violent, and egalitarian.

The notion of "American exceptionalism" became widely applied in the context of efforts to account for the weakness of working-class radicalism in the United States. The major question subsumed in the concept became why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party. That riddle has bedeviled socialist theorists since the late nineteenth century. Friedrich Engels tried to answer it in the last decade of his life. The German socialist and sociologist Werner Sombart dealt with it in a major book published in his native language in 1906, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? As we have seen, H. G. Wells, then a Fabian, also addressed the issue that year in The Future in America. Both Lenin and Trotsky were deeply concerned because the logic of Marxism, the proposition expressed by Marx in Das Kapital that "the more developed country shows the less developed the image of their future," implied to Marxists prior to the Russian Revolution that the United States would be the first socialist country."

Since some object to an attempt to explain a negative, a vacancy, the query may of course be reversed to ask why has America been the most classically liberal polity in the world from its founding to the present? Although the United States remains the wealthiest large industrialized nation, it devotes less of its income to welfare and the state is less involved in the economy than is true for other developed countries. It not only does not have a viable, class-conscious, radical political movement, but its trade unions, which have long been weaker than those of almost all other industrialized countries, have been steadily declining since the mid-1950s. These issues are covered more extensively in chapter Three. An emphasis on American uniqueness raises the obvious question of the nature of the differences. There is a large literature dating back to at least the eighteenth century which attempts to specify the special character of the United States politically and socially. One of the most interesting, often overlooked, is Edmund Burke's speech to the House of Commons proposing reconciliation with the colonies, in which he sought to explain to his fellow members what the revolutionary Americans were like. He noted that they were different culturally, that they were not simply transplanted Englishmen. He particularly stressed the unique character of American religion. J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, in his book Letters from an American Farmer, written in the late eighteenth century, explicitly raised the question, "What is an American?" He emphasized that Americans behaved differently in their social relations, were much more egalitarian than other nationalities, that their"dictionary" was "short in words of dignity, and names of honor," that is, in terms through which the lower strata expressed their subservience to the higher. Tocqueville, who observed egalitarianism in a similar fashion, also stressed individualism, as distinct from the emphasis on "group ties" which marked Europe.

These commentaries have been followed by a myriad--thousands upon thousands--of books and articles by foreign travelers. The overwhelming majority are by educated Europeans. Such writings are fruitful because they are comparative; those who wrote them emphasized cross-national variations in behavior and institutions. Tocqueville's Democracy, of course, is the best known. As we have seen, he noted that he never wrote anything about the United States without thinking of France. As he put it, in speaking of his need to contrast the same institutions and behavior in both countries, "without comparisons to make, the mind doesn't know how to proceed." Harriet Martineau, an English contemporary, also wrote a first-rate comparative book on America. Friedrich Engels and Max Weber were among the contributors to the literature. There is a fairly systematic and similar logic in many of these discussions. Beyond the analysis of variations between the United States and Europe, various other comparisons have been fruitful. In previous writings, I have suggested that one of the best ways to specify and distinguish American traits is by contrast with Canada. There is a considerable comparative North American literature, written almost entirely by Canadians. They have a great advantage over Americans since, while very few of the latter study their northern neighbor, it is impossible to be a literate Canadian without knowing almost as much, if not more, as most Americans about the United States. Almost every Canadian work on a given subject (the city, religion, the family, trade unions, etc.) contains a great deal about the United States. Many Canadians seek to explain their own country by dealing with differences or similarities south of the border. Specifying and analyzing variations among the predominantly English-speaking countries--Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States--is also useful precisely because the differences among them generally are smaller than between each and non-Anglophonic societies. have tried to analyze these variations in The First New Nation. The logic of studying societies which have major aspects in common was also followed by Louis Hartz in treating the overseas settler societies--United States, Canada, Latin America, Australia, and South Africa--as units for comparison. Fruitful comparisons have been made between Latin America and Anglophonic North America, which shed light on each.

Some Latin Americans have argued that there are major common elements in the Americas which show up in comparisons with Europe. Fernando Cardoso, a distinguished sociologist and now president of Brazil, once told me that he and his friends (who were activists in the underground left in the early 1960s) consciously decided not to found a socialist party as the military dictatorship was breaking down. They formed a populist party because, as they read the evidence, class-conscious socialism does not appeal in the Americas. With the exceptions of Chile and Canada (to a limited extent), major New World left parties from Argentina to the United States have been populist. Cardoso suggested that consciousness of social class is less salient throughout most of the Americas than in postfeudal Europe. However, I do not want to take on the issue of how exceptional the Americas are; dealing with the United States is more than enough.


