Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Exceptionalism and the Limited Scope of Indispensability

Lobelog

Hillary Clinton gave a speech this week in which American exceptionalism was a major theme. She obviously chose that theme partly because it would appeal to her specific audience (an American Legion convention) and partly because it would enable her to criticize Donald Trump, who has said he doesn’t like the term “American exceptionalism” because people in other countries don’t like to hear it and feel insulted by it. Trump is right about that, although in many other respects he shows he doesn’t have qualms about insulting people in other countries, including the country he briefly visited on Wednesday and has described as a nation of rapists and drug dealers.

America is indeed exceptional in some obvious respects, and there is nothing wrong with Americans reminding themselves of that, as long as they do not stick the concept in the face of non-Americans. It is some of the corollaries that tend to flow in an unthinking fashion from the concept of American exceptionalism that have caused problems. Several such tendencies in American exceptionalist thinking have contributed to bad policy.

One particular common corollary of the notion of exceptionalism that Clinton emphasized in her speech was that of indispensability. “We are the indispensable nation,” she said. “So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead.” As with exceptionalism itself, it certainly is true that the United States is, or at least has been, indispensable in some respects. An example would be the role of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency and of U.S. government debt as an instrument in international finance. The problems come from the tendency—which is implicit in much of the wording of Clinton’s speech—to consider the United States and U.S. leadership as indispensable in addressing all significant problems abroad. But not all problems abroad are U.S. problems, not all such problems are solvable, what solutions there are do not all come from the United States, and in some problems U.S. involvement or leadership is instead counterproductive.

A related and common tendency is to invoke the physical metaphor of a vacuum. “When America fails to lead,” said Clinton, “we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void.” The vacuum metaphor has several problems when applied to foreign policy. It understates or overlooks altogether whatever was present before any outsiders rushed in. It incorrectly assumes a zero-sum or mutual exclusion relationship between the supposedly indispensable superpower and any other players who may be involved.

Clinton talked about values and about how American exceptionalism includes the idea of “America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.” The overlooked question in this kind of rhetoric concerns the conditions in which other nations are, or are not, receptive to the freedom and opportunity being championed. Herewith is an inherent internal tension in American exceptionalist thinking. The more exceptional are the conditions in which American values arose, the less transferable are those values to others. And that is a problem with the corollaries about indispensability and American leadership in addressing problems hither and yon.

Clinton did invoke Lincoln’s concept of the last best hope of Earth and Reagan’s image of a shining city on a hill. The idea of making the American republic the best, and the best example, it can possibly be—so that even a Donald Trump can’t wreck it—is a better way to implement ideas of exceptionalism than to act like an indispensable vacuum-filler.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the more effective U.S. lobbying outfits, aims to ensure that the United States backs Israel regardless of the policies Israel pursues.


Erik Prince, former CEO of the mercenary group Blackwater, continues to sell security services around the world as controversies over his work—including in China and the Middle East, and his alleged involvement in collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia—grow.


Gina Haspel is the first woman to hold the position of director of the CIA, winning her confirmation despite her history of involvement in torture during the Iraq War.


Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) is a pressure group founded in early 2019 that serves as a watchdog and enforcer of Israel’s reputation in the Democratic Party.


Richard Grenell is the U.S. ambassador to Germany for the Donald Trump administration, known for his brusque and confrontational style.


Zalmay Khalilzad is Donald Trump’s special representative to the Afghan peace process, having previously served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq under George W. Bush.


Robert Joseph played a key role in manipulating U.S. intelligence to support the invasion of Iraq and today is a lobbyist for the MEK.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

The Senate on Wednesday passed a measure mandating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Saudi/UAE-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The vote marks the first time since the War Powers Act of 1973 became law that both chambers of Congress have directed the president to withdraw American forces from a conflict.


The Trump administration’s failed “maximum pressure” approach to Iran and North Korea begs the question what the US president’s true objectives are and what options he is left with should the policy ultimately fail.


In the United States, it’s possible to debate any and every policy, domestic and foreign, except for unquestioning support for Israel. That, apparently, is Ilhan Omar’s chief sin.


While Michael Cohen mesmerized the House of Representatives and President Trump resumed his love affair with North Korea’s Kim Jong, one of the most dangerous state-to-state confrontations, centering in Kashmir, began to spiral out of control.


The Trump administration’s irresponsible withdrawal from the landmark Iran nuclear agreement undermined Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and emboldened hardliners who accused him of having been deceived by Washington while negotiating the agreement. However, the Iranian government could use the shock of Zarif’s resignation to push back against hardliners and take charge of both the domestic and foreign affairs of the country while Iran’s foreign opponents should consider the risks of destabilizing the government under the current critical situation.


Europe can play an important role in rebuilding confidence in the non-proliferation regime in the wake of the demise of the INF treaty, including by making it clear to the Trump administration that it wants the United States to refrain from deploying INF-banned missiles in Europe and to consider a NATO-Russian joint declaration on non-first deployment.


The decline in Israel’s appeal to Democrats is directly related to the wider awareness of the country’s increasingly authoritarian nature, its treatment of Palestinians, and its reluctance to take substantive steps toward peace. Pro-Israel liberals face a fundamental paradox trying to reconcile Israel’s illiberalism with their political values.


RightWeb
share