The American: Two Cheers for American Exceptionalism
Originally published in The American.
President Obama rejects American exceptionalism in a manner never before seen in an American commander in chief.
There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of American foreign policy in the post-9/11 era. The failures of the Bush administration’s democracy agenda are manifest, and the contribution of hubris and wishful thinking to its errors should not be underrated. Nevertheless, the latest vogue in reproaches against the exercise of U.S. power suffers from its own muddy-headed rationalizing. Its most conspicuous trait is its assault on American exceptionalism. Under this view, America’s sense of its unique democratic identity and mission is the root cause of the world’s evils. There is reason to believe that this idea, or something like it, has taken hold in the Obama White House.
During a European trip last year, President Obama was asked about his view of American influence in the world. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he said, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Translation: We all cling to our parochial mythologies. No American president ever disowned so openly the singular achievement of the United States, namely, to arrange its national life so that its extraordinary power—military, political, and economic—would promote democratic ideals and institutions.
Critics of American exceptionalism indulge in a propagandistic treatment of U.S. engagement in the world. The late Howard Zinn made historical revisionism a booming business with sales of his popular textbook, A People’s History of the United States. A slightly more sophisticated version of the problem appears in the work of Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army veteran who lost a son in the war in Iraq. His book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, raises important caveats about American materialism and its influence on foreign policy. Yet for all his self-styled “realism,” Bacevich echoes a tired utopian theme: that U.S. foreign policy is a story of thinly disguised militarism, and that its claim to noble, liberating intentions is invalidated by its “penchant for consumption and self-indulgence.”
You have to circumvent a lot of American history to arrive in this sinkhole of self-flagellation. In reality, the most laudable acts of U.S. foreign policy—especially those involving the defense of democracy and human rights—are bound up with a belief in America’s exceptional role on the world stage.
Consider U.S. policy under President Harry Truman at the outset of the Cold War. In the summer of 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, the Soviet army occupied most of Central and Eastern Europe. As Stalin was tightening communism’s grip in the region, where was the United States, the supposedly restless and rapacious hegemon?
American forces were pulling out, leaving a handful of divisions in democratic zones of influence. Despite its decisive victory in Europe, its economic dominance, its overwhelming military advantage, the United States made a choice no other great power ever made in the history of international affairs: It demobilized its occupying armies. “The newspapers are full of the great movements of the American armies out of Europe,” complained British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a note to Truman. “Surely it is vital now to come to an understanding with Russia…before we weaken our armies mortally.”
Sensing American weakness, the Soviet Union launched a blockade of the city of Berlin on June 24, 1948. The Soviets shut down all rail and surface traffic that connected Western Germany with the Allied-controlled zones of the city. Stalin was prepared to starve the Berliners to death.
Truman’s response? Four days into the crisis, he told his cabinet he would not abandon the city. “We are going to stay. Period.” He viewed America’s defense of Berlin as the strategic key to the democratic future of Germany and the rest of Western Europe. As he later put it: “Berlin had become a symbol of America’s—and the West’s—dedication to the cause of freedom.” Truman proposed an airlift, a massive round-the-clock air transport to supply the citizens of West Berlin. Almost no one in his cabinet thought the plan could work. Most believed America should abandon the city to the Soviets.
Truman overruled them. Western pilots started landing almost minute by minute in Berlin, delivering 13,000 tons of food and fuel per day. They kept at it for 320 days. On May 12, 1949, the Soviet Union backed down; Stalin lifted the blockade. No one would accuse the American president of dithering.
President Obama, by contrast, after 94 agonizing days of internal debates, finally agreed with his top generals to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. And yet even as Obama approved the troop increase, he called for their withdrawal to begin in July 2011, a message that confused America’s allies. As distinguished historian Walter Russell Mead recently described it, the deliberation was “a case study in presidential schizophrenia.”
What helps explain the difference in presidential leadership? Truman’s view of American exceptionalism must rank high on the list, along with a thoroughly sober assessment of the global threat to democratic ideals:
At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life … One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
Imperial ambition? Apocalyptic zeal? It was the Truman Doctrine that made possible the Marshall Plan, which rescued Western Europe from economic ruin. It was this view, more or less, that guided America’s foreign policy establishment during the Cold War. This is clear from NSC 68, the national security document that articulated the doctrine of containment. The theme of American exceptionalism is one of its dominant narratives: “In the absence of affirmative decision on our part, the rest of the free world is almost certain to become demoralized,” the authors warned. “Our friends will become more than a liability to us; they can eventually become a positive increment to Soviet power.”
