U.S. Intellectual History Blog

More on Obama and American Exceptionalism

After Ray’s last post on Obama and exceptionalism, I’ve been reading some of the commentary around the web. One of the most interesting pieces that I’ve found is by Glenn Greenwald over at Salon.com, who argues that Obama’s speech rested upon an affirmation of American exceptionalism that for all intents and purposes is not that different from the Right’s. He takes particular aim at Bill Kristol, who argued in the Weekly Standard:

“Conservatives seem to believe that American Exceptionalism justifies America doing whatever it wants in the world. By contrast, Obama — at least rhetorically — emphasizes that being exceptional is a standard to meet, not a license for America to capriciously enforce its will upon others. Where conservatives sometimes refuse to acknowledge that there are limits to American power, Obama acknowledged: ‘The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change. Only the people of the region can do that.'”

After granting that there are differences between conservative and liberal versions of the notion of American exceptionalism, Greenwald still worries that the concept has a fatal flaw that tends to dissolve the subtle differences:

“The fact remains that declaring yourself special, superior and/or exceptional — and believing that to be true, and, especially, acting on that belief — has serious consequences. It can (and usually does) mean that the same standards of judgment aren’t applied to your acts as are applied to everyone else’s (when you do X, it’s justified, but when they do, it isn’t). It means that you’re entitled (or obligated) to do things that nobody else is entitled or obligated to do. . . . It means that no matter how many bad things you do in the world, it doesn’t ever reflect on who you are, because you’re inherently exceptional and thus driven by good motives.”


3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Rhetorically, Obama’s speech was straightforward. Third paragraph begins with “For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom.” Throughout the descriptive middle of the speech, the U.S. is always presented as taking action, with other countries joining in, e.g.: “In this effort, the United States has not acted alone. Instead, we have been joined by a strong and growing coalition.”

    Then, as the first major justification, he lists:
    “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. “

    This is American exceptionalism to such a clear extent that it’s really a strange kind of misreading to suggest that it isn’t. I was unable to get through Raymond’s last post on this because he gave so much credence (if only to criticize) Joffe, who seems to want to encourage a more neoconservative line. Sure, there is a different between “We are exceptional, so we should bomb them into rubble” and “We are exceptional, so we should use kinetic military action to bomb them into rubble for freedom.” But both of them start with the same rationale. (And lead to essentially the same actions — but that’s a discussion that we can’t even engage in until people can agree on this one.) If what you’re talking about is the rationale, then yes, it’s the same.

  2. I just wanted to add a note that I had meant to add to Ray’s last post, but that is also relevant here (and that was an unarticulated side issue in my post on “exceptionalism” as a conservative shibboleth).

    I’m fascinated by how much “American exceptionalism” is now generally used to describe a characteristic of America acting abroad.

    The origins of the term in Marxist polemics concerned a notion of a domestic American Sonderweg.

    The conservative uses of the term that I discussed tend to focus on foreign policy and grew out of a self-conscious rejection of multilateralism that was a major campaign theme of the Republicans in 2000.

    What’s interesting to me, however, is that even in its non-shibboleth-y uses, “exceptionalism” now tends to concern foreign policy. And as far as I can tell, the term was rarely used this way before 2000.

    Just to be clear, plenty of people have believed in the uniqueness of America’s place in the world in the past (see, for example, Woodrow Wilson’s “The Ideals of America” (1902)). They just didn’t use the word “exceptionalism” to characterize these views.

    I don’t find it surprising that people think this about the United States. I do find it surprising that people suddenly began labeling these views “American exceptionalism,” when for the first eighty or so years of the word’s existence it was used to mean something rather different.

  3. Yet again, an interesting discussion.

    Ben, when I read Kagan and Kristol from the late 1990s, it seemed that they made a conscious effort to project the idea of American exceptionalism as something connected to American action abroad–in other words, they seemed to understand they had changed what the term had meant. Kagan in particular wrote quite a bit about the exceptional moment for the US to become an exceptional empire and usher in an exceptional moment in history.

    A few years ago, David Rieff wrote a brief and punchy essay arguing that there is a theology of American exceptionalism that simply assumed a link between American domestic and international policies: http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/articles/2008-Winter/full-without-exception.html

    Rieff contends: “The American consensus has always been and remains that we are not an empire in any traditional sense, but rather the last best hope of humanity—which, coincidentally or not, also happens to be the most powerful nation in the world. And if one counts oneself the last best hope of humanity, and one possesses extraordinary power, what seems immoral is not a propensity to use that power but rather a propensity to conserve it.”

    But also see the book that Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes wrote entitled, America Against the World in which they argue, based on poll data, that “the American public doesn’t want an empire predicated upon American values… Americans don’t want to save the world or convert it. Their default position, however, is to ignore the world, not to want to reconfigure it.”

    See a good interview with them here: http://www.carnegiecouncil.org/resources/transcripts/5437.html/:pf_printable

    Frankly, when writing about this stuff, I have our colleague David’s argument in mind that there is no such thing as American exceptionalism or a moral civil religion in the abstract, just as there is no such thing as religious freedom in abstract; these terms are created over time and through a variety of means–sometimes through laws, other times through presidential speeches and wars. Thus I also found very useful Ben’s historical discussion of exceptionalism’s evolution when I was looking at the transition from Reagan to Clinton to the neocons to Bush. They all assumed different default definitions of American exceptionalism for reasons that were, of course, sensitive to constraints and political needs.

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