Friday, January 04, 2019

American Exceptionalism Is a Dangerous Myth

As I have noted before, the myth of American exceptionalism is something that annoys me to no end and which continually prevents the United States from engaging in much needed soul searching about both its own history and what motivates foreign policy even today.  As lengthy a piece in New York Magazine notes, Donald Trump is revealing the self-centered ugliness of much of America's approach to other nations and his opponents need to not be blinded to the fact that self-interest and financial motivations have generally always been behind even America's altruistic policies. The Marshall Plan which helped rebuild Europe after WWII also ushered in a golden age of American manufacturing throough its reestablishment of markets for American companies.  As we go forward and the so-called Resistance tries to counter Trump's blatant selfish - and short sighted policies - and support the ideals of liberal democracies, they need to not be blinded to the reality of America's motivations, both past and present.  I don't say this to bash the United States but simply argue for recognizing reality.  Here are article highlights:
Donald Trump has done more to elevate the left’s critique of U.S. foreign policy than any politician in modern memory.
. . . . . [Trump] as a presidential candidate,. . . . .told Republican primary audiences that George W. Bush had lied the United States into Iraq; that said war had done a “tremendous disservice to humanity”; and that America could have saved countless lives by investing $5 trillion in domestic infrastructure instead. As commander-in-chief, Trump has suggested that there is no moral distinction between the U.S. and other great powers; that American foreign policy in the Middle East is largely dictated by the interests of arms manufacturers; and that the U.S. judges foreign regimes by their utility to American economic interests, not their commitment to human rights.
But if Trump’s descriptions of geopolitics echo Noam Chomsky, his prescriptions owe more to Attila the Hun. The president does see the invasion of Iraq as a criminal waste — but only because the U.S. failed to expropriate the region’s oil fields. He does imply that, in the eyes of the American state, Raytheon’s profits count more than journalists’ lives —but he sees that as a good thing. And when Trump suggests our country isn’t “so innocent,” he isn’t imploring neoconservatives to hold America to higher moral standards, but rather, to hold foreign autocrats to lower ones.
In other words, the Trump presidency can be read as an object lesson in the virtues of hypocrisy. Having a global hegemon that preaches human rights — while propping up dictators and incinerating schoolchildren — is bad. But having one that does those things while preaching nihilism is worse; not least because even a nominal commitment to liberal values can function as a constraint against their violation. Trump’s distaste for the whole “shining city on a hill” shtick has, among other things, enabled the Pentagon to tolerate higher levels of civilian casualties in the Middle East, the Israeli government to accelerate settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, and the Saudi crown prince to take a bonesaw to international law.
It’s understandable, then, that many liberal intellectuals are eager to revive the national myths that Trump has busted. . . . . that compulsion is unfortunate; because it will be difficult for liberals to realize their vision for America’s exceptional future, if they refuse to grapple with its unexceptional past.
In the current issue of The Atlantic, former Hillary Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan presents one of the more compelling cases for making America exceptional again. Against Dick Cheney’s arrogant, unilateralist approach to world leadership — and Trump’s nihilistic disavowal of America’s international obligations — Sullivan offers a call for restoring the U.S. to its former role as a benevolent hegemon, one whose global supremacy is legitimated by its demonstrable commitment to spreading peace, democracy, and shared prosperity.
Crucially, Sullivan recognizes that this restoration is contingent on sweeping reform. He acknowledges that, in recent decades, U.S. foreign policy has often betrayed both its putative ideals and the concrete material interests of ordinary Americans — thereby inviting the cynicism of young idealists, and the xenophobic resentment of aging nationalists. Further, policymakers have habitually overreached militarily, while grossly underinvesting in cybersecurity, diplomacy, foreign aid, and other forms of soft power.
To rectify these errors, Sullivan argues that America should strive to build (and/or fortify) multilateral institutions of global governance; shape its geopolitical strategy around the interests of working people (by, among other things, cracking down on tax havens and international corruption); shift resources away from military pork and toward diplomacy, development, and technology; and exercise more humility when contemplating foreign intervention.
And yet, while Sullivan’s prescriptions for U.S. foreign policy are broadly consistent with those of progressive darlings like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, his description of American grand strategy, pre-Trump, is as delusional as that of the median neoconservative.
Sullivan argues that the case for American leadership rests on the existence of American exceptionalism, which he defines as “the idea that the United States has a set of characteristics that gives it a unique capacity and responsibility to help make the world a better place.”
[T]he notion that the world’s wealthiest nation has an obligation to concern itself with the well-being of global humanity is self-evident. But whether America has proven itself uniquely qualified for this task is less clear.