The United States is viewed by many as the great conservative society, but it may also be seen as the most classically liberal polity in the developed world. To understand the exceptional nature of American politics, it is necessary to recognize, with H. G. Wells, that conservatism, as defined outside of the United States, is particularly weak in this country. Conservatism in Europe and Canada, derived from the historic alliance of church and government, is associated with the emergence of the welfare state. The two names most identified with it are Bismarck and Disraeli. Both were leaders of the conservatives (Tories) in their countries. They represented the rural and aristocratic elements, sectors which disdained capitalism, disliked the bourgeoisie, and rejected materialistic values. Their politics reflected the values of noblesse oblige, the obligation of the leaders of society and the economy to protect the less fortunate.

The semantic confusion about liberalism in America arises because both early and latter-day Americans never adopted the term to describe the unique American polity. The reason is simple. The American system of government existed long before the word "liberal" emerged in Napoleonic Spain and was subsequently accepted as referring to a particular party in mid-nineteenth-century England, as distinct from the Tory or Conservative Party. What Europeans have called "liberalism," Americans refer to as "conservatism": a deeply anti-statist doctrine emphasizing the virtues of laissez-faire. Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman, the two current names most frequently linked with this ideology, define conservatism in America. And as Friedrich Hayek, its most important European exponent noted, it includes the rejection of aristocracy, social class hierarchy, and an established state church. As recently as the April and June 1987 issues of the British magazine Encounter, two leading trans-Atlantic conservative intellectuals, Max Beloff (Lord Beloff) and Irving Kristol, debated the use of titles. Kristol argued that Britain "is soured by a set of very thin, but tenacious, aristocratic pretensions . . . [which] foreclose opportunities and repress a spirit of equality that has yet to find its full expression. . . ." This situation fuels many of the frustrations that make "British life . . . so cheerless, so abounding in ressentiment." Like Tocqueville, he holds up "social equality" as making"other inequalities tolerable in modern democracy." Beloff, a Tory, contended that what threatens conservatism in Britain "is not its remaining links with the aristocratic tradition, but its alleged indifference to some of the abuses of capitalism. It is not the Dukes who lose us votes, but the 'malefactors of great wealth. . . .'" He wondered "why Mr. Kristol believes himself to be a 'conservative,' " since he is "as incapable as most Americans of being a conservative in any profound sense." Lord Beloff concluded that "Conservatism must have a 'Tory' element or it is only the old 'Manchester School,' " i.e., liberal.

Canada's most distinguished conservative intellectual, George Grant, emphasized in his Lament for a Nation that "Americans who call themselves 'Conservatives' have the right to that title only in a particular sense. In fact, they are old-fashioned liberals. . . . Their concentration on freedom from governmental interference has more to do with nineteenth century liberalism than with traditional conservatism, which asserts the right of the community to restrain freedom in the name of the common good." Grant bemoaned the fact that American conservatism, with its stress on the virtues of competition and links to business ideology, focuses on the rights of individuals and ignores communal rights and obligations. He noted that there has been no place in the American political philosophy "for the organic conservatism that predates the age of progress. Indeed, the United States is the only society on earth that has no traditions from before the age of progress." The recent efforts, led by Amitai Etzioni, to create a "communitarian" movement are an attempt to transport Toryism to America. British and German Tories have recognized the link and have shown considerable interest in Etzioni's ideas. Still, it must be recognized that American politics have changed. The 1930s produced a qualitative difference. As Richard Hofstadter wrote, this period brought a "social democratic tinge" to the United States for the first time in its history. The Great Depression produced a strong emphasis on planning, on the welfare state, on the role of the government as a major regulatory actor. An earlier upswing in statist sentiment occurred immediately prior to World War 1, as evidenced by the significant support for the largely Republican Progressive movement led by Robert LaFollette and Theodore Roosevelt and the increasing strength (up to a high of 6% of the national vote in 1912) for the Socialist Party. They failed to change the political system. Grant McConnell explains the failure of the Progressive movement as stemming from "the pervasive and latent ambiguity in the movement" about confronting American anti-statist values. "Power as it exists was antagonistic to democracy, but how was it to be curbed without the erection of superior power?"

Prior to the 1930s, the American trade union movement was also in its majority anti-statist. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was syndicalist, believed in more union, not more state power, and was anti-socialist. Its predominant leader for forty years, Samuel Gompers, once said when asked about his politics, that he guessed he was three quarters of an anarchist. And he was right. Europeans and others who perceived the Gompers-led AFL as a conservative organization because it opposed the socialists were wrong. The AFL was an extremely militant organization, which engaged in violence and had a high strike rate. It was not conservative, but rather a militant anti-statist group. The United States also had a revolutionary trade union movement, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW, like the AFL, was not socialist. It was explicitly anarchist, or rather, anarcho-syndicalist. The revived American radical movement of the 1960s, the so-called New Left, was also not socialist. While not doctrinally anarchist, it was much closer to anarchism and the IWW in its ideology and organizational structure than to the Socialists or Communists.

