U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The End of American Exceptionalism? No Kidding.

On Monday night, March 28, President Obama defended American intervention in the Libyan civil war. Many pundits had anticipated the president’s remarks as a signal of what might come to be called, the “Obama Doctrine.” The president, though, disappointed those hopes. His speech became noteworthy for what it did not address as much for what it did. For many observers, Obama’s unwillingness to exert leadership over the multi-national force taking on Moammar Gaddafi made his position and that of the United States rather, well, unexceptional. The U.S. was just like any other member of a coalition.

Such action made Josef Joffe, the all-purpose pro-America European pundit, declare an end to American Exceptionalism. Joffe wrote in the New York Times that the Obama Doctrine, if there really is one, offers the world a vision of “America Lite.” “There is nothing wrong with bringing ends in line with means and interest,” Joffe allowed. “It’s the American way — and the way of all great powers. And yet. The Obama doctrine is to Truman et al. like chardonnay to moonshine: pleasing to the palate and easy on the blood, but without punch and power — kind of un-American, isn’t it?”

Is it? Or better, what is American about our understanding of American Exceptionalism?

We have discussed this issue before on this blog and will do so at the 2011 conference. But there was a convergence this past week that made me wonder how many times we will declare the end of American Exceptionalism.


The President delivered his “unexceptionalism” speech the same week as Rolling Stone released a special issue on “The Kill Team.” For those unacquainted with this report, Rolling Stone exposed an official investigation into a particular American army platoon in Afghanistan and the vile campaign of murder some of its soldiers engaged in. These soldiers have been accused on hunting Afghanistan civilians for sport. The photographs and videos posted on Rolling Stone‘s website accompany the story of this crime.

While researching the American relationship to war since 1945–primarily how political and theological leaders led Americans in a debate over how war shapes their relationship to the nation–the role soldiers play in defining what America is has of course changed over time. Not surprisingly, other than the initial burst of euphoria for returning troops following World War II, there had been little effort to glorify the American soldier as a significant representative of American power and ideals.

It seems to me that perception changed most dramatically in mid-1990s. Certainly Reagan talked big about the military, and George H.W. Bush hoped the Gulf War would cleanse the nation and its military of the malaise created by Vietnam. But it was the rise of the third generation of neocons (as Justin Vaisse calls them in his book) that remade the American soldier into the symbol of American Exceptionalism–or in my terms, the medieval Jesuits of a modern American theology of exceptionalism.

In perhaps the most celebrated essay by this third generation of neocons, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” William Kristol and Robert Kagan declared:”There is no more profound responsibility than the defense of the nation and its principles.” Of course, their argument was that Americans had been allowed to forget this understanding, which had led to a general fracturing American-ness, the eruption of the culture wars, and a fading sense of exceptionalism.

Their point was that throughout the 1990s, the American public had been distracted—had been allowed to grow distracted—by the lack of a coherent martial vision. Kagan and Kristol believed that the American military was not some unfortunate appendage of a peace-loving, civic polis, but an essential branch of the American system of ideals. “It is foolish to imagine” they wrote, “that the Untied States can lead the world effectively while the overwhelming majority of the population neither understands nor is involved, in any real way, with its international mission.” They clearly believed that the military stood as the sole institution in American public life that should command universal admiration. Americans needed to be reminded, educated, and trained, Kagan and Kristol claimed, in “military virtues.”

Americans need moral clarity–an activist foreign policy would remoralize America itself. America need war.

I don’t know if Obama reminded Americans that they are not immune to the moral catastrophes of war. Like all other presidents before him, he praised and thanked the military for, yet again, taking on the burdens of war and for doing their jobs with courage. Yet Joffe saw Obama’s speech as cautious, an abdication of America’s “claim to world power and responsibility.” Truly, an activist foreign policy has made America an exceptional nation, but surely we should remember that such activism comes with consequences that can be considered exceptional in ways that are possibly heroic and possibly horrific. If we can claim heroism as American, must we not also claim the horror? This has indeed been a week to end American exceptionalism, again.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Ray. One way to answer your last question will be to compare the amount of virtual ink spilled (we need new figures of speech) debating Obama’s vision of American exceptionalism, and the morality of our role in the world vis a vis Libya, with the amount spilled discussing the Rolling Stone article. Morally, I’d say, we must claim the horror. But practically, we rarely do.

    Further grist for the mill:
    Glenn Greenwald, “Obama and American Exceptionalism”
    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/03/29/exceptionalism/index.html

    and Andrew Sullivan, “Exceptional and Unexceptional America”
    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2011/03/but-is-it-true.html

  2. I wish Jacob Heilbrunn would have gotten more into the *content* of neoconservative ideas in *They Knew They Were Right.* But it’s still a good read. Here’s a good dialog between Heilbrunn and Eli Lake of the late New York Sun:

    http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/9077

    Also, check out Heilbrunn’s review of *Rosenfeld’s Lives,* which is a study of a particular member of 40’s and 50’s bohemia in New York:

    “Should anyone really care about Rosenfeld’s life or lives? One answer is simply that Zipperstein has rescued Rosenfeld from the condescension of posterity. But it’s also the case that the 1940s and 1950s were, I think, the seedbed of current political fights, when the New York intellectuals drifted into hostile camps, particularly in the form of neoconservatism. These feuds have their origins in, and owe their intensity to, the literary and political battles of that era. No recent book that I’ve seen does a more astute job of explicating them than Zipperstein’s fascinating study.”

    http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2009/06/16/this_summers_best_serious_book_1/

  3. Our seeming inability to “claim the horror” may be one reason why there seems to be a general apathy, possibly aversion, toward addressing the Japan nuclear crisis that followed the earthquake and tsunami. With the engagement in Libya you could almost hear a national sigh of relief that we could legitimately turn our attention away from Japan and on the argument whether or not to call Libya another war, etc.

  4. Thanks to you all for your comments.

    One of the easiest criticism of my position is to ask when has any nation taken a moral accounting of its actions or even attempted to do so in a way that would lead to a genuine popular debate.

    A colleague of mine pointed out that in the wake of the Abu Ghraib crimes there was a general election in the US, including the election of the president. According to polls and reports in the press, the public couldn’t have cared less about the larger implications of Abu Ghraib. Even as they began to sour on the war in Iraq, it was difficult to determine exactly what kind of accounting had become apparent.

    Indeed Lydia, there was a perceptible sigh of relief when the photographs no longer appeared on television.

  5. Ray,
    The answer to the “when has any nation…” is found in the truth and reconciliation commissions. I’m just beginning to look into these, but the examples of South Korea, South Africa, and Chile are worth examining. There are obvious differences – in all cases the commissions followed a change in government more substantial than our every-4-years adjustment – but other nations have reckoned with the past. Of course, the biggest difference, is that in the above examples the “crimes” being investigated were perpetrated on the people of the nation. In our case, the victims have always been other (well, ever since the Civil War), and they have no voice.

  6. you could almost hear a national sigh of relief that we could legitimately turn our attention away

    Lydia, it would benefit me (and likely others) if you could speak with “I” statements and support your contentions with evidence of some kind. If by “you” you mean me, then you’re wrong; if by “you” you mean you, well, I have no idea.

    Where do you find evidence of “a general apathy, possibly aversion, toward addressing the Japan nuclear crisis”? Admittedly, I listen to NPR a lot and read only a handful of other media outlets, but I haven’t seen anything I could categorize as “apathy.” If you provided some evidence I would be able to re-calibrate my view, perhaps.

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