American Exceptionalism: 1, 2, 3

A few years ago the American foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead wrote an award 511pA627ySL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_wining book called “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World.” In a review The Economist said that “The idea that the United States is a place apart, guided by some exceptional hand, is a recurring one in American history. Ronald Reagan believed that “some divine plan placed this great continent here between the oceans to be found by people from every corner of the earth who had a special love for freedom.” For Walter Russell Mead, of the Council on Foreign Relations, only some “special providence” can explain the way the “jangling and perpetual jostling and quarrels of our domestic interest-groups work themselves out to mandate [foreign] policies that turn out to be practical.” Better than just practical, in fact: Mr Mead believes that America’s “unique style…has enabled us to become the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world.”

This is ground that I have plowed before, but the crux of Professor Mead’s thesis is that American policy derives from four “schools” rooted in the views of four American statesmen:

  • The Hamiltonian school holds that economic prosperity is necessary for America as a nation and is beneficial for global peace. The Hamiltonians sought to preserve a good relationship with Great Britain, largely for commercial reasons. Since the World War II, their focus has shifted toward promoting international free trade;
  • The Wilsonian school finds satisfying and moral significance in American engagement with the world. Having a New England missionary mindset, Wilsonians promote democracy and peace around the world;
  • The Jeffersonian school is concerned primarily with the preservation of American democracy and civil liberties at home. Jeffersonians want to restrict American engagement abroad to narrowly advance national interests when needed; and
  • The Jacksonian school is similarly isolationist compared to Hamiltonians and Wilsonians, but is more populist than Jeffersonians. The Jacksonians are rooted in American folk culture, and are suspicious of elites and eager to fight in defence of what they see as uniquely American values and culture.

The point of Dr Mead’s book was to explain how American exceptionalism operated, in different periods and under different political regimes,  to protect and promote America’s vital interests in the world ~ to explain different facets of America’s grand strategy, in other words. The best selling book, Special Providence,” (and many important books, including e.g. Samuel Huntington’s controversial “Clash of Civilizations,”) originated as a magazine article ~ in Mead’s case in the Winter 1999/200 issue of The National Interest.

Now, in an article in Foreign Affairs, Professor Charles A. Kupchan of the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government at Georgetown University, adds to our body of understanding of American policy with an article that posits that we are now seeing “American Exceptionalism 3.0” ~ the return of “America First.” He explains that ““America first” is less out of step with U.S. history than meets the eye. Trump is not so much abandoning American exceptionalism as he is tapping into an earlier incarnation of it. Since World War II, the country’s exceptional mission has centered on the idea of a Pax Americana upheld through the vigorous export of U.S. power and values. But before that, American exceptionalism meant insulating the American experiment from foreign threats, shunning international entanglements, spreading democracy through example rather than intrusion, embracing protectionism and fair (not free) trade, and preserving a relatively homogeneous citizenry through racist and anti-immigrant policies. In short, it was about America first.

Professor Kupchan says that “That original version of American exceptionalism—call it American Exceptionalism 1.0—vanished from mainstream politics after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But it retained allure in the heartland and is today making a comeback across the political spectrum as Americans have tired of their nation’s role as the global policeman and grown skeptical of the benefits of globalization and immigration. To be sure, as a grand strategy, “America first” is headed for failure. The United States and the rest of the world have become too interdependent; solving most international challenges requires collective, not unilateral, action; and immigration has already ensured that a homogeneous United States is gone for good … [because] … A brand of exceptionalism dating to the eighteenth century is ill suited to the twenty-first. Still, the contemporary appeal of “America first” and the inward turn it marks reveal that the version of exceptionalism that has guided U.S. grand strategy since the 1940s is also past its prime. Trump’s presidency has exposed the need for a new narrative to steer U.S. foreign policy. The nation’s exceptional mission is far from complete; a world tilting toward illiberalism sorely needs a counterweight of republican ideals. How the United States redefines its exceptional calling will determine whether it is up to the task.

