When a David Gelernter writes a book about the United States as a great religion or a Victor Davis Hanson states in an oddly Marxian vein that history has already proven that America has offered mankind its “last and greatest hope,” one may disagree. But to evince surprise or shock is about as persuasive as saying that one is shocked to discover gambling going on at Rick’s Café. Whether it is a Robert Conquest or a David Frum insisting that Anglo-American democracy is an unprecedented experiment in human history—and one for which neither the historical trajectory and fate of other empires nor skepticism about the moral bona fides of the powerful has much relevance—the conservative case for American Exceptionalism remains both untroubled and largely consistent.
But what of liberals? It is common in American political discourse these days to lament the passing of the golden age of bipartisanship. In his new book, The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America, the columnist Ron Brownstein evokes a vast ideological gulf separating progressives and conservatives (to use two voguish, though somewhat misleading, labels). And on certain domestic policy issues, notably abortion and immigration, Brownstein may be right. But the same can hardly be said about today’s foreign policy debates. For all the hazy evocations of some mythic time when politics halted at the water’s edge, a bipartisan foreign policy is hardly a constant in U.S. history. To the extent that Democrats and Republicans ever shared a monolithic worldview, this was but a function of the particular conditions of the Cold War. It did not exist in America before World War II, and it is hardly surprising that it no longer exists almost two decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire.
But if one looks at the current American foreign policy debate without the expectation that Democrats and Republicans will agree on just about everything, what seems remarkable is the extent to which they do, in fact, agree on just about everything. To be sure, the Chomskian/English department left and the Buchananite right have an altogether different perspective. They view American power either as fundamentally malign, or else as benign but not to be expended other than when vital U.S. national interests, narrowly construed, are at stake. (Chomsky really just turns American Exceptionalism on its head: America the exceptionally evil.) But for the most part, from Barack Obama to—dare one say it?—Richard Cheney, the argument goes undisputed that the world “needs” (that extraordinarily loaded word being the one most commonly employed) American leadership and that, for its part, the U.S. has a “special” (also a loaded word) role to play on the international scene.
Of course, citizens of all great powers, at least those belonging to the dominant classes, have always believed something of this sort, and have convinced themselves that they dominated the world not so much in their own interests but in the interests of humanity. Cecil Rhodes famously insisted that imperialism was “philanthropy plus five percent.” But with the exception of a few ardent defenders of empire—Max Boot and Robert Kaplan being two obvious names that come to mind—and some noisy critics on the far left, 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.
The debate over the Iraq War has occluded the fact that, for the most part, liberals agree wholeheartedly with this proposition. Liberals, no less than conservatives, accept the premise of the virtuousness of U.S. power (no “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” coming from the mouths of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, let alone those advising them, from Samantha Power to Richard Holbrooke.) And by liberals, one refers to people who, in American terms, occupy a space very much to the left of writers like Peter Beinart, whose book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War On Terrorism, is a cri de coeur for the liberalism of Scoop Jackson or John F. Kennedy, before Vietnam ruined everything. Or centers like the Truman Project for National Security or the Web site Democracy Arsenal [sic], whose name may evoke Rooseveltian idealism to those who blog for it, but that would have a rather different resonance to, say, a historically minded Latin American.
To listen to liberals describe what has happened since the Bush administration began to prosecute the “Global War on Terrorism,” one would think that there was a total discontinuity between the policy of this administration and that of its predecessors. As Senator Obama put it in his now celebrated April 2007 speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “We have seen the consequences of a foreign policy based on a flawed ideology, and the belief that tough talk can replace real strength and vision.”
As a candidate generally (and rightly) viewed as being much more critical of the administration’s foreign policy than Senator Clinton has been, Obama presents an interesting case study in the tyranny of small differences. Unlike Clinton, he steadfastly opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning and has not hedged about when and how he will withdraw U.S. forces. His supporters insist that he represents a decisive break with not just the policies of the Bush administration but also with the administration’s worldview. Yet that same Chicago speech reveals that, while Obama may differ with them on rhetoric and particulars, he remains every bit as committed to cementing U.S. hegemony in the world as President Bush or Vice President Cheney.
Indeed, reading that speech, it is impossible not to conclude that had the Iraq War gone well, most liberal Democrats would still be championing it (as, famously, Senators Clinton and John Edwards did). The reason for this, in my view, is not bad faith or (out-of-the-ordinary) hypocrisy on the part of Democrats, but rather that, again, a consensus about the U.S. role in the world unites most of the right and most of the liberal-left in this country, and that this view is grounded in, and would collapse in ruins absent, the theology of American Exceptionalism.
