Republican Exceptionalism? Or What Happened to the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment?
Welcome back! This is the first in our annual series of “Applying Political Science” posts. In a series of weekly posts, University of the Pacific Political Scientists will demonstrate how the tools of political science–concepts, analytical approaches, theories, etc.) can help us explain and understand current affairs. It being campaign season, you can expect a number of posts regarding the 2012 elections. You will also see discussions of a wide range of non-election matters.
My primary interest in political science is International Relations and, specifically, foreign policy. In not particular order, here are a few observations about a particularly interesting aspect of the current presidential campaign.
American Exeptionalism. More years ago than I care to remember I published a book called Consensus and the American Mission. It was an effort to see how various strains of American Exceptionalism had affected U.S. foreign policy during different periods of the Cold War. Back then the phrase “American Exceptionalism” was not used very much in academic discussions and not at all in public rhetoric. But these days, it seems that everybody is an American Exceptionalist. Madeline Albright, a Clinton secretary of state, and President Obama have both called the US the “indispensable nation.”
The Republicans, though, seem to have decided that American Exceptionalism is their foreign policy brand. In a recent interview, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered that Governor Romney’s foreign policy advantage over President Obama is that Romney “would understand American Exceptionalism.” In fact, the platform adopted by the Republican National Convention last week simply calls its section of foreign and national security policy “American Exceptionalism.”
We are the party of peace through strength. Professing American exceptionalism – the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history – we proudly associate ourselves with those Americans of all political stripes who, more than three decades ago in a world as dangerous as today’s, came together to advance the cause of freedom. Repudiating the folly of an amateur foreign policy and defying a worldwide Marxist advance, they announced their strategy in the timeless slogan we repeat today: peace through strength – an enduring peace based on freedom and the will to defend it, and American democratic values and the will to promote them. While the twentieth century was undeniably an American century – with strong leadership, adherence to the principles of freedom and democracy our Founders’ enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and a continued reliance on Divine Providence – the twenty-first century will be one of American greatness as well.
It is never a good thing-on any position of the political spectrum–to allow a slogan to substitute for careful thought. So, here are a few things to think about regarding American Exceptionalism and US foreign policy.
The major analytical approaches in International Relations generally don’t have much use for exceptionalist ideas. Realists like Stephen M. Walt tend to regard American Exceptionalism as a myth and a dangerous, self-deluding one at that. For realists, all states use power to pursue their interests in a competitive world. An ideology like American Exceptionalism–the belief that the US is a uniquely virtuous country with a special mission in the world–is likely to lead to imprudent and probably dangerous behavior in the world. Liberals conclude that it may be necessary for “an indispensable nation” to step up in order to provide critical international public goods. On the other hand, no nation is likely to be THE indispensable nation forever or in every situation. Exceptionalist rhetoric may coincidentally lead the US to step us in crucial situations, but it could also ironically lead the US away from providing the “best shot” to providing international public goods. Indeed, there is a whiff of desperation in the insistence on American Exceptionalism. Assuming that the US cannot maintain its recent hegemonic position in world affairs, crowing about our exceptionalism seems more like denial, and an unfortunate putting off of thinking seriously about US strategy in world where US power is not supreme.
In addition, like many slogans “American Exceptionalism” conceals a vital debate about what, if anything, is exceptional about the US. Is it the political economy of relatively unregulated capitalism? Is it a stride toward freedom in the working out of democratic political institutions? Is it the rule of law and the realization of equal rights under law? Is it an apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil? Is it the preservation of the essence of Western Civilization? All of these have their roots in the US experience and US culture. But there are obvious tensions among these versions of American exceptionalism. To allow “American Exceptionalism” to be treated as a simple slogan would be to risk instituting the version favored by whoever can shout loudest. That would shut down necessary critical voices.
As is so often true, clear thinking is not the result of simplistic slogans.
For more on the death of the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment, check this space later in the semester.
- The GOP’s Insipid American Exceptionalism (cato-at-liberty.org)
- Despite fights about its merits, idea of American exceptionalism a powerful force through history (religion.blogs.cnn.com)
- American Exceptionalism: the view from the Republican peanut gallery (dailymaverick.co.za)
- Amid a campaign of American exceptionalism, reminders of Romney’s international past (washingtonpost.com)
- Matt Welch on How American Exceptionalism Routed Paul-Family Foreign Policy (reason.com)
- Beware the Specter of American Exceptionalism (bobcornwall.com)
- GOP message: ‘We’re more American than you’ (summitcountyvoice.com)
- Ryan’s Missionary Foreign Policy (theamericanconservative.com)
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