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On Exceptionalism


My WPR column this week is on American Exceptionalism:

Does the United States have a special responsibility to manage international affairs? This question has come to inform much of the debate about the role that the U.S. is currently playing in military operations over Libya. Glenn Greenwald of Salon has argued that the idea that the United States has the right to intervene in the internal politics of other countries has its source in a widespread acceptance of American Exceptionalism, the notion that the United States is different, special and privileged compared to other nations. Writing from a realist perspective, Stephen Walt echoed this claim, arguing that both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists hold exceptionalist views of the U.S. role in the world.

Both Greenwald and Walt suggest that the idea of American Exceptionalism has a destructive effect both on world politics and on U.S. domestic politics, with Greenwald phrasing the question in this way: “Does the U.S. indeed occupy a special place in the world, entitling and even obligating us to undertake actions that no other country is entitled or obligated to undertake? And, if so, what is the source of these entitlements and obligations? Is it merely our superior military power, or is there something else that has vested us with this perch of exceptionalism?”

Four points worthy of slightly longer discussion:

  • American Exceptionalism is, as a phenomenon, wholly unexceptional.  Almost every state or nation has an ideologically charged vision of its own relevance.  More powerful states tend to have the most expansive of such visions.  The French understanding of civilizing mission is an example of this, but there are obviously also Exceptionalist understandings of German, British, Japanese, Russian, Turkish, and Chinese global responsibilities.
  • Anyone who rises to the leadership of a major world power is extremely likely to have internalized some sort of Exceptionalist vision.  Anyone who rises to such a position without having internalized the Exceptionalist vision is  extremely likely to act as if they have internalized such a vision.
  • On the whole, these Exceptionalist understandings of foreign policy roles are probably unhelpful from several angles.  On the one hand, they detract from the rational, realist calculus of foreign policy means and interest that someone like Stephen Walt might prefer.  On the other hand, they tend to grant the presumptive, hypocritical “right of interference” in the affairs of others that so irritates Glenn Greenwald.
  • The case for “aspirational exceptionalism” is complicated, but I think there’s something there.  As I suggested, not all visions of American Exceptionalism are the same, and some (although not the strain most recently dominant) are actually anti-interventionist.  Consequently, I think that it can be worthwhile to try to fight the fight on the ground that Exceptionalists choose, although much care must be taken.  For example, I think that How Would a Patriot Act is most definitely a book that would fit comfortably in the “aspirational exceptionalist” milieu.
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