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Obama and the issue of American exceptionalism April 28, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Politics, United States.
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John Dickerson mentioned this on the Slate Political Gabfest the week before last, but it’s worth another look. Dickerson pointed to…

Barack Obama’s answer when he was at the NATO conference last week to a question about American exceptionalism… the whole theory [of exceptionalism] is seen as offensive to much of the rest of the world. Obama gave what I thought was quite an impressive answer…

Here’s the piece on YouTube:

And here is the text, available at the very useful White House website:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Ed Luce, from the Financial Times. Where’s Ed — there he is.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. In the context of all the multilateral activity that’s been going on this week — the G20, here at NATO — and your evident enthusiasm for multilateral frameworks, to work through multilateral frameworks, could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy? And if so, would you be able to elaborate on it?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.

It’s certainly an elegant and thoughtful response and one which is a world away from right wing characterisations of Obama as being a man who is merely trekking around the world apologising for past wrongs of the US.

Indeed for a contrast it would be difficult to find a starker one than on the most recent Left, Right & Centre podcast where resident conservative pundit, and often times also a thoughtful individual,Tony Blankley was waxing lyrical about such matters and was sharply brought up by chair Lawrence O’Donnell. Blankley opined that:

I’ll tell you why I can’t embrace [Obama], because he renounced American leadership and dominance in the world, saying it’s no longer FDR and Churchill ruling the world over a glass of brandy… but he conceded on things… the Russian and Chinese negotiations…

To which O’Donnell made the very reasonable interjection,

Well… Tony, can I pause you there for one second? Are you in that reference seriously suggesting that there could be a meeting between the head of state of the United States and the head of state of the United Kingdom [sic] that could address a global issue that there could seriously be a meeting between those two people that could have any import for the world?

Blankley continued:

I do believe that the US does not need to renounce its capacity to lead the world on policy towards freedom. We’ve been doing it since the 1940s, shall we say. We produce the same amount of goods and services today 25% which is why we consume 25% of the worlds energy… that we did at the beginning of WWII… we’re still the leading economy, we’re still the leading military power, we’re still the leading culture in the world… led by an able President…we’re able to provide that kind of leadership…

If you renounce it you’re always going to get cheers from our fractious European cousins who are delighted to share a little bit of the purple.

O’Donnell interjected again..

Just to make sure I’m hearing through this rhetoric. You’re using this ‘renouncing American leadership’ terminology simply because he said this can no longer work in the style of an FDR/Churchill meeting.

Blankley:

But he did renounce it… but also by the actions he took with the Russians and Chinese…

Hmmm… the actual quote from his London press conference is as follows:

Thank you, Mr. President. During the campaign you often spoke of a diminished power and authority of the United States over the last decade. This is your first time in an international summit like this, and I’m wondering what evidence you saw of what you spoke of during the campaign. And specifically, is the declaration of the end of the Washington consensus evidence of the diminished authority that you feared was out there?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, during the campaign I did not say that some of that loss of authority was inevitable. I said it was traced to very specific decisions that the previous administration had made that I believed had lowered our standing in the world. And that wasn’t simply my opinion; that was, it turns out, the opinion of many people around the world.

I would like to think that with my election and the early decisions that we’ve made, that you’re starting to see some restoration of America’s standing in the world. And although, as you know, I always mistrust polls, international polls seem to indicate that you’re seeing people more hopeful about America’s leadership.

Now, we remain the largest economy in the world by a pretty significant margin. We remain the most powerful military on Earth. Our production of culture, our politics, our media still have — I didn’t mean to say that with such scorn, guys — (laughter) — you know I’m teasing — still has enormous influence. And so I do not buy into the notion that America can’t lead in the world. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that we had important things to contribute.

I just think in a world that is as complex as it is, that it is very important for us to be able to forge partnerships as opposed to simply dictating solutions. Just a — just to try to crystallize the example, there’s been a lot of comparison here about Bretton Woods. “Oh, well, last time you saw the entire international architecture being remade.” Well, if there’s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that’s a — that’s an easier negotiation. (Laughter.) But that’s not the world we live in, and it shouldn’t be the world that we live in.

And so that’s not a loss for America; it’s an appreciation that Europe is now rebuilt and a powerhouse. Japan is rebuilt, is a powerhouse. China, India — these are all countries on the move. And that’s good. That means there are millions of people — billions of people — who are working their way out of poverty. And over time, that potentially makes this a much more peaceful world.