After explaining the origins and operation of “American Exceptionalism 1.0” Charles Kupchan explains that “Under American Exceptionalism 2.0, an aversion to foreign entanglement gave way to a strategy of global engagement. The Cold War set the stage for the country’s core alliances in Europe and Asia, as well as a global network of diplomatic and military outposts. Unilateralism yielded to multilateralism. In 1919 and 1920, the Senate rejected U.S. participation in the League of Nations three times; in 1945, it ratified the UN Charter by a vote of 89 to 2. The United States also assumed a leading role in the panoply of institutions that have undergirded the postwar rules-based international order. And it continued to pursue its messianic mission, but through more intrusive means, from the successful occupations and transformations of Germany and Japan after World War II to the ongoing and less successful forays into Afghanistan and Iraq … [but] … The American dream remained central to this updated version of exceptionalism, but it was to be fulfilled by the factory worker instead of the yeoman farmer. The postwar industrial boom generated bipartisan support for open trade. And especially after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, postwar American exceptionalism lost its racial tinge, replaced by a conviction that the melting pot would successfully integrate a diverse population into one civic nation. Preaching pluralism and tolerance became part of spreading the American way.

Postwar presidents,” Professor Kupcahn says, “through Barack Obama have been staunch defenders of American Exceptionalism 2.0. “The United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” Obama affirmed in a 2012 commencement speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy. But just minutes after taking office, Trump promised something different. “From this moment on,” he proclaimed in his inaugural address, “it’s going to be America first.” 

But if, as Charles Kupchan says, “as a grand strategy, “America first” is headed for failure,” what is the basis of American Exceptionalism 3.0?

Trump’s political success,” he argues, “stems in no small part from his ability to exploit a version of American exceptionalism that resonates with the nation’s history. As the writer Walter Russell Mead has argued, populist foreign policy—what Mead calls a “Jacksonian” approach—has always maintained its appeal in the heartland, Trump’s electoral base. Whether Trump himself actually believes in the exceptional nature of the American experiment is unclear (his illiberal instincts and behavior suggest he may not). Nonetheless, he has proved quite successful at reanimating core elements of American Exceptionalism 1.0.”  But it gets worse, he says: “[President] Trump is disdainful of the activist brand of democracy promotion embraced under American Exceptionalism 2.0. As he explained in that same campaign speech, he sees today’s instability in the Middle East as a direct result of the “dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy.” But Trump does not stop there; indeed, he forsakes even American Exceptionalism 1.0, by showing little patience for republican ideals. He traffics in untruths, denigrates the media, and expresses admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocrats.

But he, Donald Trump is not all wrong: ““America first” helped Trump win the presidency,” Professor Kupchan says, “but as a guiding principle for U.S. foreign policy, it is leading the nation astray. As Trump has already found out, a daunting array of threats makes it impossible for the United States to return to the era of “entangling alliances with none,” as Thomas Jefferson put it. The rules-based international order that the United States erected may limit the country’s room for maneuver, but dismantling it is a recipe for anarchy. In today’s globalized economy, protectionism would worsen, not improve, the plight of the U.S. middle class. And with non-Hispanic whites projected to fall below 50 percent of the population by the middle of this century, there is no going back to Anglo-Saxon America … [but] … the political appeal of “America first” also reveals serious cracks in American Exceptionalism 2.0, which still dominates the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Trump’s success stems not just from his skill at activating traditional elements of American identity but also from his promises to redress legitimate and widespread discontent. The United States has overreached abroad; after all, it was Obama, not Trump, who insisted that “it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” The middle class is hurting badly: stagnant wages, inequality, and socioeconomic segregation have put the American dream out of reach for many. And the nation has yet to arrive at an effective and humane policy for controlling immigration, raising important questions about whether the melting-pot approach remains viable.

“American Exceptionalism 2.0,” Charles Kupchan goes on to say, “is also failing to deliver overseas. With help from the United States, large swaths of Europe, Asia, and the Americas have become democratic, but illiberal alternatives to the American way are more than holding their own. The collective wealth of the West has fallen below 50 percent of global GDP, and an ascendant China is challenging the postwar architecture, meaning that Washington can no longer call the shots in multilateral institutions. It was easy for the United States to advocate a rules-based international order when it was the one writing the rules, but that era has come to an end.  Today, U.S. ideals are no longer backed up by U.S. preponderance, making it harder to spread American values.