The New Deal, which owed much to the Progressive movement, was not socialist either. Franklin Roosevelt clearly wanted to maintain a capitalist economy. In running for president in 1932, he criticized Herbert Hoover and the Republicans for deficit financing and expanding the economic role of the government, which they had done in order to deal with the Depression. But his New Deal, also rising out of the need to confront the massive economic downsizing, drastically increased the statist strain in American politics, while furthering public support for trade unions. The new labor movement which arose concomitantly, the Committee for (later Congress of) Industrial Organization (CIO), unlike the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was virtually social democratic in its orientation. In fact, socialists and communists played important roles in the movement. The CIO was much more politically active than the older Federation and helped to press the Democrats to the left. The Depression led to a kind of moderate "Europeanization" of American politics, as well as of its labor organizations. Class factors became more important in differentiating party support. The conservatives, increasingly concentrated among the Republicans, remained anti-statist and laissez-faire, but many of them grew willing to accommodate an activist role for the state.

This pattern, however, gradually inverted after World War 11 as a result of long-term prosperity. The United States, like other parts of the developed world, experienced what some have called an economic miracle. The period from 1945 to the 1980s was characterized by considerable growth (mainly before the mid-1970s), an absence of major economic downswings, higher rates of social mobility both on a mass level and into the elites, and a tremendous expansion of higher educational systems--from a few million to 11 or 12 million going to colleges and universities--which fostered that mobility. America did particularly well economically, leading Europe and Japan by a considerable margin in terms of new job creation. A consequence of these developments was a refurbishing of the classical liberal ideology, that is, American conservatism. The class tensions produced by the Depression lessened, reflected in the decline of the labor movement and lower correlations between class position and voting choices. And the members of the small (by comparative standards) American labor movement are today significantly less favorable to government action than European unionists. Fewer than half of American union members are in favor of the government providing a decent standard of living for the unemployed, as compared with 69 percent of West German, 72 percent of British, and 73 percent of Italian unionists.33 Even before Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, the United States had a lower rate of taxation, a less developed welfare state, and many fewer government-owned industries than other industrialized nations.

© 1996 Seymour M. Lipset

[Sep 15, 2008] Bacevich: How Reagan helped ruin America - Crunchy Con

Sep 15, 2008

... Andrew Bacevich, writing in The American Conservative (the piece is excerpted from his new book), explores how the bottomless American ... - 51k - Cached - Similar pages

[Sep 11, 2008] Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a retired Army colonel, discusses his new book

REPENT ye! cries Andrew Bacevich. With the fervour of the prophet Jeremiah, but with more wit, he denounces the profligacy of modern America. If there is one word that defines the identity of what the republic has become, he says, echoing a later prophet, Saul Bellow, it is "more".

Mr Bacevich's strongly felt and elegantly written book is indeed a jeremiad. He claims that the constitution has been perverted by the expansion of the presidency and by national security, at the expense of Congress. Concluding that America's military power "turns out to be quite limited", he argues that the country "doesn't need a bigger army. It needs a smaller-that is, more modest-foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers on missions that are consistent with their capabilities."

This might sound as though his was a shrill voice of the left. It is not. Mr Bacevich is a former colonel in the American army who is now a professor of international relations and history at Boston University. But he does share much of the left's analysis of what has gone wrong. This includes both its dislike of what he calls (quoting the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) the "most grievous temptations to self-adulation" brought about by American exceptionalism, and its perception that America has long been accumulating an empire. But he comes to these conclusions from the position of a genuine conservative.

He expresses his judgments, some grumpy, some anguished, in sharp, epigrammatic language. "A grand bazaar", he writes, "provides an inadequate basis upon which to erect a vast empire." Americans have recast the Jeffersonian trinity-life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness-to read: "Whoever dies with the most toys wins"; "Shop till you drop"; and "If it feels good, do it."

"Citizens", he remarks with justice, "yearn for a restoration of a mythical Old Republic. Yet one might as well hope for the revival of the family farm or for physicians to resume making house calls." Beginning with the election of John Kennedy, he writes, "the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure, and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes."

People complain of what Arthur Schlesinger called "the imperial presidency". But this, snorts Mr Bacevich, is "mere posturing". For members of the political class, serving, gaining access to, reporting on, second-guessing or gossiping about the emperor-president (or about those aspiring to succeed him) has become an abiding preoccupation.

He is an acidulous critic of the incumbent administration and its military servants. Yet he does not comfort himself with the idea that the election of a new president would easily change things for the better. "No doubt the race for the presidency matters. It just doesn't matter as much as the media's obsessive coverage suggests."

