Obama and the issue of American exceptionalism April 28, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Politics, United States.
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?
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.
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.