America’s world: salesman and missionary

The United States in the early 21st century is caught in the gap between a potent domestic sense of manifest destiny and a shifting global political reality. President Barack Obama embodies the ensuing dilemma, says Godfrey Hodgson.
Godfrey Hodgson
12 November 2010

Charles de Gaulle liked to say that a statesman should not be a demandeur; always asking for favours, but rather be in a position to say no. He knew what he was talking about, having had to do a lot of asking in France’s desperate years after the fall of 1940, and having got a good deal of mileage out of saying no - or rather an emphatic non - when the tables turned.

The fortieth anniversary of de Gaulle’s death fell on 9 November 2010, with his embattled successor Nicolas Sarkozy leading the commemorations - and perhaps seeking inspiration - at Colombey-les-deux-Églises. But the old general came to mind this week for another reason: the sight of two other contemporary heads of state and government in a posture of virtual supplication towards their overseas counterparts and sometime subordinates.

The first was Barack Obama, fresh from a drubbing in the United States’s mid-term elections on 2 November, whose trip to India (part of a ten-day tour of Asian countries, the longest of his presidency) in the company of more than 200 business leaders had the core purpose of seeking his hosts’ help in energising the American economy. The second was Britain’s prime minister David Cameron, who took a sizeable squad of captains of industry to Beijing in pursuit of an increased share of China’s new riches.

In a world of shifting geopolitics where Asian economies are setting the pace, the heirs of once-mighty lone superpowers and proud empires on which the sun never set have little choice but to drum for export share, foreign investment, and thus much-needed jobs. Such high-profile foreign visits can also serve the purpose of projecting an image of effective leadership at a time when (as currently in Obama’s case, if less so in Cameron’s) a leader’s domestic agenda is stymied and/or political opposition rising.

True, foreign interlocutors can be at least as recalcitrant as local adversaries. But a visiting statesman can at least seem to be achieving something, from the signing of treaties or contracts to (at the very least) photo-ops in emblematic locations. The problem, all too frequently, is that such appearances are hard to translate into domestic political goals. And this is an even tougher sell for a 21-st century American president charged with leading a country caught between different versions of its global role.

The work of history

The gap between what Barack Obama’s administration needs most from India and China and what his hosts are able to deliver illustrates the point. In New Delhi, this is the abandonment of a policy (“cold start”) towards Pakistan whose very existence the Indians do not admit and which the Americans do not dare to raise for fear of appearing as an advocate for Pakistan. It prescribes India’s readiness to keep large forces close to their border with Pakistan, ready if needed for instant attack. Pakistan insists that this threat prevents it from comprehensively focusing on the defeat of jihadis in its tribal territories.

In Beijing, the longstanding American policy goal of a revision of the value of the renminbi in order to improve the market for US exports is similarly out of reach, as are broader political prizes such as significant shifts over human rights and democracy.

The results of the mid-term elections, in which control of the House of Representatives passed to the Republicans and in which the populist Tea Party movement made important (if limited) gains, are not responsible for the gap. But they do make Obama’s foreign-policy aims, in Asia and elsewhere, even harder to achieve.

The new order in Congress, where the Republican infusion includes many uncritical supporters of Israel, means that Obama’s search for a peace agreement in the middle east on his terms is now (if it was not before) doomed. It greatly diminishes the prospects for successful arms-control negotiations with Russia, one area where the Obama administration could claim some success. It makes more remote the likelihood of Iran’s government offering real concessions over Tehran’s nuclear programme. And it makes Washington’s (and particularly Hillary Clinton’s) dream of making the United States the leader of an Asia-Pacific bloc look even less realistic.

All these specific foreign-policy frustrations might in other circumstances reflect the normal ups and downs of international diplomacy. But the US’s current travails in the global arena suggest something deeper: an underlying intellectual failure of American political ideas to accommodate major changes in the country’s real place in the world.

The state of history

The liberal journalist Michael Kinsley expresses the point well. “The theory”, Kinsley writes, “that Americans are better than everybody else is endorsed by an overwhelming majority of U.S. voters and approximately 100 percent of all U.S. politicians, although there is less and less evidence to support it. A recent Yahoo poll . . . found that 75 percent of Americans believe that the United States is ‘the greatest country in the world’” (see Michael Kinsley, "U.S. is not greatest country ever", Politico, 2 November 2010)

Kinsley goes on to admit that he does not share this near-universal belief in American exceptionalism. But the mid-term elections have drawn an even sharper line on this issue. Those who share Kinsley’s scepticism are indeed a minority, and Republicans are aggressive in pushing their conviction that the United States's historic destiny is to propagate its beliefs to the world (see "America's world: from frontiersman to neocon", 23 April 2003).

