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American exceptionalism bulletin, 2010

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[Dec 26, 2010] A Problem with Elephants American Exceptionalism and the Political Right by Adam Hailstone

August 6, 2009 | The Center for Social Leadership

Thursday, After coming across a group of (older generation) Europeans skinny-dipping in a semi-secluded national park pond, my friend thought to himself, "That is why I love Americans."

From our sense of modesty, to the democratic experiment resulting in the U.S. Constitution, all of us have our reasons for feeling patriotic. We have much in the United States, both significant and less so, to be proud of. But as the truism goes "Pride goeth before the fall."

In the case of the American political right, pride is being disguised as "American exceptionalism" - and the fall has already begun.

Some try to attribute the idea of "American exceptionalism" to Alexis de Tocqueville - though he never penned the phrase. The idiom was first created and used by neo-conservative pundits soon after WWII.

It is meant to invoke the idea that America is a blessed nation created by God and (here's the rub) therefore privileged in what actions it can take around the world. Thus, because of our heritage and unique position in world history, we are above the law of nations.

The conservative-leaning Republican Party - and more particularly the neo-con wing of the party - is particularly susceptible to this so-called patriotic concept, which has infected the party with full force.

For example, this summer Matt Lewis, a conservative political Pundit on MSNBC attacked Barack Obama for saying this, and I quote: "Any world order that elevates one nation above another will fall flat." In response Lewis stated:

"I think that goes against the idea of American exceptionalism…most Americans believe that America was gifted by God and is a blessed nation and therefore we are better."

America is a blessed nation, freer and more prosperous than many others, but as a great Nazarene once said, "The first shall be last and the last shall be first."

If Americans see themselves as "better" or above others then we run the risk of following after Alexander's Greece and Ceasar's Rome.

However, that is not to say that American ideals are not great. The idea of America, even the word itself, is synonymous with liberty and freedom.

But the ideal does not make the idealist better than others. To put one nation above any other does not put it under God.

At a recent Republican fundraiser Newt Gingrich said, "I am not a citizen of the world, I think the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous!"

This neo-con campaign to put nationality above humanity does not sit well, particularly with America's younger generations. Like it or not, generations "X" and "Y" have been raised in an increasingly global world.

And though the phrase "global world" seems redundant to some, major international events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tienanman Square, the Iraq wars, Balkan wars, September 11th and major disasters like the Tsunami in Indonesia - to name just some - have forced these generations out of a national-centric worldview.

Combine that with the very-American ethic that "all men are created equal" and subsequently the concept of American exceptionalism clashes with the values of these generations.

Consequently, Republican leadership, like Gingrich, Hannity, and Limbaugh, are increasingly losing ground with people who have a world-centric point of view, especially the younger two generations. Even Ronald Reagan famously said, "I come to you not only as a citizen of America but as a citizen of the world".

To boot, the voting patterns that are being developed now may count the Republican Party out of power for a long time. Some think the recent success of Democrats may be short-lived, but if you look at political trends over the history of the United States these head winds may last for some time.

Let's look at this historically: After the Federalists (one of the original Political Parties in the U.S.) won the first three presidential elections with George Washington and John Adams, the Democrats won the next ten in a row from 1800 to 1840. Then, after twenty years of elections going back and forth, the Republicans (previously the Federalists and then the Whigs) won the subsequent 9 out of 12 presidential elections from 1860 to 1912.

Again after another period of elections going back and forth from Wilson to Hoover the Democrats began to win again, taking the next 8 out of 10 from 1932 to 1968. And again Republicans took hold of power from 1968 to 2008 taking then next 7 out of 10 presidential elections - and they may have been even more dominant if not for the scandals of Richard Nixon's presidency.

Each of these party dominant periods shows that the ascendant party wins at least seventy percent of presidential elections for about forty to fifty years, a period of one to two generations being born. If Democrats have started a new trend in their favor, or if Republicans continue to alienate the younger populace, we will likely see the DNC in power for some time; voted in again and again by generation X and Y.

American exceptionalism - the kind that degenerates into arrogant nationalism and similar in practice to the Divine Right of Kings - is un-American and only creates enemies and mockers the world over. Its purpose is at best to justify whatever actions we want to take around the world, and at worst it is dishonoring our heritage and smacks of jingoism.

All Americans, not just the neo-cons, must reject this thinking. We must take the advice of the proxy American founder, Charles de Montesquieu, who said,
"To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them."