Sullivan is no arrogant Chenyite; he acknowledges that the “story” of American exceptionalism is “incomplete.” There have always been “the mistakes, the complexities, the imperfections — things like covert regime change across Latin America, support for brutal dictators, the invasion of Iraq, and the tragedies (despite the best of intentions) of Somalia and Libya.”
In lieu of an explanation for how a great power uniquely committed to republican values came to organize so many authoritarian coups against republics, Sullivan offers a single quote from Reinhold Niebuhr: “Hypocrisy and pretension are the inevitable concomitants of the engagement between morals and politics.”
This is a means of evasion, not an argument. And it is utterly insufficient for countering the copious evidence disputing Sullivan’s narrative. For one thing, if Trump introduced zero-sum thinking into American grand strategy in 2016, how does one account for George Kennan’s authorship of the following quote, in a State Department “policy planning” document, circa 1948?
[W]e have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming . . . .
The history of American foreign policy over the past seven. decades has been more consistent with Kennan’s summation of national purpose than Sullivan’s. More specifically, U.S. foreign policy has more consistently reflected the economic interests of American capital than it has the ideals of republicanism . . . . American exceptionalism is rooted in the improbable notion that the United States is uniquely unbeholden to the logic of power. [O]ur nation’s foreign policies are shaped, above all, by the material interests of those who enjoy the most power over our government. And let’s further stipulate that all American corporations, combined, invest more time and money into trying to influence public policy — and enjoy more intimate access to D.C. policy-makers — than do human-rights activists.
From these (highly plausible) premises, one would expect the U.S. to pursue a foreign policy that prioritizes the interests of corporate America over the promotion of democracy or human rights. Or, put differently: One would conclude that, in its glory days as “leader of the free world,” America’s primary beef with Communism wasn’t that it threatened the civil liberties of Eastern Europeans (or Southeast Asians, or Cubans), but rather, that it threatened the prerogatives of American capitalists.
It is much easier to reconcile the historical record with this theory, than with the opposite one.
Given the choice between supporting democratic governments that threaten the interests of major American corporations and investors — and authoritarian governments that don’t — the U.S. has almost invariably opted for the latter.
Acknowledging this reality does not require one to deny America’s various contributions to global well-being. It doesn’t even (necessarily) refute the notion that America has been a more benevolent hegemon than previous imperial powers. Our nation’s many crimes do not erase the past decades of peace in Europe, or poverty reduction in Asia. That American foreign policy is principally driven by corporate interests is not inconsistent with the idea that it has produced some positive-sum outcomes.
But the fact that American exceptionalism is a myth does have important implications for anyone who wishes to bend reality in its direction. Put simply, if one wishes to reform an institution, it’s best not to begin by wildly misconstruing how it works.
Sullivan’s call for reorienting U.S. foreign policy around the interests of working Americans is constructive. But his failure to recognize America’s unexceptional characteristics jeopardizes that project.
The exceptionalist narrative is most dangerous for the way it implies that assertions of American power on the world stage should be presumed well-intentioned, until proven otherwise. If the consensus view among liberal elites circa 2003 had been that American foreign policy is typically shaped by the mercenary interests of corporations (not least, arms manufacturers), they would likely have treated George W. Bush’s plans for Iraq with less credulity. Instead, in that instance (and many others), liberals championed a just, humanitarian intervention — only to find, to their shock and awe, that those prosecuting the war did not, in fact, have the purest of hearts.
[T]myth of American exceptionalism functions as rationale for the U.S. to subordinate international law to its own enlightened judgment.
Finally, the myth of American exceptionalism might do more to strengthen Trumpism than to undermine it. No small portion of our country’s xenophobia is informed by ubiquitous ignorance of our national sins. If one shares Sullivan’s faith in the beneficence of American global leadership, then it’s easy to conclude that Americans owe little to people in other countries. . . . . American exceptionalism suggests that the entire world owes a debt to the United States. Trumpism suggests the same — and then demands the world pay up.
Donald Trump has rebranded U.S. foreign policy in his image. Which is to say, he has put the ugliest possible face on American empire. For liberals, there is a strong temptation to call this hideous visage a mask; to insist that “this isn’t who we are.”
But it would be more accurate to say that this is who we’ve too often been. This hateful sociopath, immune to all human sentiments save fear and greed, devoid of all principles save a will to power, incapable of seeing the world from anyone’s perspective but his own — this is who we were to the peasants of Vietnam, and to the people of Jacobo Árbenz’s Guatemala, Salvador Allende’s Chile, Mohammad Mosaddegh’s Iran, João Goulart’s Brazil, and so many other fragile republics yearning to breathe free.
Trump’s great gift to the American people is that he has made our government’s ugliest features easier to see — and thus, to change. But if we respond by burying Uncle Sam’s deformities beneath the concealer of American exceptionalism, the change we make won’t even be skin deep.

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