A Return to American Exceptionalism?

American foreign policy has long been defined by its self-belief. After a hiatus during the Obama years, could American Exceptionalism be set for a comeback?

Exceptionalism is the defining characteristic of the United States, as a nation and as a people. The idea is a simple one, held by atheistic left wingers to evangelical conservatives and by everyone in-between. In essence, it is the belief that the United States will, by dint of optimism, industry and a healthy dose of luck, conquer every problem.  Bill Clinton encapsulated exceptionalism as the idea that there was “nothing wrong with America that couldn’t be fixed by what was right with America”.

The foreign policy of the post- World War United States could easily be defined as “nothing wrong with the World that couldn’t be fixed by what was right with America”. From the Marshall Plan’s aims to defeat communism with free-marketeering, to the Bush Administration’s pre-emptive defence and national building in the wake of September 11 2001, America has combined its hegemony over the world with a zealotry to change the world for the better.  Human rights and democracy should be spread, Tyrants should be overthrown, and the free market should reign supreme.

It is not a controversial point to say that this zealotry has diminished in the last 8 years. Barack Obama was elected by a nation tired of the burdens placed on them by acting as the world’s policemen. Too many lives lost and too much money spent on a war without direction or end had left the American public gun-shy when it came to using their power abroad, and the toll of the global financial crisis led to a political introspection, placing domestic concerns above global issues.

This relaxation of power was exacerbated by Obama himself. The closest to a foreign policy realist that any President has been since the Harding administration, Obama’s foreign policy has been based around the ground-breaking assumption that global security was not the sole preserve of the United States, and that old animosities should not inform modern policy. Thus Obama drew down the Global War on Terror, opened diplomatic relations with Iran on nuclear policy, and famously castigated ‘freeloaders’ who refused to meet their NATO contributions.

(If you haven’t already, read the scorching Jeffrey Goldberg piece in the Atlantic “The Obama Doctrine”  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/ )

At the same time he was by and large opposed to intervening in the conflicts following the Arab Spring, stung by ineffectual use of force in Libya, unwilling to commit ground troops to fight in Syria, and at the same time opposed to the use of ‘hard power’ (the military) to check Russian ambitions on the borders of Europe.

However, Obama’s time is drawing to a close and the race to succeed him is more widely focussed on foreign policy than any before; not just policy, but on philosophy.

On the one hand, you have Donald Trump. Trump is a man seemingly created out of the darkest stereotypes of the United States. Brash, stupid, bigoted and violent. He is the avatar of all that is wrong with America.  He believes in isolation, in tariffs and barriers, in Fortress America.

On the other hand, you have Hillary Rodham Clinton. Whilst no means perfect, Hillary is the most experienced candidate for President that the US has had in decades, and has a proven track record in foreign policy and national security affairs. Furthermore, Hillary is an Internationalist, and believes that America’s place in the world is cemented and needs to remain so.  Arguably far more hawkish than Obama, and more willing to use force to fulfil the Responsibility to Protec t, a Second Clinton Administration would likely have a more conventional foreign policy than Obama, if tinged with the pragmatism of long service and the understanding that people are still as tired of overseas adventurism as they were in 2008.

However, what both candidates exude is American exceptionalism, if diametrically divergent interpretations. Trump sees an America independent of the world, that doesn’t need entangling relationships and support to manifest its destiny. Hillary sees an America leading an interdependent world, cooperating under American hegemony, changing to suit America’s desires and needs.

What the 2016 election lets every nation know is that the United States of America is recovering it’s self-belief and that no matter the result, the next decade will be one typified by a return to Exceptionalism as the watchword of American policy.


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