When the balance sheet is in, the apogee of the Democratic Western Empire under American leadership may be set at the 1989-91 period, at the fall of communism and the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The only credible rival of the Democratic Western Empire for worldwide hegemony has disappeared. For those who control the greatest military force, that is the United States, this absence of competition could remove all restraints and open the door to the worst follies. Perhaps in the future, the determining factor in the eventual decline of the Democratic Western Empire will be seen to be this dangerous concentration of power in a single dominant pole, based upon military force, apart from all other nation states.

Over the long term, the political, economic, and military tensions that exist between the American and European poles of the Super Empire are certainly a threat to sustaining the dominant position of Western civilization in the world. Indeed, the United States fears a united Europe that could one day challenge its political and economic dominance. For instance, the euro has the potential to overcome the U.S. dollar as the international medium of exchange of choice for trade and financial transactions. In a context of internationalism and of secured peace, Europe could more easily prosper and extend its influence and could supplant the U.S. as the main world political pole. Conversely, a reversal to international tensions and to wars would play to American military strength and would keep Europe divided and subdued.

The 2003 U.S.-initiated war against Iraq in order to control the Middle East oil spigot can be seen as part of a larger U.S. strategy to influence European economic and political development, the EU being even more dependent than America on imported oil. Indeed, with Europe and Japan being most dependent on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf, it is obvious that whoever controls this region militarily will maintain leverage over oil supplies to the rest of the world for decades to come.

This creates a major dilemma for Europe. Even if its size and advanced development make it strong economically, it remains relatively weak politically and militarily. Indeed, with the United States flexing its hegemonic muscles all over the world, it may be dangerous for Europe to remain indefinitely mired in a state of political and military impotence that prevents it from playing a leadership role in world affairs. It remains that Europe is at the center of Western Civilization and is a model of economic and political integration for all the nation states of the world, in contrast to a monolithic and imperial America.

Therefore, which view of the world-the European multilateral approach or the American unilateral approach-will prevail is bound to profoundly influence the acceptability and the legitimacy of western values and influence in the world. If Paul Kennedy's thesis is founded-that empires regress when they become over-extended and heavily indebted-the unilateral and arrogant actions of the American pole, in accordance with the "Bush Doctrine", are more likely to elicit antagonism in the rest of the world than the European attitude of internationalism, of collaboration and of openness to other civilizations.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the United States has become an empire on its own, with a military presence in 120 countries. It is the country with the world's largest military force, but also with the world's largest debt. Historically, there is no precedent for a country to be both politically dominant and heavily in debt.

Indeed, the cost of American intervention in world affairs is starting to weigh on the U.S. With a foreign trade deficit surpassing $450 billion, and an external current account deficit of $430 billion, in 2002, the United States takes more out of the world economy than it contributes. The current account deficit, in particular, is the reflexion of the net foreign borrowing that the U.S. does each year internationally. These borrowings represent about 5% of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). This is not far from the pivotal 6%, the threshold that has triggered financial crises for other nations. As a consequence, the U.S. has become a heavy net international debtor.

At the end of 2001, the net international debt of the United States, that is, the difference between the value of U.S.-owned assets abroad and foreign-owned assets in the U.S. (including stocks, bonds and direct investments), amounted to $2.3 trillion. And this may have to increase in the future, as the U.S., armed with the myth of empire building, needs an ever expanding army in order to achieve security through imperial expansion and through worldwide imperial involvements.[xvi]

At the same time, the Republican administration of George W. Bush has been insistent in pressing its objective of reducing taxes for the wealthy, and in the face of growing public expenditures, letting the domestic fiscal deficit explode. The twin U.S. deficits, fiscal and external, are a direct consequence of the fiscal choices made by the Bush administration. It is a recipe for disaster, for it means relying on foreign savings to finance the enormous U.S. military expenditures. In 2002, these amounted to $343.2 billion, or 43 percent of all military expenditures carried by all the world's countries. U.S. military expenditures represent 80 percent of the yearly current account deficit that it registers with the rest of the world. [xvii]

In 2003, things got even worse. The Bush administration was truly on a militarist-spending binge. At the 2003 projected level of $400 billion of expenditures for the Pentagon, the United States, with less than 5 percent of the world population, is spending nearly as much on defense as all the rest of the world combined.[xviii] When those investors start selling, especially those from the second largest economy (Japan) and from the third largest (Germany), their sales will drive the U.S. dollar down, and the same can be said of American financial markets (stocks and bonds).

The main victims will be the U.S. dollar and the U.S. economy, when consumers retreat and taxes have to be increased substantially to forestall a debt explosion, at the same time that interest rates will have to rise in order to stop the outflow of capital. The twin deficit is a weakness that will come back to haunt the United States in the future. In 2003, the Bush administration did not suspect the long-term damage it was doing to the U.S. economy and by extension, to the world economy.