And that’s the kind of leadership we need to show — one that helps guide that process of orderly integration without taking our eyes off the fact that it’s only as good as the benefits of individual families, individual children: Is it giving them more opportunity; is it giving them a better life? If we judge ourselves by those standards, then I think America can continue to show leadership for a very long time.

I guess when rhetoric is more important than substance one might find fault in the above. But what, too, of the transcript of Obama’s speech in Strasbourg earlier this month which also seems to say otherwise:

In recent years we’ve allowed our Alliance to drift. I know that there have been honest disagreements over policy, but we also know that there’s something more that has crept into our relationship. In America, there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.

But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what’s bad.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth. They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us both more isolated. They fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth that America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone, but that Europe cannot confront them without America.

There’s a blend there. And in a polity with such a pronounced sense of a national identity and self-worth that at times can overwhelm rational debate for a US President to be attempting to walk between a self-evident pride in his nation (as anyone would) while at the same time acknowledging that the world is not as it was in the 1940s is a difficult task that Obama has set himself. It’s a task that requires nuance and tact… and yeah, just a smidgen of diplomacy. And it’s an entirely necessary task after the chaos of the past eight years. But most importantly in word and deed it is an approach that seems a fair distance away from Blankley’s charge.

There’s no doubt there’s sport to be had in picking apart Obama and his programme, and those of us on the left will not be shy to do so. But the point is to pick it apart as it is, not as some would characterise it incorrectly. And here I think we see a drumbeat of opinion on the right which seeks to paint any decision not merely in the worst light but in an incorrect one. The risible sight of Cheney and Rove seeking government transparency last week, after eight years of their own actions moving the US administration in quite the opposite, should be a salutary lesson in just how opportunistic this environment is becoming.

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Comments»

1. Hugh Green - April 28, 2009

One area where American exceptionalism still applies is current account balance:

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2187rank.html

I would be very surprised if that did not have significant bearing on the inclusive nature of Obama’s rhetoric.

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2. skidmarx - April 28, 2009

Noam Chomsky, interviewed on Resonance FM in London last week, referenced a quote from an Admistration official from the sixties on the subject of the Special Relationship between the US and UK to the effect that the UK is a lieutenant of the US, but they would prefer to use the more fashionable term “partner”, and suggested that the change of language if not neccesarily content under Obama is similar.

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3. Betty - April 28, 2009

Great analysis as ever WbS.

How sad is it that I’m impressed to hear him giving such nuanced, straightforward, and relevant answers to questions he’s asked? Like we were saying a few weeks ago about Jon Stewart – it’s a shame that thoughtfulness should be so surprising.

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4. WorldbyStorm - April 28, 2009

I’d certainly agree that skidmarx language has changed, while surely on many indices the content remains the same. But not quite and I won’t dismiss small victories yet, particularly when we know that language can shape both perception and to some degree thought (which Chomsky would presumably be more aware of than most). Of course the power relations on the planet remain fairly constant, but they’re not immutable and the arrival of a clearly intelligent nuanced person in the White House is cause for at least some slight degree of positivity, just as it would be in any centre of power.

Hugh, that’s a stunning statistic.

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5. CL - April 28, 2009

Certainly Obama has changed the mood music. The ‘shining-city-on-a hill, ‘God-on-our-side’, neo-con, neo-lib, utopian, quasi-religious project of the Republicans for the world has come undone.

But holdovers from the Bush regime are in charge of the U.S. military. His Iraq policy is a continuation of Bush’s and the escalating imperial adventure in Afghanistan is Obama’s own.

Little of substance emerged from the G20 London conference. Obama failed in his major objective, to have a coordinated global response to the economic crisis. But there was a recognition that other players are important, and if viewed not just as an event but as part of an on-going process, that summit may yet be viewed as being important.
The current account figures can be viewed as U.S. strength: the dollar is still the world currency and so can run such huge deficits,-although not indefinitely.
So its probably too early to see any theme in Obama’s foreign policy in the first few months. But the shift to diplomacy is surely welcome.

Domestically there are slight moves towards social democracy, but his economic policy is dominated by Wall St. interests.
The Republicans are clearly a party in decline. The Democrats have won,-just barely-the first election of the Obama era, taking Senator Gillibrands congressional seat in upstate NY, in a heavily republican district. And Senator Specter of Pennsylvania has just announced he’s joining the Democrats.
So in a changing world and a changing America Obama has changed the mood, but its too early to say just what substantive changes might emerge.