This is an astringent book and at times, like any Old Testament prophet, its author is too harsh in his demands on mere mortal politicians and generals. It is also painfully clear-sighted and refreshingly uncontaminated by the conventional wisdom of Washington, DC. Listen to Jeremiah again: "My people, saith this prophet, hath been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray."

[Aug 28, 2008] The Empire Strikes Out

... Mr Bacevich's strongly felt and elegantly written book is indeed a ... Mr Bacevich is a former colonel in the American army who is now a ...

[Aug 20, 2008]The Limits of Power: Andrew Bacevich on the End of American Exceptionalism

Andrew Bacevich is a conservative historian who spent twenty-three years serving in the US Army. He also lost his son in Iraq last year. In a new book titled The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Bacevich argues that although many in this country are paying a heavy price for US domestic and foreign policy decisions, millions of Americans simply continue to shop, spend and satisfy their appetite for cheap oil, credit and the promise of freedom at home. Bacevich writes, "As the American appetite for freedom has grown, so too has our penchant for empire." [includes rush transcript]

Andrew Bacevich: The End of Exceptionalism

October 10, 2008

Andrew Bacevich: realism and remorse

Andrew Bacevich incandesces with the rage of a serious professional: with a West Pointer's scorn for political weasels and embarrassment at incompetent generalship; with a citizen's horror at the Long Peace that became the Long War - war today as "a seemingly permanent condition."

He burns with a Nieburhian realist's dread of our imperial self-destruction; with a father's remorse at the loss of his son and namesake on Army duty in Iraq. Representative prat boys in Bacevich's account (and there are many of them) are the "insufferable" Doug Feith, #2 in the Rumsfeld Pentagon who was dubbed by General Tommy Franks "the stupidest fucking guy on the planet," and also the same Tommy Franks, who spun the vulgar celebration of himself as an all-conquering hero in quick wins over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

Click to listen to Chris's conversation with Andrew Bacevich (27 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is the distillation of Andy Bacevich's fury.

It is the single best stab I've read at accounting for the general "meltdown," the political, military, financial, cultural and moral disarray we are still heading into; and amazingly it's a best-seller (7 weeks on the New York Times list, as high as #4 in hardcover non-fiction). The short form of a compact book is this: bullying abroad cannot sustain an orgy of consumption back home. Or conversely, as Bacevich puts it: "A grand bazaar provides an inadequate basis on which to erect a vast empire."

In Bacevich's neat-but-not-too-neat formulation, a single year set the trap we're now in - the twelvemonth between August 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union started to sink, and August 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and dared the US and its allies to undo the deed. American mythmaking spun the first into a war victory, not Russia's internal collapse, and it hyped the second, an overmanned police action, into a world-historical invitation to redesign the Middle East. Thus did hubris gear up for nemesis.

Not the least appealing thing about Andy Bacevich is that his mind is in motion. I first encountered him six years ago, in the week that the Bush Doctrine (written for "the boys in Lubbock," as the president said) foretold an era of unilateral arrogance, pugnacity and preemption. On a panel with Andy before a mass of Boston University freshman, I blurted out the Founders' warning against empire and Jefferson's caution about a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind." My memory is that Andy Bacevich blew me off and argued that the Bush Doctrine was no worse than the Clinton record. He had just published a half-hopeful account of American Empire. We recall that symposium in our conversation the other day:

I may have said 'there is an American Empire; get used to it,' because my own evolving, and there's no question about it, evolving thinking about US foreign policy especially after the Cold War ended, persuaded me that we needed to think in terms of an imperial presence. We need to see that we're imperial, not to brag about it but to recognize the course we had embarked upon and where it had brought us. If you insist, and many people in my conversations and talks insist on this, we're not an empire, we don't have colonies, we're not like Britain, we're not like Rome. In a formal sense you can make that case, you know we don't have colonies that's true, but we are an empire in the most fundamental sense in terms of our expectations, the expanse of our influence, the prerogatives that we insist upon. Now if I said 'we're an empire; get used to it,' I'm guessing what I meant was we're an empire and by recognizing that we're an empire it might be possible for us to manage the empire in ways that the empire will be sustainable. That the empire might at least minimize the moral offenses that it commits. That an empire can be managed in a way to serve the larger interests and purposes of a variety of people. I don't think empires have to be evil and oppressive and stupid. Now the direction that my thinking has evolved since that time 6 years ago is I've become persuaded that at least with this administration that its recklessness, its arrogance, its hubris has been very much at odds with the notion of an empire wisely managed. And the actions of this administration have so squandered American power and influence in the world that they have rapidly accelerated the decline of the American empire. Again, it's not that I'm interested in the empire as such. I am interested in the well-being of the United States of America. And I think this administration has done great damage to our well-being.

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and The Limits of Power in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 30, 2008


'We should ask why incompetent people are entrusted with positions of great responsibility.'

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