Under the contested leadership of the United States, how long will the Democratic Western Empire maintain its dominant world position in the face of other rapidly expanding economies, such as China? As pure speculation, if, as previously noted, the average duration of past empires is 625 years, when applied to the Democratic Western Empire, its decline or its decadence would already be well advanced by 2078.

Of course there is no determinism in this conjecturing. There are always so many unexpected shocks and future events, it is impossible to predict. In fact, in 1918, the German historian Oswald Spengler wrote of the decadence of the West.[xix] If the 625-year megacycle of empires holds true, Spengler will have erred by more than a century and a half!


A dualistic philosophy dividing the world between good and evil principles or regarding matter as intrinsically evil and mind as intrinsically good.

DeMinted Republicans by Paul Krugman

Yes, Republican Exceptionalism is a problem.

"I think part of it is that, in the minds of quite a few, it's a betrayal of a promise. They gave their loyalty to the GOP and the conservative movement in return for the expectation of being part of a permanent ruling party. "

I agree, but I think there is something more fundamental to our culture as a whole-Many, possibly a majority, of Americans still believe that America doesn't have to adhere to the same rules and constraints as the rest of the world. Many still cling to an almost supernatural American exceptionalism: America is God's favored nation, so why should Americans adopt ideas and programs that appear to limit our God-given "personal freedom"? Indeed, to anything else would be a sin, especially because that would emulate the "intellectual" corrupt European countries. This idea can be traced back to the original New England settlers and the Calvinist Scotch-Irish and German settlers of the South and Mid-Atlantic in 17th and 18th Centuries.

So, the seemingly irrational ability of Americans to ignore or forgive the Bush II Administration and GOP for their disasters and hypocrisy while believing the most ridiculous allegations against Clinton, Obama, and even Reagan and Bush I, has much to do with a mis-placed faith in divine predestination. To accept reality would be breaking faith in God.

- David Lentini

The irrational fervor of the right ties in nicely with the construct offered by Prof. Lakoff and others, who offer an explanation for the inability of the "stern father" right to tolerate pluralism, or respect diverse opinion.

The general failure at governance by right-wing ideologues has now set up powerful cognitive dissonance in the true believers (as distinct from mere hypocrites) that some are in full denial (of reality) mode.

- Alan Goldston


Paul, you need to take the inquiry further and ask "Why is it inconceivable that the Republicans could accept someone not of their number in the White House?" It's because they actually, firmly believe that their party and partisans represent an unbroken chain of Americana derived somehow directly from the Founders, who were as in all ways and for all times perfect. Perfect. And that the other party is some sort of European/Marxoid/Statist monstrosity come to upend every single idea(l) of these Founders.

That they believe this is unequivocal.

- Jeffrey Edelman


I think you're giving some of these people the benefit of the doubt. The truth is what's inconceivable to them is that he is black and president at the same time, and many of them have a visceral gut reaction to it. It's pretty scary, actually.

From the questioning of his citizenship, right on through the "palling with terrorists", and Demint's latest comments, there's a visceral dislike for Obama, coupled with a contempt for the I guess stupid public who voted for him.

- Darnell


I was listening to David Brooks describe a Republican Party of Yore, when they were considered the Intelligentsia. He seemed to grieve for that Historic Time. I suppose I must have napped through that acclaimed epoch, or perhaps I was too young; at any rate, it is amazing that the Democrats came together long enough to produce such a worthy candidate and president.

The normal fractious nature of the Democrat Party might be explained by the fact that they think differently among themselves, and this is why good presidential candidates are sometimes lacking.

Yet they Think, and for that, I give them credit. Better, perhaps, to argue among themselves than to assume a party-line stance, which has been both the strength and weakness of the Republican Party.

- Jan Baer


Never start a land war in Asia.

- Meta Kaizen


"Did any U.S. Senators compare the Bush administration to Germany on the eve of World War II? I don't think so."

Um, Dick Durbin said this on the floor of the senate on June 14, 2005, in reference to what happened at Abu Ghraib:

"If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime - Pol Pot or others - that had no concern for human beings," Durbin said. "Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners."

Close enough for me, and nothing that I would disagree with (and no, it's not "different" when we do it, and anyone believes that it is is delusional).

Unfortunately, he was pressured to recant his words, which he regretably did, in a tearful apology that was an embarrassment for him and the Democratic party, and so emblematic of what has become of the party in recent years, a pale shadow of its former fighting self and desperately seeking to be liked, not respected.

