American Exceptionalism: Shifting Views of Intervention and Conflict

 Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Beliefs matter. They tell us who we are and what we should want. While much U.S.foreign policy debate is marked by concerns for shifts in the balance of power and the costs of any intervention, such judgments are always advanced in the context of deeper understandings of how the world works.

However, these understandings are not limited to political or intellectual doctrines. Instead, such beliefs are often derived from deeper attitudes. They reside in a kind of collective unconscious, encompassing archetypal understandings reflecting not so much directly experiences as shared socialization experiences.

Such attitudes are often ambiguous and flexible, subject to a range of interpretations and nuances. Consider notions of American exceptionalism. In broad terms, this view suggests that theU.S.has escaped a European heritage of feudalism, class consciousness, and struggles over the balance of power. Instead, it has developed a liberal tradition of limited government, market individualism, and oft-crusading efforts to replace the balance of power with a more institutional order.

Yet, as the above Whitman quote suggests, American liberalism can take a number of forms. It has led policymakers to believeAmericahas a special responsibility to help others. However, it has also led them to pull back, out of fear that contact with others will dilute what makes them exceptional. Finally, an aversion to ideological disputes has often given rise to a pragmatic desire to reduce political disputes to matters of technique, to abstract away from value-laden disputes and do “what works.”


Indeed, American liberalism inspired Woodrow Wilson to argue in 1917 for a war to make the world “safe fore democracy” and later to advocate for the construction of theLeague of Nations. Yet, a different sense of liberalism later urged Warren Harding to argue in the 1920 presidential campaign for a “return to normalcy” – giving rise to nearly two decades of aversion to European entanglements. Finally, when the U.S. did reenter global politics in an active way, Franklin Roosevelt would seek to combine Wilsonian idealism with a respect for the realities of power, designing a United Nations capped by a Security Council that would enable “four policemen” (later five, with France) to maintain world order in their spheres of influence. Making sense of how American exceptionalism itself varies over shifting contexts can in this light help make sense of what at times appears a disappointing gap between American ideals and American reality.

Take, for example, the evolving views of Republican Presidential aspirant and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. In April 1999, Santorum – like many of his Republican colleagues – was almost an isolationist. In debates over the NATO intervention to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Santorum was an unabashed opponent of theClintonadministration, arguing “I think it is a big mistake that we are in the middle of their civil war. We will not win this, so let’s figure out how to save face and get out of it.” Indeed, this view reflected a return to a pre-Cold War Republicanism, in which the possibility of an aggressive foreign policy was seen as threatening the rise of an aggressive domestic state – one which might undermine freedoms and liberties at home.

Flash forward thirteen years and Santorum’s position on intervention has undergone a remarkable evolution. Today he is a strong supporter of more aggressive action againstIran, arguing at a speech before the broadly pro-intervention American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that “If Iran doesn’t get rid of nuclear facilities, we will tear down them ourselves.” In recent comments, Santorum has suggested that he would even consider air strikes inSyria, echoing John McCain’s more formal calls forU.S.action against the Assad regime.

What explains this shift from isolationism to interventionism? The journey is not as far as it might seem. The Republican party shifted in the early Cold War to favor an anti-communist foreign policy – a view that reflected the Truman administration’s ironic success in constructing the Cold War as a struggle over “ways of life.” Similarly, the influence of Bush-era constructions of the September 11 terrorist attacks as a threat to the American way of life – with less an ideological than a theological tint – prompted another reconstruction of American liberalism.

The importance of religious values to Santorum’s beliefs can be seen most clearly in his distinction between North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons. When asked what made North Korean weapons less threatening than Iranian weapons, Santorum replied,  “They’re a theocracy that has deeply embedded beliefs that – that the afterlife is better than this life. President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly said the principle virtue of the Islamic Republic of Iran is martyrdom. So when your principle virtue is to die for your – for Allah, then it’s not a deterrent to have a nuclear threat, if they would use a nuclear weapon. It is, in fact, an encouragement for them to use their nuclear weapon. And that’s why there’s a difference between the Soviet Union and China and others and Iran.”

If, as suggested, American liberalism contains multitudes, one might ask how Obama’s worldview differs from Santorum – as Obama certainly campaigned on a restoration of American values. However, that is a subject for another post.

Wes Widmaier – Human Protection Hub

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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