American Exceptionalism: A Bipartisan Consensus?

I realized only today that the scholarly journal World Affairs, which was first published beginning in 1837, was relaunched in January as an entirely new sort of publication. A quick perusal of the winter and spring 2008 issues indicates the journal shows some promise as a place (like, we hope, World Politics Review), where a wide range of opinions and ideas, regardless of ostensible political stripe, have found a home.

One essay that caught my eye was by David Rieff, who, in the guise of a review of both a recent book by Anne-Marie Slaughter and Barack Obama’s April 2007 foreign policy speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs had some interesting things to say about the bipartisan consensus regarding America’s place in the world.

An aside: We here at World Politics Review call our little journal non-partisan, and are dedicated to being so, not because such a thing is a virtue in itself, or because such an editorial stance (believe me) confers any kind of commercial advantage, but because we believe (or at least I believe) that partisanship is — especially at this moment, but likely also in the future — utterly useless for both making sense of international relations and arriving at the best policy prescriptions for U.S. foreign policy.

Rieff’s article inspired these thoughts, for one reason, because its subject is what he sees as the fallacy of great difference among so-called liberals and conservatives on the question of American Exceptionalism. In addition, however, because the history of Rieff’s thinking on U.S. foreign policy going back at least 10 years seems to be itself evidence of the futility of interpreting foreign policy through the guise of traditional political categories.

Anyway, here’s Rieff on American exceptionalism, Cheney, Obama and more:

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 . . .

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.

. . .

The debate over the Iraq War has occluded the fact that, for the most part . . . 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.

. . .

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.