Thanks to Democrats such as Durbin –- next in line to become majority leader in case the pathetic Harry Reid steps down or loses reelection -– no one likes OR respects them, and understandably so. They don't fight. They don't stand up for what they claim to be for. They apologize for themselves at every opportunity. They concede points to the GOP that they don't have to, whether out of weakness, or, more likely, because they're beholden to the same corporate and other special interests.

And so far, Obama has been no different, giving the GOP and corporate and special interests way more than they need or deserve. A speech is a speech. Actions are what matter. And until he proves to be able and willing to do whatever it takes to make true health insurance reform happen, including twisting arms in his party, then they will continue to just be speeches.

Oh, wait, I forgot, he's just playing 11 Dimension Chess, and this is just the latest move in his brilliant long-term strategy. Uhuh.

- Kovie


As opposed to Kennedy's "Iraq is Bush's Vietnam"? Perhaps DeMint was just trying to underscore the similarities such as the promise of eliminating unemployment.

Could it be, just maybe, the GOP doesn't like what Obama is doing?

- John McCue


I agree that, overall, the craziness is not because Obama is black. Nevertheless, the birther nonsense is absolutely because he is black. Its a classic case of resorting to psychological euphemism. The fringe wingnuts are thinking they know what real America looks like. It looks like 'Leave it to Beaver.' And maybe on the ear front, Obama shares some characteristics with Eddie, but he doesn't look anything lke a real American. Accordingly, as I read on a Ta-Nehisis Coates blog recently, quoting Kate Stone, "There must be some mistake." Unsavory black and white Yankees couldn't have defeated Texas Confederates at Vicksburg, and this pretender cannot possibly be an American. Unable to admit to their racism, they repress and misdirect it, but it still looks and walks like a duck.

- Russ Bailey


Last night while listening to the talking heads review the President's news conference I thought out loud to my wife that it is a terrible thing when outright lies and gross hyperbole is excused as "politics." What does it say about us that Jim DeMint can see the issue of health care not as something good or bad for our country but something that gives him and his party an advantage against the leader of the other party. This is statesmanship. I recognize that South Carolina is not a boiling pot of intellectual activity (I grew up there and attended the public schools), but Jimbo is an idiot. And while we are at it why aren't these people raising questions about the President's birth place and inciting rebellion guilty of sedition? Freedom of speech is like all rights, it carries responsibility.

- Lambert McLaurin


It seems they've decided there's nothing for them to lose by always being against the other party. They don't want any public services and they want to keep their voters ginned up. Anything other than total opposition could lead to more public services, an appreciation of those public services by their voters, and resulting in a loss of some of those votes. So they will oppose no matter what.

- Bill Gilwood


You offer a very interesting perspective on how to explain the strange reactive behavior from those who did not vote for the winner in November.

There really is an element in that party who were sure they had found a better way to destroy democracy than monitoring and tape recording the DNC's Watergate office. Now even Senator Graham has further shocked them by announcing that Obama won the election and, thereby, gets to nominate someone to the SupCt.

They will keep trying.

- Ron D. White


Agreed, and it is a deliberate calculus to ' de-legitimize ' anyone they don't like, by definition de-legitimizing any policies or positions the person supports and then making it easier to re-write history - e.g., you will never hear the GOP say that Reagan proposed the largest tax increase in history (up until that point) in conjuction with Tip O'Neill.

- robob18


I disagree to some extent. I feel that much of the disrespect, notwithstanding the fact that we simply have many more rude and crude media wannabees these days, is the fact of a Black President. I think "Democrat" goes without saying.

I have felt this tinge of racism surrounding everything, an undercurrent of intolerance and reckless bigotry that seems to be just under the surface. In a way, I wish that it would come to the surface more transparently among the elected Republicans so that we can get it over with and perhaps put 70 Senators and 250 House members in next time.

We certainly have too many unstable people in the media, and not all are economists, particularly in AM radio and on cable television. There is a point at which it becomes dangerous.

- Joseph O'Shaughnessy


Possibly, but I would tend to believe that there's something else at work. Republicans always reach for fear-based arguments, I'm guessing because they're effective, but it's like a drug: the more you utilize it, the stronger it has to be in order to reach the same effect. Hence, the acceptance of increasingly outlandish (not to mention disgraceful) claims.

