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Letter from the Editor: Spring 2008

In the maiden issue of World Affairs, David Rieff, a writer of the center-left, and Andrew Bacevich, a writer (depending on the subject) either of the left or the right, advanced a fairly straightforward proposition—that, allowing for and acknowledging various detours and blunders along the way, “a consensus about the U.S. role in the world unites most of the right and most of the liberal-left in this country,” as Rieff put it, “and this view is grounded in the theology of American Exceptionalism.” In this issue, Robert Kagan, a writer from the center-right, endorses and amplifies the claims of his ideological opposites, noting that the entire discussion “takes place within the narrow parameters of a common paradigm.”

From this shared starting point, however, the two camps end up in very different places. Viewed from the left, American Exceptionalism functions as a sort of ruse, obscuring the truth that America’s raison d’etat and the demands of humanity are at odds with one another. From the right, the view tends to be altogether different: America’s power and ideals, far from being inherently incompatible, work in tandem to further U.S. interests and, also being the expressions of a universal creed, the interests of pretty much everyone else.

But, again, whether one thinks that exceptionalism is a good thing or a bad thing is mostly beside the point. Much more telling is the consensus that unites left and right in frank acknowledgment that public expectations, the constants of American history, the requirements of world order—all of these things mean that U.S. policymakers enjoy far less room to maneuver than their rhetoric would suggest. This, as Kagan makes plain, has been the case for a century, maybe two.

Thus, the post-war axiom that America had power, greatness, and all the rest thrust on it bears up only insofar as one concedes that the accumulation of power, greatness, and all the rest was the point from day one. And that it will be the point for the next administration and the one after that, notwithstanding the wider scope of action implied by, say, Barack Obama. Just ask the long line of presidential candidates who have vowed to “break with the past” only to go on fulfilling it. The architects of American foreign policy may be rational agents, but they operate in predictable and even predetermined ways. Attempts to unshackle themselves from two-centuries worth of iron logic, to devise new “mindsets” that will supplant the American style, really aren't even worth the effort. The narrative does not bend.

— Lawrence F. Kaplan

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