Special providence

Cathal Kelly, formerly a sport columnist in the Toronto Star but now writing in the Globe and Mail, has penned a really quite nasty piece about Donal Trump. Normally I would rather enjoy it, but this one tries to make the case that Mr Trump is, more or less, just an exemplar for most Americans, suggesting that they (most Americans) are also racists, clueless bullies, isolationist and buffoons, which is a notion I totally reject.

But Mr Kelly gets one thing right when he says, “Mr. Trump’s meagre genius is in identifying the wedge – exceptionalism and isolationism – that separates the losers from the winners, especially when the country has been weakened by foreign wars and domestic financial crises … [and] … When was America last great? Like Moscow pensioners rallying for Stalin, it’s not clear his supporters have any hard idea of exactly what it is they remember as being so great. You suspect that “great” has become a byword for “stable.

That’s it, I think. Mr Trump and President Putin are very much alike …


… and they are both playing to a similarly disillusioned audience …

…that wants, for lack of a better word, respect. The problem, for America, is that Hillary Clinton is playing politics with same hopes and fears.

Exceptionalism is a notion that the American political scientist  Walter Russell Mead explained in a very Book Cover largeimportant book called “Special Providence, American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World,“(2001) which deals, at length, with the idea of American exceptionalism. The basic premise  of exceptionalism is not new … the Romans certainly believed that they were exceptional, ditto the 8th century Franks, the Chinese, for millennia, and the 19th century British. What is slightly different, in my opinion, is that many Americans seem to believe in the idea of American exceptionalism in a way that I think most Romans, Chinese, Franks and even the most jingoistic Brits would find strangely naive … the notion of a “special providence” that makes America exceptional is almost religious. It is also, in my view, very, very dangerous because I am absolutely certain that the Americans 71rGTDDfklLare no more exceptional than the Chinese are or than the Brits, Germans, French, Spanish, Japanese and Dutch were. Anyone considering the case for special providence or exceptionalism for America or China or Russia needs to also read Prof Paul Kennedy’s equally important book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000” (1987) and then project that notion both backwards and forwards.

The big problem, for me, with exceptionalism is that it can push foreign policy into either of two directions:

  1. Constructively, towards international engagement; or
  2. Destructively, towards isolationism (with periodic, and generally harmful  outbursts of “intervention”).

(The 19th century Brits may have found a “third way” with splendid isolation.)

Isolationism was, of course, the other thing that jumped out at me from Mr Kelly’s article.

Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were both exemplary models of the constructive engagement type. They used American power to make the world safer and, thereby, made American safer too. Presidents Clinton, Bush (43) and Obama were/are all, in my opinion, destructive isolationist types: they want to disengage but, at the same time, to lash out when it is politically expedient to do so. I believe the first two made America more powerful ~ in fact as with Britain in the 1830s, I believe that America in the late 1940s and into the 1950s reached the zenith of its power ~ while, starting with John F Kennedy, I believe that most presidents (Nixon being the exception) have been at least mildly destructive isolationist, in keeping, I suspect, with the general mood of the country.

I think that isolationism is a fairly natural response to a dangerous world … I think that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, is an instinctive isolationist, as were, I believe, the great 19th century British prime ministers Disraeli and Gladstone. But there is, as Gladstone and Disraeli demonstrated, a sort of constructive isolationism in which a country, 19th century Britain, while being an avid, even aggressive free trader, adopts a, generally “hands off” policy towards other power, great and small. Contrast that with the destructive isolationism of Bush (41), Clinton, Bush (43), and Obama from the 1980s though to the present. America, it seems to me, displays the worst aspects of both protectionism and isolationism even as Americans seem to expect us to respect them for their exceptionalism.

I think you can see quite clearly that I oppose both protectionism and destructive (greedy) isolationism and I do not believe for an instant in exceptionalism ~ not for America, and for any other country ~ either. Thus, I think Donald Trump would be a bad choice for US president but not, I am sad to say, any worse the Hillary Clinton. But I remain optimistic that, sooner or later, the American people will stop dreaming of “special providence” and of “making American great, again” and will get on with the business of making an already great country even better … just not, I fear, in 2016.


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