Her record makes it difficult to conclude that Senator Clinton is anything else but a trimmer. Thus, if she mouths Fourth of July bromides about American goodness, the likeliest explanation is that she is merely bowing to conventional expectations of what politicians should say about America. By contrast, and whatever his weaknesses, Senator Obama seems less prone to prepackaged rhetoric. This is what makes his case worthy of note. While his Chicago speech contains a fierce attack on the Bush administration, his account of America’s special mission in the world could have been written by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. The speech has echoes of Bush’s high-Wilsonian second inaugural address—itself a mix of religious and human rights language that, as William Schultz of Amnesty International pointed out at the time, would have been greeted ecstatically by liberals had it been delivered by anyone other than George W. Bush.
Obama begins by telling his audience that “we all know that these are not the best of times for America’s reputation in the world.” He then follows with boilerplate denunciations of the Iraq War, the Bush administration’s bluster, and then with an account of the “disappointment” many people around the world feel about the United States. That said, Obama recounts a series of his trips abroad—to decaying chemical warfare facilities in Ukraine, to Israel-Palestine, to the Darfur border—in the course of which it occurred to him that many if not most of the world’s worst problems could only be solved with America’s help or, using a Biblical phrase that would not have been out of place in one of Gerson’s speeches, the “promise” of American leadership.
From this recognition, Obama tells his audience that he feels confident in rejecting “the notion that the American moment has passed.” That conclusion is one that, after dispassionately toting up the strengths and weaknesses of the various world powers, a hard-boiled realist could also have made. But Obama’s analysis does not reflect his view of America’s power so much as it does his view of the country as, if not quite a religion, then at least a moral cause. The line from “The City on the Hill,” or Benjamin Franklin, who famously said that “the cause of the United States is the cause of humanity,” really could not be clearer. When Obama says that he rejects “the notion that the American moment has passed,” he does so not for reasons of sober assessment but out of faith in America’s special mission. “I dismiss,” he continues, “the cynics who say that this new century cannot be another when, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.”
The Ultimate Good: only in countries convinced that their own particular values are universal values writ small, countries animated by a messianic belief that their nation has a duty to right the world’s wrongs, could a mainstream politician—and one who, in American terms anyway, resides on the left—utter such a phrase. And lest Obama be misunderstood, in the next sentence, he drives his meaning home. “I still believe,” he assures his audience, “that America is the last, best hope of Earth. We just have to show the world that this is so.” Then, turning to Bush, he accuses the incumbent president not of hubris, but rather of not filling properly what Obama calls “the position of leader of the free world.” Naturally, the candidate concludes by saying that he will fill it.
Because of their values, their constitutions, their commitments to human freedom, only two countries have this sense of entitlement that enables them to meddle in the affairs of others on moral grounds. They are France and the United States, and this may account for the skepticism with which each has historically tended to view the other. The difference, of course, is that France is now a mid-sized power, which, unlike Britain, chose Europe when it lost its empire and is increasingly indifferent (above all, after the debacle of Rwanda) even to its historic playgrounds in Africa. In contrast, the United States obviously remains in a position, assuming it musters the political will, to lead the world. Whether advocates of American hegemony, from Michael Mandelbaum and Richard Holbrooke to Condoleeza Rice and John McCain, are correct in their conviction that this is inherently a good thing for the world as well as for the United States (this is what isolationists question, after all) is a different question altogether.
The essential point, however, is that in an era when formal empires have lost their usefulness and in which the discourse, if not the reality, of world politics has become highly moralized, the American conviction that it has a duty to redress the world’s wrongs is what provides the moral warrant for the material side of U.S. hegemony. What Obama’s speech demonstrates is that this conviction is completely bipartisan—in other words, that liberals are just as wedded as conservatives to America’s global mission. When high moralism and a limitless sense of mission combine with hegemonic force, we are talking about more than simply an activist foreign policy.
Lest there be any confusion, American Exceptionalism signifies much more than the idea that the country is unique and unlike other countries. As Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes demonstrate in their book, America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked, many nations, not just the French and the Americans, think themselves exceptional. The difference is that, in the American case, there is a global mission that comes along with, indeed is inseparable from, that sense of being special. To use an obvious example, the Chinese sense of national superiority is widespread. But it would be inconceivable for a Chinese politician to say what Senator Obama did in his Chicago speech, which was that the message the next President of the United States needs to address to the world at large is: “You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now.”
But the emphasis—and here, again, no real gap divides conservatives and liberals—is on moral leadership. Thus, President Bush has argued that the war in Iraq was a demonstration of America’s moral leadership, whereas his liberal opponents claim that Iraq was where the U.S. forfeited its moral leadership. What no one questions is the certainty that we are capable of, indeed accustomed to, exercising such leadership, and, more basically still, that our ideals as a nation entitle us to do so. There is contention as to which American leader is fit to assert it, whether it should be done unilaterally or multilaterally, and how much the opinion of the rest of the world should count. Beyond that, there is absolute consensus.