With American Exceptionalism 2.0 stumbling and Trump’s effort to revert to the original version not viable,” Professor Kupchan says, “the United States can either abandon its exceptionalist narrative or craft a new one. The former option may seem tempting amid the nation’s political and economic trials, but the costs would be too high. American exceptionalism has helped the country sustain a domestic consensus behind a grand strategy aimed at spreading democracy and the rule of law. With illiberalism on the rise, the globe desperately needs an anchor of republican ideals—a role that only the United States has the power and credentials to fill. Failing to uphold rules-based governance would risk the return of a Hobbesian world, violating not just the United States’ principles but also its interests. Indeed, it is precisely because the world is potentially at a historical inflection point that the United States must reclaim its exceptionalist mantle … [but] … doing so will require adjustments to all five dimensions of the exceptionalist narrative.” These five “adjustments” are his prescription for “American Exceptionalism 3.0:”

  1. For starters, the United States should find the prudent middle ground between the isolationism of American Exceptionalism 1.0 and the overreach that has accompanied Pax Americana. Some scholars have suggested that the United States embrace “offshore balancing,” letting other countries take the lead in keeping the peace in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf, with Washington intervening only in a strategic emergency. But this approach goes too far. The United States’ main problem of late has been shot selection, embroiling itself in unnecessary wars of choice in the strategic periphery—namely, the Middle East—where offshore balancing is indeed the right approach. But in the core strategic theaters of Europe and Asia, a U.S. retreat would only unsettle allies and embolden adversaries, inviting arms races and intensifying rivalries. The United States needs to end its days as the global policeman, but it should remain the arbiter of great-power peace, while emphasizing diplomatic, rather than military, engagement outside core areas.
  2. The United States must also rebalance its alliances and partnerships. Trump is not alone in his antipathy to pacts that, as he said, “tie us up.” Congress has lost its appetite for the treaty-based obligations that laid the foundation for the postwar order. But the United States cannot afford to drift back to unilateralism; only collective action can address many of today’s international challenges, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and climate change. The United States should therefore view itself as the leader of an international posse, defending rules-based institutions when possible and putting together “coalitions of the willing” when only informal cooperation is available.
  3. Although Trump’s diplomacy lacks tact, he is right to insist that U.S. allies shoulder their fair share. The United States should continue catalyzing international teamwork, but Washington must make clear that it will ante up only when its partners do. And in areas where the United States transitions to an offshore-balancing role, it should help organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the African Union become more capable stewards of their respective regions. Washington should also encourage emerging powers such as Brazil, China, India, and South Africa to provide the much-needed public goods of humanitarian assistance, peacekeepers, and development aid.
  4. Although the United States’ messianic mission should remain at the core of its exceptionalist narrative, the country must transition from crusader back to exemplar. Recent efforts at regime change in the Middle East, far from clearing the way for democracy, have unleashed violence and regional instability. Leading by example hardly means giving up on democracy promotion, but it does entail engaging in a world of political diversity and respectfully working with regimes of all types. Still, Americans must always defend universal political and human rights; to do otherwise would be to abandon the ideals that inform the nation’s identity. Trump’s failure on this count is not serving to reclaim an earlier version of American exceptionalism but denigrating it … [and] … Domestic renewal is also essential to restoring faith in the American way both at home and abroad. The United States cannot serve as a global beacon if its electorate is deeply divided and it cannot provide opportunity for many of its citizens. Still, if the United States could recover from the internal discord of the Civil War and the hardship of the Great Depression, it can surely bounce back from today’s malaise. Renewing the American dream—a key step toward overcoming political polarization—requires a realistic plan for restoring upward mobility, not a false promise to bring back an industrial heyday that is gone for good. Manufacturing employment has suffered mainly because of automation, not open trade or immigration. Adjusting the terms of trade can help. But rebuilding the middle class and restoring economic optimism in areas hurt by deindustrialization will also require ambitious plans to better educate and retrain workers, expand broadband Internet access, and promote growth sectors, including renewable energy, health care, and data processing.
  5. Finally, a new version of American exceptionalism must embrace the idea that the United States’ increasingly diverse population will integrate into an evolving national community imbued with the country’s long-standing civic values. As sectarian passions cleave the Middle East, Hindu nationalism unsettles India, and discord over the future of immigration and multiculturalism test European solidarity, the United States must demonstrate unity amid diversity. The melting-pot approach of American Exceptionalism 2.0 is the right one, but sustaining it will require deliberate measures. Reversing socioeconomic segregation and immobility will take heavy investment in public schools and community colleges. Effective border control, a rational approach to legal immigration, and a fair but firm way to deal with undocumented immigrants would assure Americans that diversity is the product of design, not disorder. Fluency in English is critical to helping newcomers enter the mainstream. And national service and other programs that mix young Americans could encourage social and cultural integration and produce a stronger sense of community.

That’s quite a prescription! It covers everything from finding a new “middle ground” between isolationism and offering a new (and impossible?) “Pax Americana” through to the promotion of a single, common language and some form of youth national service.

The first three steps all deal with America’s alliances and I believe that Professor Kupchan is expressing a broad, general (amongst Americans) approval of President Trump’s dissatisfaction with the burden America shoulders … a burden that is not shared by allies, most notably by Canada which always ranks near the bottom of any list of major countries when ranked by defence spending as a percentage of GDP (which I regard as an expression of national will). American Exceptionalism 3.0 will require more from the allies that America will help to protect.

Step four is for America to transition, back, from crusader (Roosevelt (even, arguably Wilson through to Obama) to exemplar (Mead’s Jeffersonian school). We can be pretty sure, I think, that China will, also, want to pursue a “messianic mission” in the world … I wonder: will China be a crusader or an exemplar?

2c5feb15237e892745a88a24e216beb3The last step may be the most challenging ~ and not just for America. How do we, Australia, Britain, Canada or America, “integrate” people into our traditional, Anglo-Saxon, North American, liberal-secular society when they have deeply held cultural and religious beliefs that demand hitleryouthCrsomething quite different? Language training, alone, is not going to do it and any form of youth national service that has an ideological or nationalist aim is going to remind some people of Germany in the 1930s.

He concludes by saying that: “If nothing else, the rise of Trump has demonstrated that American Exceptionalism 2.0 has run its course. But try as he might, Trump will fail in his bid to respond to today’s challenges by going back to the past. Looking beyond Trump, the United States will need a new exceptionalism to guide its grand strategy and renew its unique role as the world’s anchor of liberal ideals.

I agree with Professor Kupchan’s core thesis: “American Exceptionalism 2.0 has run its course” but American Exceptionalism 1.0 is “a brand of exceptionalism dating to the eighteenth century [which] is ill suited to the twenty-first,” so, assuming that we agree that America should continue to lead the West, (an assumption that some might want to challenge) then what is needed is American Exceptionalism 3.0 … or a new leader. I’m just not so sure I agree with all five of Charles A Kupchan’s “adjustments to all five dimensions of the exceptionalist narrative.” I do agree with the first three, regarding alliances and burden sharing; I agree in principle with the fourth step, but I fear that withdrawing back to the exemplar mode will be perceived as creating a vacuum which others, most certainly China may want to fill … I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the West. Finally, I have serious concerns about how we – America and Canada and, indeed, all Western nations, accommodate newcomers and retain our traditions of of secular, liberal democracy. I still fear the rise of illiberalism in the world and I, and others, fear it may be spreading to America.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

2 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism: 1, 2, 3

  1. Interesting to link Mead’s Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and Jacksonians to David Hackett Fisher’s “Four British Folkways” as defined in his book “Albion’s Seed”

    Chapter 1 – East Anglia to Massachussetts: The Exodus of the English Puritans – 1629-41 – Reliably Wilsonian and still vote that way. Attracted Huguenots and other Calvinists.

    Chapter 2 – South of England to Virginia – Distressed Cavaliers and Indentured Servants – 1642 -1675 – Anti-Parliamentarians, Pirates and Tobacco Lords – Hamiltonians not particulary bothered about borders except when they prevent them making a profit.

    Chapter 3 – North Midlands to the Delaware – The Friends Migration – 1675-1725 – Quakers. Upstanding citizens seeking perfection – Jeffersonians

    Chapter 4 – Borderlands to the Backcountry – The Flight from North Britain 1717-1775 – Border Reivers and Ulster Protestants. Deplorable Rednecks, Hoosiers, Crackers and Scots – scornful of laws, coarse, vulgar and so fiercely independent on their association with their God as to appear to outsiders to be agnostic if not completely atheistic. Home of the Covenanters. – Jacksonians.

    I self-identify with the Borderers and the Covenanters.

  2. Just a further thought – The Cavaliers were Establishment, Episcopalian Tories with liberal economic bent.

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