- K. Reardon


Well, in republican Rome, my preferred historical would be parallel, it all started nicely enough, with long hysterical speeches calling for the destruction of (by then democratic) Carthage (precisely because Carthage had turned democratic, not an example the Roman plutocracy wanted to see, all the more since the Greek City-States had turned democratic too after helping to defeat Macedonia). After a generation of this fierce debate in the Senate, and a few terrible (for the other side) wars overseas, the debate inside the Senate became prone to civil war, and soon blood was flowing in the streets.

What Obama is trying to do, with consummate Machiavellianism, is to turn around the plutocratic tide. Instead of an head-on attack, he often comes from the sides, after letting the enemy charge in a vacuum. If he succeeds, the USA will turn completely politically, and will be on its way into still another version of France, not a bad place to be. And the original political place the USA occupied. And the change will be irreversible.

The plutocracy knows this, that its rule is threatened with extinction, so it is fighting to death. It will stop nowhere.

Patrice Ayme

- Patrice Ayme


Dear Prof. Krugman. Change of status quo involves the media, who can only swing confidently after certifying that public opinion change is solid. None other than H.L. Mencken, the most influential national sage this country ever had, went out of style quickly when he kept criticizing FDR. And yet papers in 1940 were still sniping at him. I guess the feeling was the old man would croak and Republs would be back.

Given Obama's use of his uniqueness rather than party affiliation (a tactic for 1996 or 2004 rather than 2008 or 09) and a mild bunch of Congressional Dems, the media probably, improbably, reads them as anti-W placeholders, the way Carter was an anti-Nixon, keeping it warm for brother Jeb. This is why they give a platform to the crazies. Clinton was in a 3 way race, and Obama is such an improbable coming from behind story - this is what gives the media pause. (Unlike W., who at one point had the Bush Dynasty aura going for him, before we find out he didn't give much credence to Pops)

Nothing that a clear narrative wouldn't fix. Perhaps we will see that later in his term, when they feel they're in the clear. Still, if I were a Dem pol, I would craft one for myself right now. Not so crazy an idea, by the way, and not the first time ideas were forged out of the WH - Manifest Destiny, Abolitionism, Labor Laws, Civil Rights.

- Martin Lazzarini


Dear Professor Krugman,

You may not actually think so, but our elected president's skin color definitely is a problem for most of the elected rejectors of the stimulus and of the unelected official and putative members of the "other" party. The "teabag" movement, openly sponsored by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Network, did not by pure chance coincide in time with the infamous chimpanzee cartoon in the New York Post. These are threads of a sinister and openly racist cloth.

The clear, if unspoken, racial edge to current criticism of our elected president keeps those of us from the 1950s and 1960s on a constant defensive footing, related to his physical survival and with him of our hopes finally for an improved United States of America.


- JP Hamilton


I disagree. As a friend of mine observed last night, Obama has to be an illegal alien for exactly the same reason as 70-some years ago "Roosenvelt" had to be Jewish. The objectification of both as THE OTHER was necessary to explain what would otherwise have been inexplicable, i.e. that the Christian, conservative, white supremacist worldview had/has competitors, and successful ones at that.

- William Timberman

Good Cop, Bad Cop: Obama, Bush and Iraq

June 24, 2009 | charles hugh smith-Weblog and Essays

Exactly what has the Obama administration done that the Bush administration would not have done? Throw even more trillions of dollars at the banking sector? Nope; that is precisely what the Bush administration would have done.

Boost American "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan? Ditto.

Give even more power to a hopelessly opaque, venal, destructive Federal Reserve? Ditto.

Foist off simulacrum reforms of the finance and banking sectors as "real reform"? Ditto.

Maintain the American presence in Iraq, regardless of announced "troop withdrawal deadlines"? Ditto.

Loudly proclaim programs to "save the American homeowner" which end up aiding a mere handful of the millions losing their homes? Ditto.

Announce bailout after bailout, all in the name of "saving jobs" even as it would have been cheaper to simply pay hundreds of thousands of people to stay home or go out and have a good time? How many jobs were saved by giving AIG $150 billion? Some of that money will flow into the gargantuan bonuses of Goldman Sachs employees, but that's also what happened when Bush and Paulson held the reins of power.

The number of jobs created or saved with that $150 billion is miniscule compared to what that money could have funded (say, 100 immense solar-power plants).

Back in April I speculated that perhaps Obama had a secret plan to discredit the investment banker cabal and thus undermine their vast political power and reach: Obama's Secret Plan (April 22, 2009)

Alas, like all hopes for genuine, fundamental reform via the political process, this now seems like a foolish bout of wishful thinking. With the "backstops," guarantees, loans and outright direct investments in the banking sinkhole now totalling $13 trillion (the entire GDP of the nation and 1/3 of its total net worth), there is no way Obama can extricate himself from this deep of a pit except to devalue the dollar, which will have horrific consequences far beyond the banking sinkhole.

Let's consider Iraq--the military/Empire misadventure Obama opposed in the election, an opposition which helped him win the presidency. Yes, a "deadline" of American withdrawal has been announced, but such a timeline was already in the works before Obama was sworn into office. Since U.S. casualties are down in Iraq, the conflict has slipped from the news entirely except for brief coverage of suicide bombs which kill scores of Iraqi civilians (lesser bombs and casualty numbers are simply "noise" that's ignored).

In other words, as far as the general American public is concerned, the war is already over. The only people who still care what goes on in Iraq are the people whose family members are still serving there in the U.S. Armed Forces and various subcontractors with lucrative construction or security contracts.

This seems to suit Obama and the Empire just fine. In fact, it's ideal for both: the American presence slips out to secured bases far from the media limelight and Iraqi civilians, fulfilling the strategic goal of the war from the start: regional dominance.

William PFAFF-Why treat Russia as an enemy

Because of Exceptionalism Russia cannot be treated in a different manner...
Columns : Why treat Russia as an enemy? on 2009/5/27 15:10:00 (355 reads)

Paris, May 26, 2009 – The failure last week of Russian talks with the European Union on the security of energy supplies to Europe is one more occasion for Russian-Western tension. This has sent Europeans on a search for more reliable energy sources, but these are proving expensive and awkward.

Last week's talks, provocatively held in the Russian Far East, in Kahabarovsk near the Chinese frontier (no doubt to make a point about Russia's vast resources and wide choice of collaborators and customers) took place at the same time that a rather pathetic NATO exercise was being ended in Georgia. It was meant presumably as a "warning" to Russia, but a warning of what?

The actual warning has been to NATO, which by violating its own rules contributed to last August's short war between Georgia and Russia. NATO's rules preclude membership for nations with unsettled territorial disputes or unresolved ethnic national claims, of which Georgia has both.

Under pressure from Americans apparently eager to humiliate Russia, the NATO governments were persuaded to offer Georgia eventual membership in the alliance, which Georgia's reckless president Mikheil Saakashvili took as authority to attack and try to seize autonomous South Ossetia, provoking a short and sharp war with Russia last August, which Saakashvili lost. (Ukraine, which also has a profound internal division on cultural and historical lines, was at the same time also offered eventual alliance membership, which has already made trouble, and can be expected to make more in the future.)

Russian-American as well as Russia-NATO relations have been chilly since, unsurprisingly. An excellent and clarifying brief article on U.S. policy towards Russia appears in the current National Interest bi-monthly, by the magazine's publisher, Dimitri K. Simes, and Gary Hart, the former senator and co-chairman (with Chuck Hagel) of the Nixon Center and Harvard Kennedy School's recent bi-partisan commission on relations with Russia, whose report was recently published.

The authors place part of the blame for existing Russian-U.S. tensions with those in the United States who resent the fact that post-Soviet Russia did not immediately remake itself on the model of the United States, and petition to become an American protégé.

Instead, Russia today has a highly imperfect parliamentary and presidential system with an unreliable legal system, media suppression, and rigged elections. Its dual leadership, by the seemingly interchangeable President Dmitri A. Medvedev and Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin, seems to exercise arbitrary power.

The authors ask if this is reason enough for the United States to resist cooperation with Russia on matters that are of strong mutual interest. Their answer clearly is "no." You have to take Russian governments as you find them, if you need to get along with them.

Since Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, possesses nuclear weapons with competitive delivery systems, plus a very great deal of oil and natural gas, and it does or could dominate the ex-Soviet space in Central Asia as well as the Caucasus, and borders the Caspian and Black seas, with access to Iran, it cannot be ignored. Yet Washington has tended to behave towards it in an antagonistic manner while demanding cooperation (which it has often received) on matters of concern to the United States.

The authors ask a further question: "Are we holding the Russians to a higher standard of performance than we do other nations with whom we deal? And if so, why?" The answer is that we are -- notably by continuing to withhold trade benefits from it under the Jackson-Vanik amendment (passed in American law many years ago to force the Soviet Union to make democratic concessions, and to allow Jewish emigration). The Jackson-Vanik restrictions are no longer imposed on China or Vietnam, or Georgia or Ukraine. Why on Russia, which is no more undemocratic than China or Vietnam?

Hart and Simes blame "the dangerous triumphalism that has shaped U.S. international strategy since 1993." This is a problem among "a majority of America's political leaders and its wider foreign-policy elite" who hold "the arrogant yet naïve view that the United States could shape the world order without the consent of the other major powers and without creating a backlash against America and American leadership." They have treated Russia as a "defeated country."

An answer to this criticism has come from John R. Bolton, one of the most belligerent of the Bush administration neo-conservatives and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a body he indicated would better be dismantled with NATO taking its place.

Bolton says that the U.S. under Barack Obama is anxious to give away America's strategic assets to the Russians, in a desire to please its liberal friends and get a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty before Christmas, at the cost of imposing on the U.S. a "dangerously low" level of nuclear warheads, and abandoning the "defense system intended for Poland and the Czech Republic." (It formerly was described in the U.S. as a defense system intended for Americans.)

The basic question is whether the United States wishes to treat Russia as a permanent enemy, if it is not. The result of treating states as enemies is that sooner or later they become one. One might think the United States already has enough enemies.

exceptionalism redux, the obama challenge

November 17th, 2008 In a previous post I pondered that the generic notion of American exceptionalism, the we are better and must export our lifestyle to the world version - is rooted in the deeper sense of our political system being different (or exceptional) from other systems, particularly the European models of democratic socialism. The point of that post was to illustrate how the Bush administration has used the former (generic) sense of exceptionalism to undermine and exploit the (deeper) sense of American exceptionalism. I then questioned, given the results of the recent election, whether the standard appeal of dog whistle exceptionalism may have lost some its shiny luster. Or at least, people have finally come to a tacit understanding of how the appeal of identity politics has been used repeatedly to convince them to vote against their own interests so many times, that they have finally reached the point of no return with regards to those interests . Or, as Janis Joplin would put it, finally reached the point where, literally, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

So, as it might seem. Were exceptionalism not so intrinsic to the American psyche. While the neo-conservative Republicans may have abused the notion of exceptionalism to their own demise, the neo-liberal Democrats, in their new found ascent, are also no less willing, ready, and able to fill the vacuum with cord wood and set alight their own version of it. In many ways the election of Barak Obama is in itself a triumph of American exceptionalism. Because it is in a sense proof, or confirmation that the deeper elements of exceptionalism are indeed still intact, that the American dream of equal opportunity, fairness, and egalitarianism is still operational. And that (after a mere 200 years), a black man can be elected president after all.

However. This should not be such a surprise, because within the exceptionalist arrangement, equal opportunity between the races functions in partnership with individualism. Because America is such a multicultural/racial society the arrangement requires that people act rather as independent individuals, as opposed to members of their specific ethno-cultural heritage. Least the country fall into a mass of competing sectarian interests, the emphasis is redirected into an American first type of nationalist identity, as a stand in for more typical ethno-cultural identity (of other more homogenious national identities).

This would be all well and good were it not for the implications riding on such a fragile foundation. Individuality in the exceptionalist sense, requires the sacrifice and distancing of deeply held and specific ethno-cultural norms that have taken centuries to develop, it also both encourages political apathy and discourages social empathy. In the present climate of economic jeopardy its hard to say what happens when such an arrangement, is faced with the prospects of failing to deliver the promised goods, and the all expectations that go with achieving a better material life. What happens when, or if, Americans wake up to suddenly find themselves on the bottom end of a future less hardened two class structure - while also having lost touch with all their traditional, cultural, safety, and security networks and heritage. In such a scenario the Obama miracle can quickly and easily be reduced into a hollow symbol. If the democrats fail to heed the Republican example, and proceed in undermining the social and economic arrangements of exceptionalism. And neglect shoring up and maintaining those foundations with FDR type programs, chooseing instead to proceed feeding the corporatist giant - American exceptionalism will finally be dead enough to ferment its own, but very unexceptional in the world of such things, popular leftist revolution.

Abandoning Exceptionalism as National Identity

Anna missed muses about the demise of american exceptionalism:

[S]ince the Nixonian era of red-baiting, [..] 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.

American exceptionalism, as anna missed sees it, is build on a few certain specific conditions:

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 [..] which as an end result produces a meritocratic but egalitarian society that highly values individual initiative over statism.

Take those away, as the Republicans did, exceptionalism is a hollow shell and will die.

But exceptionalism as a common identity is a necessity for such a diverse country as the U.S. is. Without exceptionalism it might fall apart in ethnic and social sectarianism.