Armed with an identical view of American exceptionalism, Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign in 1980, a year of political tremors in the Soviet Bloc. In August, the communist government in Poland faced a spontaneous workers’ revolution—unheard of in any Marxist country. Led by Lech Walesa, Polish workers of the Solidarity trade union staged a strike and challenged the party’s legitimacy. The Soviets accused them of “provocative behavior” and declared martial law. For months the free world watched to see if the Red Army would roll its tanks across the border. Reagan wrote in his diary at the time: “We can’t let this revolution against Communism fail without our offering a hand. We may never have an opportunity like this in our lifetime.”
When Reagan entered the White House in January 1981, he quickly gave voice to his convictions. He made this prediction: “The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and for the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain Communism, it will transcend Communism … It will dismiss [Communism] as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
Liberals howled. Sovietologists such as Stephen Cohen denounced Reagan’s abandonment of détente as “a pathological rather than a healthy response to the Soviet Union.” America’s misdeeds were on the same scale as those of the Soviets, many argued, and we had no business lecturing them about their “internal” affairs.
Reagan rejected this debased view of American democracy, and his beliefs made all the difference. He could discern Soviet weakness. He openly identified the United States with the democratic revolt in the communist world, beginning with Poland. On December 23, 1981, Reagan addressed the American people about the growing crisis: “For a thousand years, Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people. They have been betrayed by their own government.” The president then asked all Americans to light a candle in support of freedom in Poland.
It was a potent symbolic act, and it helped make the Polish struggle America’s struggle. Reagan went beyond symbolism, however, and worked behind the scenes—with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II—to aggressively support the Solidarity movement. It would not be long before Solidarity toppled the communist regime in Poland, the first crack in the Iron Curtain. Reagan had sensed the deep vulnerability of Soviet communism at a crisis moment—and exploited it. Make no mistake: The Reagan doctrine was rooted in an unshakable belief in America as the indispensable nation.
And what of Barack Obama? His rejection of American exceptionalism helps explain his floundering policy toward Iran. When tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets last summer to contest a rigged election, Team Obama was determined to avoid even the appearance of “meddling” in Iranian affairs. Then the bloodletting began, as the theocratic thugs in Tehran cracked down on the protestors. Since then, the president has remained mostly mute—even as peaceful demonstrators by the thousands have been arrested, tortured, raped, and executed.
The democracy movement in Iran represents not only the possibility of regime change, but the best hope for keeping the mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet President Obama, lacking confidence in America’s moral leadership, remains a spectator of events. A wiser statesman, upon receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, might have used the moment to identify the cause of Iran’s dissidents with America’s cause. He might have said: “I’m not worthy to receive this honor. But the Iranian people, bleeding and dying on the streets of Tehran for the cause of freedom, are more than worthy. Americans share in their fight against tyranny and extremism. We stand with them in their suffering, and I accept this award on their behalf.”
Of course, the concept of American exceptionalism is not without its problems. The idea lends itself to American arrogance and exploitation. Unchecked by political realism, it can shut down diplomacy and rationalize badly conceived conflicts.
The fact remains, however, that America’s achievements in the cause of freedom owe a large debt to this belief in the exceptional character of its democratic culture. American virtue is always mixed with vices, its noblest aims always tainted by self-interest; such is the nature of human life and human societies. America’s democratic example does not shine like John Winthrop’s biblical “city on a hill”—ever pure, steady, and bright. But it is visible, nonetheless. The great and grievous flaw of America’s critics is to despise this light, to confuse it with darkness. A left-wing blogger expressed their gloomy outlook: “The only city on a hill we resemble today is Mordor!” Here is the cry of the embittered utopian: Let him remain in the sanctuary, where his mischief is contained. Let others, flawed in character yet humane in purpose, do the hard work that only statesmen can do.
Joseph Loconte is a lecturer in politics at The King’s College in New York City and a contributing editor to The American. His most recent book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.