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6. steve white - April 28, 2009

er, obama totally ignored the issue at hand,its really about American exceptional exceptionalism. i don’t actually think other countries believe it as much as the Americans or that they should, Ireland is not the greatest nation on earth, nor is america.

its one of greatest failings during the campaign about his wish to lead the freewworld, its gives anyone else the creeps. it bloody scary and obama continues it, its the basis to all the problem with america, its why america gets so much criticism, but they don’t get it.

he still clearly doesn’t think all countries should be involved, what was the g_20_ about
it needs to be rooted out of their schooling as much as Catholicism here

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CL - April 28, 2009

Movement is surely in the right direction
-Two-thirds of Americans now say race relations are generally good, and the percentage of blacks who say so has doubled since last July, according to the latest New York Times/ CBS News poll.-

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/28/us/politics/28poll.html?_r=1

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7. steve white - April 28, 2009

no, its like praising him for his position on torture while he states he won’t prosecute all involved (ie a green light for more torture), over all an utter disgrace.

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8. WorldbyStorm - April 28, 2009

I guess though that given the constraints of US public debate on the issue (and again consider Blankley’s thoughts for whom any shift away from certainty is anathema) Obama went as far as he possibly could. I could also point to the much more constructive discourse as regards engaging with other countries and even being seen to do so on an informal level. Again none of this is a brave new dawn, but neither does it mean nothing.

Taking the torture issue, I’m not sure it is a green light. The alternative interpretation is that it places a marker as to what is acceptable without attempting in a political context that is deeply divided on the issue to generate greater tensions than already exist. The outrage on the right about even the modest steps taken so far is very real and has tangible impacts well beyond the issue of torture.

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9. steve white - April 28, 2009

when did you start taking rightwing outrage as measure of morals and crimes against humanity?

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10. Wednesday - April 29, 2009

obama totally ignored the issue at hand,its really about American exceptional exceptionalism. i don’t actually think other countries believe it as much as the Americans or that they should

They don’t, but it’s interesting how many Americans think that they do. I’ve known a lot of people there for whom “patriotism” essentially equates to “thinking your country is the best in the world”. It’s not necessarily that they objectively consider the US the best country in the world (although obviously many of them do) but they assume everyone thinks that way about their own country, the way parents think their baby is more adorable than everyone else’s. A lot of Americans seem to be genuinely non-plussed to learn that people in most other countries don’t think that way.

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11. WorldbyStorm - April 29, 2009

steve, you’re absolutely right. I don’t. But I do think it’s important to look at the political culture of a nation and see what is achievable and what isn’t. So I think Obama deserves some credit for making statements that while to you and me might appear blindingly self-evident in a context where a large number of people believe precisely the opposite and will actively campaign against him for it. It reminds me of the situation in Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s on divorce, contraception and abortion. The reality was the reality, but the public discourse was one where ‘official’ Ireland took a very distinct line and to critique it let alone to go against it was near anathema particularly in the early 80s (and let’s be honest, it still is in terms of one of those issues today… look at how Libertas are using abortion as a political weapon and all fall into line). That this was, in certain instances the height of hypocrisy on the part of say some within FF leadership circles at the time merely demonstrates how difficult it is to change things, and how important language is in changing those things.

Rightwing outrage doesn’t give their case any greater weight in moral terms, but it is a potent counterweight to even the mildest progressive project (as Obama’s appears to be… ie… mild). In that context fair dues to him for stating the bleeding obvious in an elegant and thoughtful way.

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12. steve white - April 29, 2009

erm i don’t follow you, he deliberately ignored the crux of both issues, when it comes to torture and equally to foreign policy, there isn’t an American standard and then a world standard, you seem to be saying well what he’s doing is OK for an American president. that’s not the standard you apply for these global issues.

you seem to be buying into American exceptionalism.

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13. WorldbyStorm - April 29, 2009

No, I’m not. What I’m suggesting is that, as with any national political context, there are issues that weigh more or less heavily. Exactly the same as I could argue that what Taoiseach X said was good for an Irish Taoiseach. In the US the public and political discourse is completely distorted by concepts of exceptionalism. I’m suggesting on this alone (I haven’t mentioned torture, that’s a completely different issue – but one again where there has been progress) that his comments have been positive in that they’ve tried to reshape that discourse by acknowledging what you or I would regard as a healthy pride in nation while also acknowledging that others feel the same about their nations and with equal justification. Sure, he’s not gone the whole hog, but his language has been positive, it’s a radical break with his predecessor.