That liberals belong to this consensus should not be surprising. For the key difference between American Exceptionalism and that which grips other nations may be traced to the deep conviction that America is as much an idea as it is a country. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and someone routinely mentioned as a candidate for one of the top foreign policy jobs in a Clinton or an Obama administration, recently produced a book that neatly sums up this liberal self-understanding. Its title, The Idea that Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World, pretty much encapsulates the argument.
It is not a good book, but it is an emblematic one, and what is most interesting about it is not the standard narrative of progress that Slaughter serves up—U.S. history seen as a steady process of emancipation and enfranchisement, with admittedly the odd setback—but rather the sense that, on the deepest level, America exists far less as a place than as an ideal. That, of course, is what permits American liberals to cling just as fiercely to the idea of American Exceptionalism as conservatives do. If American history is not contingent, but foreordained—we are back to “The City on the Hill,” to America as cause, or, pace Senator Obama, the world’s last best hope—then the idea always trumps the reality, which is as good a definition of liberal idealism as any.
And Slaughter is emphatic on the point. She rejects the imputation that she is an American exceptionalist, but what to make of her claim that “liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith—these are America’s fixed stars”? Slaughter says that is not an evocation of “The City on the Hill,” but it is difficult to see how it can be anything else. Her secular grafting of the old-time progress narrative onto the actual history of the United States only works so long as she touts a self-loving vision of the political and moral essence of the country. Pace Slaughter, we are not like other nations enmeshed in what she calls “The traditional game of the international system.” Instead, we stand for our “values.” This is the purest expression of the traditional liberal idea of American Exceptionalism, and wrapping it in antiseptic sheets of international law and multilaterism does nothing to change that fact, whatever Slaughter may imagine.
The principal way in which the liberal vision of American Exceptionalism can be distinguished from the conservative one is the degree to which it is critical, sometimes harshly critical of American reality. But most liberals remain wedded to the idea, well expounded in Slaughter’s book, that the American ideal will always trump the American reality. This faith, incidentally, is what permits mainstream American liberals to remain mainstream American liberals and not become leftists, given that their analysis of what is wrong with American reality often coincides with that of the left. If one believes, as people like Slaughter or John Ikenberry (who has accused the Bush administration of “stealing” liberal internationalism) do, that American ideals are so transcendent that they can only prevail in the end, then it becomes fairly easy to convince oneself that if a great guy like Barack Obama were president, rather than a coarse Texan like George W. Bush, liberty, democracy, and all the rest would prevail—as, according to Slaughter, they will in the long run anyway.
At its most extreme, this faith—and it is faith in the sense of being a religious rather than a political construct—can lead to the claim, recently made on the Web site Democracy Arsenal by the writer Michael Cohen, that the United States is an “inherently” good country. What Cohen meant was not that the United States always did good things (he was, for example, an early and bitter critic of the war in Iraq), but that its constitution was an inherently good document, and that since the United States in the end was both governed and afforded the means of social transformation by that document, that it was not too much to assert that the U.S. was innately good. As the old joke about Communism goes, “If the facts don’t fit the theory, so much the worse for the facts.”
In fairness, the debate over America’s inherent goodness was not one that Cohen was particularly comfortable with, as he repeated in a number of subsequent posts on the Democracy Arsenal blog. Nonetheless, he refused to back down, and this too is hardly surprising; it is obviously possible to say that there are inherently good ideas. The problem, which neither Slaughter nor Cohen nor, it appears, Senator Obama and the team around him seem to be willing to contend with is that, however much Americans might wish it otherwise, America is not an idea; it is a nation founded on certain ideas. And Slaughter’s interpretation of them differs dramatically from that of, say, The Federalist Society.
Whether Americans, especially American liberals, can live without the idea of being a light to nations is an open question. As a colleague of Cohen’s, Shadi Hamid put it to me only half jokingly: “What’s the point of being an American if we’re not exceptional?” It is a sense many American liberals share, which explains why there was far more continuity between Bush and Clinton than liberals wish to concede and why, assuming Senator Clinton or Senator Obama is elected in 2008, there will be far more continuity between a new Democratic administration and that of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For now, normalcy—the idea that the United States is a nation like any other, with its strengths and weaknesses, virtues and defects, and that there is far too much history in front of us for any sensible person to speak about any nation being the last best hope of humanity—does not stand much chance of appealing to many Americans, left or right. In that sense, at least, politics still stops at the water’s edge.
David Rieff is a journalist and author, most recently, of Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir.