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Choose-Your-Own Exceptionalism

By Brian Stout

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Iraq war cheerleader Fouad Ajami argues that Obama's foreign policy marks "the sharpest break yet with the national consensus... over American exceptionalism." The problem with Ajami's argument is that there is no such consensus.

Americans share a belief that we are special - but we remain divided over the foreign policy implications of our "exceptionalism." New York Times pundit Roger Cohen distinguishes the "angry exceptionalism" embodied in recent Palin speeches from the universalist undercurrent pervading the Obama campaign. Common in both views is a broad consensus that America plays an important transformative role in world politics. Stark differences emerge, however, over the best way to express America's "exceptional" role. Are we exceptional because we advance universal values, or unique because our values are fundamentally different (and implicitly better)?

In Europe, the notion of "American exceptionalism" raises ire when it presumes self-sufficiency and manifests a militaristic mindset. From the European perspective, the original "Bush Doctrine" of proactive regime change replaced the constructive vision of the Marshall Plan with the destructive vision of what Paul Krugman derided as the "martial plan."

In 2002, current McCain campaign advisor Robert Kagan explained the divergence in European and American opinion as a fundamental disagreement over the projection of power: Europeans are "soft" while we Americans are "hard." They want dialogue, we want action. The deeper reality is that there is no "American" view - we are divided as to what we want. In this election, voters are being asked to consider how we understand "American exceptionalism" and how we should project that vision abroad. We are being asked to define what it means to be American.

Europeans can relate to Obama's vision: express power through diplomacy, not unilateral military force. He sees a world thirsting for American leadership, not American dominance. McCain articulates a different vision, a bellicose notion of American power in which it is not enough to lead by example: America must be prepared to lead by force.

Europeans have made their preference clear: the tens of thousands who eagerly followed Obama's visits to Paris and Berlin want to see an end to the "cowboy diplomacy" of the Bush Administration.

But it's the Americans who will have to choose which kind of American power the world needs now. It's up to them to define what it is to be American... and the world is watching.

Brian Stout is a graduate student in the IR/Conflict Management program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. He is an Oregon native and Amherst College graduate.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (1)

Jenn4 Author Profile Page:

Globalization has made it an impossible world for a TRUE republican.
World Banks and Corporate influence have taken control of every resource known to man making the world population dependent upon them. We are now a socialist world and cutting spending here in our homeland, we will be starving our selves of basic needs.

We are in an impossible situation.
Debt is slavery folks. Our monetary system thrives on debt. Poor countries all over the world accept loans they can not pay back and that country turns over it's natural resources to be forgiven of the debt. Will we be able to pay our massive debt to China?

Our seed for crops are being patented and sterilized so we can not be self sufficient. Our people have forgotten how to farm the land. Most people do not even own enough land to support their food needs, much less tend to farm animals etc..

You either have to accept socialism or vote to really change things, like for a third party to show you do not agree with the direction our country is going.. or go for the socialist party to go along to get along in the world as it is..If you want to survive the system as it is, vote for obama.

A McCain presidency will only make our situation worse by freezing spending inside our country. while our tax money is going out of our country in the form of interest on our debt to china and Saudi Arabia. Think about all the spending going for aid all over the world and we are losing everything we've worked for over the years. With all the job loss and all the homeless and poor in our country, and the decline is growing..if you want to see your neighbors suffer more and eventually yourselves..Vote for McCain. The Republic is dead.

Critical thinking?

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