He actually didn’t say there was a US standard in terms of morality (indeed he talks about standards and leadership in a way that means assistance), if you look at the text above he argues for partnership, cooperation, alliance. As for his talk about leadership, well, I think even as the world stands today the US remains the single most influential power whatever about the increasing power of other states. That’s not buying into US exceptionalism, it’s facing facts about the distribution of power on the planet. And the way that power has been abused in recent years means that progress, and some has been actually rapid, is a good thing. Sure the guy is willing to treat others with radically different opinions as equals… cf Chavez, note the positive noises on Cuba, etc, etc.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than that which came before. And when we get down to it do we want a return to the previous situation or is it possible we can find some glint of light in the steps being taken?

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14. steve white - April 30, 2009

he didn’t express a healthy pride he expressed american exceptionalism.

he just tried to equate american exceptionalism with other country’s national pride,which we agreed its not equivalent.

american exceptionalism is exceptional, that the point he journalist was trying to make..

less worse then the last president, is still not good enough by anyone standards

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15. WorldbyStorm - April 30, 2009

That’s the whole point…

He said that *all* peoples think that their countries are exceptional. He then pointed out some factual aspects of the situation as regards the size/etc of the US and then argued that gave the US a responsibility. Which it does. Whether that adds up to US exceptionalism is a different issue. I disagree with you that this isn’t ‘good enough’. I think it’s a significant step forward to move exceptionalism from the territory it was on where that was bound up in near religious connotations to something that is (implicitly) synonymous with national pride felt by anyone in any nation in their nation.

And to be honest considerably less worse than the last president is – if not good enough – then certainly better by my standards.

Look, we can spend weeks batting forward and back the various problems about the US that we both agree on. But it seems pointless to do so on an issue where there’s actually movement in the right direction.

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16. CL - April 30, 2009

-We will rebuild a stronger nation, and we will endure as a beacon for all of those weary travelers beyond our shores who still dream that there’s a place where all of this is possible.-President Obama

http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/04/29/obama_100_days_press_conference_transcript_96261.html

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17. WorldbyStorm - May 1, 2009

The thing is whether that crosses a line between the factual, which is that the US *is* a magnet (or beacon) globally in economic terms and on an individual basis to many many for various reasons, to the vainglorious. I think that’s an important question (and my own take is that the rhetoric is less nuanced than the pieces I quote in the original article). But like all these things, even if one accepts that the US is a beacon that doesn’t per se confer an exceptional status in a positive sense, not least as we all know, because some of the reasons why people flock to it are generated as part of the processes of global capitalism, etc, etc.

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18. steve white - May 2, 2009

He said that *all* peoples think that their countries are exceptional.

but they don’t.

its not good enough

its not good enough

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19. yourcousin - May 2, 2009

Steve,
Well I guess the Latvians know their country sucks but beyond that you’d be hard pressed to find me a people who can appreciate their countries place in the scheme of things and rank themselves accordingly.

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20. WorldbyStorm - May 2, 2009

Got to say I disagree steve. I think most people who see themselves as being a specific nationality do tend to think their countries are exceptional. That’s the nature of nationalism. It may not be good enough, lots of stuff isn’, but it seems to me to be something intrinsic to nationalism. I mean, think of French, German, Italian, Spanish, British (or English), Chinese, Russian (to a degree), Japanese, Cuban, Venezuelan, etc, etc. Ireland is a bit different, perhaps due to the nature of our experience under British rule (although there is a strand which has – as anyone who listens to any political speech on this matter will know – tended to argue a sort of exceptionalism about certain aspects of our relationship with other nations, how we understand this or that so much better than others because of that experience). And all national discourses tend big themselves up at the expense of others. Anderson and Hobsbawm have written widely on this as you know.

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21. CL - May 2, 2009

Obama in the quote above is clearly alluding to the verses on the statue of liberty.
‘From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome…
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
In a nation of immigrants this is part of American mythology. Bill O’Dwyer, from Bohola, hod-carrier and mayor of New York city, called his autobiograpy, ‘Beyond the Golden Door’
Yesterday in a drizzly Union Square, huddled masses celebrated Mayday, among them Chinese and Mexican workers calling for immigration reform, and yearning to breathe free.
Obama has said that he’s going to go ahead with immigration reform. No doubt he will again invoke this powerful imagery to see off attacks from the anti-immigrant rightwing.

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