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American Exceptionalism: The Baloney and the Glory - Spectator Blogs

31 August 2012

31 August 2012

I’m writing a column about Mitt Romney for tomorrow’s Scotsman so more on him later. Suffice it to say that I thought his speech less impressive than it had to be but that, by the end of the evening, I was more impressed with and by Mitt the Man than I’ve been previously. This was because of the Mormons. Magic underpants and Missouri and all the rest of it be damned, Mitt should talk about his religion more. He may be reluctant to do so and that speaks well of him but this is an election and Mormonism is about the only thing discovered thus far that transforms Romney from battery-powered robot to actual flesh and blood.

Be that as it may, I’ve also written a piece for Foreign Policy about another trope on full, flag-sized, display this week: American exceptionalism.

[A]ssailed by the prospect of becoming, according to the Republican critique of Obama’s administration, more like Europe on the one hand and spooked by the (unavoidable) rise of China on the other, this Republican convention seems steeped in distress. How did it come to this? What caused this crisis in American exceptionalism? What happened to American swagger? Whence this fretfulness? Most of all, perhaps, where is this generation’s new frontier to be found?

Neither political party has a plausible or stirring answer to that question. When George W. Bush suggested in 2004 a manned mission to Mars, the proposal was mocked to death. Rightly so, perhaps, because it was a ploy smacking of desperation and, what’s more, one designed to distract attention from troubling events and setbacks elsewhere.

Recall that, in the Republican millennial primary, Bush had run against John McCain’s “national greatness conservatism.” Bush promised a humble foreign policy and, in general, a modest domestic presidency too. And back then, William Kristol, David Brooks, and other (genuine) neoconservatives considered this a depressingly small vision.

One day in September changed that. Suddenly, America discovered a bigger, grander purpose. The eagle would rise from and soar above the still smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. A fresh battle was joined, and all countries were to choose their side — with us or against us, but no messy middle ground.

Real life proved more complicated. National greatness conservatism had its cause but lacked the means or even, sometimes, the desire to see its mission through. It had a short half-life too; even before Bush won reelection, it was on the wane, pinned down in the Hindu Kush and bogged down in the sands of Mesopotamia.

Even so, Bush’s second inauguration speech was a manifesto for global liberation so sweeping and fanciful that his own State Department quietly backed away from its promises, retreating to a quieter, more nuanced appraisal of the compromises even hegemons must sometimes accept. But as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, a chorus of voices began quietly asking a pair of terrible questions: Is this it? Was it worth it? American foreign policy gave off the stench of failure.

Today, the more a party talks about American exceptionalism, the more one suspects it fears for the future. It reeks of fear — not strength — and like most such boastfulness seems designed to camouflage insecurity. But, after a decade of grinding, attritional warfare in which there’ve been precious few clear-cut victories and with the aftershocks of a calamitous financial crisis still felt, how could it be otherwise? (Never mind that the economic whirlwind was, at least in part, the consequence of American hubris.)

[…] Despite protestations to the contrary from the likes of McCain this week, these are not unusually dangerous times — rising prosperity in other continents is evidence that the American-led world order did its job. Wasn’t part of the enterprise to promote and support the success of American-style capitalism abroad? The American model is unique in its specifics; its general thrust or principles really are more universally useful. Relative decline is not always a bad thing, not least because, for example, the closer China is lashed to global markets, the closer the country is tied to American interests. Chinese prosperity is more of a promise than a threat. In any case, even were this not the case, the American eclipse is still some decades distant.

Whole thing, like, is here. Ninevah and Tyre get a mention too.


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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice view.

  • Augustus

    God help America if Obamy is re-elected. Four years from now the US will be financially, morally and
    spiritually bankrupt. And unfortunately they don’t deserve it.

  • Beefeater

    I am as baffled as Titus, even though I read the whole thing. So you’re with the post-nationalist (“Tory”) Obama, then? He thinks there’s not much to American Exceptionalism either, and his foreign (and domestic) policy is all about helping history – and its totalitarian agents – in cutting the US down to size – probably a size smaller than a Big Society. It is a nuanced policy. Even more than Kerry’s would have been. Enemies are to be treated as allies, extremists as moderates and vice versa.
    By the way, what is Scotland to expect of itself? What is its purpose? What will measure its national success? Will it share England’s place in relative decline? Or start a fresh, but modest, slide of its own? Will Scottish Unexceptionalism be as wry as the English one? And at what point will China give up its empire? As it never carried the white man’s burden, I fear it will never appreciate Kipling. The Judge of Nations is now a UN panel.

  • Baron

    Alex, if you wanted to find out what happened to American swagger you should have talked to David Hockney, he knows, he says the Americans became medicated, you know, the highest usage of prescription drugs, the highest misuse of prescription drugs, and the highest use of illegal drugs, all per capita, it’s bloody impossible to swagger when under the influence of drugs, try it yourrself, you’ll see.

  • Baron

    Alex, if you wanted to find out what happened to American swagger you should have talked to David Hockney, he knows, he says the Americans became medicated, you know, the highest usage of prescription drugs, the highest misuse of prescription drugs, and the highest use of illegal drugs, all per capita, it’s bloody impossible to swagger when under the influence of drugs, try it yourrself, you’ll see.

  • Titus

    Only you, mr massie, could write about American exceptionalism without actually confronting the idea or factual history behind the term. I can never follow your arguments.

  • Austin Barry

    What happened, you ask, to American swagger. Well, paradoxically, it died with the strutting swagger of Obama, a man whose perpetual sneer embodies just about everything unAmerican: fear, cowardice and self-fellation. A total failure.

  • FF42

    Interesting analysis as always. I challenge, though, the idea that Bush was turned from foreign policy dove to hawk by the events of 11 September 2001. Much influenced by his Vice President Cheney, he was planning an invasion of Iraq from the start of his presidency. He may not have mentioned it while campaigning and politicians always pretend that decisions are made at the point of no return. But that doesn’t mean minds weren’t formed already.

    Undoubtedly, 9/11 made the Iraq invasion an easier sell to the American public and the project might hypothetically have ended up in the “problematic” pile if 9/11 hadn’t happened. But I don’t believe that9/11 prompted the invasion. What’s the logic of attacking someone that Osama Bin Laden hated even more than the Americans?

    • Wessex Man

      Well said FF42, I just glad the the great American “Can do” seems to have been canned lately!

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