In a second piece anna missed looks at political implications:

In the present climate of economic jeopardy its hard to say what happens when such an arrangement, is faced with the prospects of failing to deliver the promised goods, and the all expectations that go with achieving a better material life. ...If the democrats fail to heed the Republican example, and proceed in undermining the social and economic arrangements of exceptionalism and neglect shoring up [a]nd maintaining those foundations with FDR type programs, choosing instead to proceed feeding the corporatist giant - American exceptionalism will finally be dead enough to ferment its own, but very unexceptional in the world of such things, popular leftist revolution.

I don't think that a popular leftist revolution would be the inevitable outcome. Some form of authoritarian rule seems more likely to me. Authoritarian rule combined with corporatism is the classic definition of fascism ...

I also wonder if reinstalling American exceptionalism by reviving the egalitarian individualism on which it is based is the way to go and if the democrats should really pursue such an aim at all.

Why not end exceptionalism once and for all?

In a recent book-club event at firedogleg, Andrew Bacevich argued for that:

I've come to believe that American Exceptionalism is the root of all evils. Once you decide that you're God's new Chosen People, self-awareness becomes very difficult.

We need to shed our sense of uniqueness and our sense of entitlement. We need to become a normal nation.

Of course, that's akin to saying that we should abandon our identity - which isn't likely to happen.

Hence, my pessimism.

If the basic agreements that underlie 'the root of all evil' have been eroded, is it really a good idea to, if possible at all, revive them?

Probably not.

But if exceptionalism is a necessity to define and keep the U.S. together as one nation, unless some other common theme can be found, abandoning the 'root of all evil' might well dissolve that nation.

As the USSR has shown such dissolving because of inner contradictions is possible under extreme economic pressure. Ethnographic trends in the south-western U.S. may already point into such a direction.

Posted by b on November 18, 2008 at 08:20 AM | Permalink


Al | Nov 18, 2008 9:03:22 AM | 1

For anyone keen to do some thinking about this style of opinion, among heaps of another literature which is obviously book I'd really like to recommend is: 'Faustian Foreign Policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush: Dreams of Perfectibility', written by Joaan Hoff and published in Leiden by Cambridge University Press, 2007. Really quite an interesting book.

Al | Nov 18, 2008 9:13:04 AM | 2

American Exceptionalism is alive and well, and increasing. The 2008 Democratic platform: RENEWING AMERICA'S PROMISE: The Democratic Party believes that there is no more important priority than renewing American leadership on the world stage.

And to be sure that other countries get the message, the US military ground forces are being increased by 92,000.

Go USA! And when you're running down my country, hoss, you're walking on the fightin' side of me.

Don Bacon | Nov 18, 2008 10:41:08 AM | 4

Hard not to see as Divine Providence when the leading countries of Europe and the World self-destructed in the first half of the XX century, leaving a once higly isolationist United States the single major military, economic and cultural power in the world.

They have managed to hang onto that position for half a century now. It is just America's turn at bat right now, it enjoys a pre-eminent position once held by countries like France in the XVII century, Spain in the XVI, etc. back through the ages.

[Nov 4, 2010] What is American exceptionalism by Ian Tyrrell

November 4, 2010


I suggest you read Godfrey Hodgson´s book "The myth of American Exceptionalism".
More on exceptionalism

In the last year or so, I have done a great deal of work on American exceptionalism in revisiting these arguments I first made some twenty years ago, before the current increased interest in American exceptionalism (a phenomenon that is clearly related to the uneasy state of the nation in regard to its slipping global power position). I have read Hodgson's work in article and conference paper form, and find nothing much that required me to rethink my position. In fact I read it as an endorsement or parallel view in so many ways. If you disagree, you should say explicitly why. Because my recent work is part of a collection aimed at publication in print, I am not in a position to elaborate exactly on how I would extend or revise these views, other than to say that Obama's foray into American exceptionalism and the critique of it has stirred a hornet's nest that shows how criticism of exceptionalism cuts deep into American identity

I am elaborating my position in

The Myth(s) That Refuse to Lie Done and Die: American National Exceptionalism

(Note that this is submitted as part of an essay collection and the full paper is not available at this time for circulation or quoting).

The national "myth" of American Exceptionalism does not rest on one particular creation story or narrative derived from a specific series of events. It is more akin to a cluster of stories that provides buttresses for pseudo-analytical judgments about American national identity.

Because of its composite nature, American Exceptionalism can accommodate much academic research within its flexible contours as well as obtain popular consent, through its series of subsidiary national "myths". This paper historicizes those expressions of the myth of American exceptionalism and shows their continuing relevance to contemporary American debates over the nation's values, traditions, and political practice.

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