End-game for American exceptionalism?Mar 7, 2023
The march to maintain hegemony is pursued with a sense of ‘exceptional America’. But it is now taking place in a world without elbow room. The planet is imperilled. We have to call out folly, not run with it. I cannot see how, without regime change in Washington, trust in high level relations can be restored.
In 2009 President Obama, answering a journalist’s question in Strasburg said:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism…I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognising that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”
He was immediately and vehemently attacked by Republicans for having denied American exceptionalism.
In 2013, asked to comment on the civil war situation in Syria, Obama said:
“…when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our kids safer over the long run, I believe we should act…. That is what makes America different. That is what makes us exceptional.”
The next day the New York Times published an op-ed by President Putin in reply, where he said:
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation…. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Trump agreed with Putin.
In fact the notion of American exceptionalism goes back to the American revolutionary war, begun in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence signed the following year: the notion of the United States as the first free, white, protestant republic, with higher ideals, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, democracy, and laissez-faire economics.
There was some fantasy at work in that thinking then, as now. It had the germ of entitlement to impose values on others; now it’s a generally brutal enthusiasm. In 1823 President Monroe warned European governments not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere. Thus the “Monroe Doctrine”, and from it a growing US effort to impose itself on the Western Hemisphere. Expansionism followed. In some cases to enlighten, in belief of capacity to, and right to, enlighten; in other cases and increasingly, to bend the region to US corporate interests. And beginning when the UN was young, to maintain a control over a major voting block in the General Assembly and beyond. The blind compulsion evident in the maintenance of sanctions over Cuba for over sixty years, the overthrow of various governments either by blunt coup or manipulation of government processes. This 2022 call for papers by a Latin American-German research collaboration on the history of coups in Latin America in the period since 1952 reflects the turbulence of the period, the overturning of democracy and the imposition of violent dictatorships. It all goes on. In Australia we really have no idea, unless we are the refugees from murderous Latin American regimes. This Michigan State University paper surveys the horror and points to American policy creating the refugee flow to the United States.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the exceptionalist projects of the United States have sought to bring exceptional virtue (and control of resources), via power, to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, Venezuela and of course NATO and Ukraine. None of these projects have brought light.
The late great American writer Norman Mailer, in a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, as the Iraq was beginning in 2003, made this astute observation:
“Fascism is more of a natural state than democracy. To assume blithely that we can export democracy into any country we choose can serve paradoxically to encourage more fascism at home and abroad. Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it.”
By contrast, the neo-conservative perspective, now dominant in Washington, has been described by Robert Kagan as:
“…a belief in the rectitude of applying US moralism to the world stage, support for the US to act alone, the promotion of American-style liberty and democracy in other countries, the belief in American hegemony, the confidence in US military power, and a distrust of international institutions.”
According to Kagan, his foreign-policy views are “deeply rooted in American history and widely shared by Americans.” Certainly shared by President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, National Security Advisor Sullivan and Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, wife of Robert Kagan, Surely as mad as Congressman Reuben Davis, slave owner from Mississippi who in 1859 declared of America’s manifest destiny:
“We may expand so as to include the whole world. Mexico, Central America, South America, Cuba, the West India Islands, and even England and France [we] might annex without inconvenience… allowing them with their local Legislatures to regulate their local affairs in their own way. And this, Sir, is the mission of this Republic and its ultimate destiny.”
Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, and Nuland, high in the Obama administration, were involved in the overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine in 2014, which led promptly to war, which continues and has expanded.
Blinken and Sullivan reset the course of US-China relations towards conflict with their hostile and exceptionalist approach to discussion with Chinese leaders in Anchorage in 2021. The exhortations of US military leaders in the IndoPacific to their troops to be ready to “fight tonight” is just folly of dogs of war following their commanders.
The march to maintain hegemony is pursued with a sense of exceptional America, but it is now taking place in a world without elbow room, threatening with military power, no longer against less powerful states but against two near-peer or peer states, both of them nuclear weapon states. By 1970 US planners had calculated how many prompt megadeaths they could deliver in a second strike, following a Soviet attack. The numbers I saw back then were very large. Precise numbers are surely immaterial. The past fifty years were mostly, until recently, focused on deterrence, war avoidance, and pursuit of structures for sane relations between states.
The planet is imperilled. We have to call out folly, not run with it. I cannot see how, without regime change in Washington, trust in high level relations can be restored.
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