Listen to congresswoman Nan Hayworth, newly elected in New York State with Tea Party support. “Are we perfect?”, she asks, using the latest public-relations trope. “No. But we are the greatest nation ever to exist. I do believe in American exceptionalism with all my heart, and that’s why I ran, because American exceptionalism comes from free enterprise.”

Listen to congressman Mike Pence of Indiana, whom many foresee as a Republican candidate for president in 2012. “We will work to re-establish American exceptionalism rather than denying or apologising for it”, he says.

Listen to Grover Norquist, influential Republican guru. “Europeans, and especially Brits”, he told openDemocracy at a time of earlier debate on America’s role in the world, in mid-2004, “tend to think of America as Europe-West, as part of ‘Western Civilisation‘. We are not. America is the successor to the European civilisation, not its extension. . . . Europe is where and what many of our ancestors left. On purpose.”

Listen, indeed, to Barack Obama. He was asked in April 2009 whether he believed in American exceptionalism. His lengthy reply began: “I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country's role and history in the world...” That segment of the response at least was something of a glib rhetorical evasion. Britons and Greeks may rightly be proud of their national achievements. But such pride is not exceptionalist. It does not contain the idea that Britain or Greece has a living desire to persuade, or coerce, the world to adopt its system and its values.

That litany helps explain why this is a moment of great significance, and danger, for the world. The United States is, indeed, the “lone superpower”, in the sense that it has for decades spent more on “defence” than all other nations put together. As a result, it has literally irresistible military might. But this might, given the prevailing political confusion, does not allow it to attain its goals. The streets of Baghdad cannot be policed with aircraft-carriers, nor airline security be guaranteed by nuclear weapons.

At the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, it was tempting to think that American military power could be used to fulfil a neo-Wilsonian dream of “manifest destiny”. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have shown that nuclear-missiles and aircraft-carriers cannot achieve the exceptionalist goals of American politicians. The non-American majority in the world now understands that such goals are unattainable. But the Republican, “red” component of a bitterly polarised American electorate still believes that American strength can and should be used to reinforce missionary projects that disseminate an American ideology.

The resulting chasm is both one of perception between (many) Americans and (most) non-Americans, but also one between many Americans’ view of their country’s position in the world and the realities of the matter. In a world of car-bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), of globalisation and wage competition, of asymmetrical campaigns and multipolar relationships, of transforming identities and rising ambitions, Americans have as yet understood even less than their fellow westerners the emerging strength of the weak and the weakness of the strong.

That is - still, just - a medium-to-long-term danger. The immediate problem is that President Obama seems to half-share, half-reject the missionary project. His campaigning oratory and visionary promise in 2007-08 led him to be seen as the architect of a new national purpose beyond the degraded neo-conservatism of the Project for a New American Century. That ensured the almost universal welcome of his election victory in November 2008. Two years on, there have been achievements both domestic and foreign, and Obama is no George W Bush (as the latter’s unashamed defence of “waterboarding” alone confirms); but he is still talking about victory in Afghanistan, he has not been able to close Guantànamo, and the arc of the “long war” is again on a rising curve (see Paul Rogers, "America vs al-Qaida: the widening war", 11 November 2010).

The end times

The spectacle of Obama and his caravan of super-salesmen makes those brilliant speeches of his, and the hopes and expectations they raised, look very distant. Obama, it is now clear, is instinctively both pacific-liberal and centrist-pragmatic. His brilliant rhetoric can still finesse, but cannot resolve, the practical contradictions (not least in foreign policy) that these variable instincts entail (see "Barack Obama; imperial president, post-American world", 7 December 2009).

Americans can still refer to their president as “the leader of the free world”, although he is elected by well under 4% of the world’s population (thus even less of its free citizens). Yet the “red” half at least of the American political spectrum believes that the United States has a God-given destiny to supersede not just Europe but every other centre of power: to chart the course for the world, notwithstanding that ever fewer of its inhabitants ask or want the United States to play the role of “great helmsman”. American politics and foreign policy increasingly turn on the issue of exceptionalism, and the exceptionalists are winning the argument - at the very moment when the United States cannot sustain any such exceptional role. This is a crisis for everyone.

Republicans, both the Tea Party kind and the traditional elites, find it unbearable that the United States can neither do whatever it wants nor secure the ready consent of others to its will. The Indians and the Chinese, let alone the Indonesians and the Koreans, are no more likely to contribute to American “burden-sharing” than the despised Europeans. There is no hegemony in the multipolar world, it might be said, without - or even with - representation.

John F Kennedy declared in his inaugural address on 20 January 1961 that Americans would pay any price to ensure the survival of freedom. He was too good a politician to say they would pay any taxes to that end. A half-century on, a time may be coming when even Republicans, like others before them, will have to choose between lower taxes and lower ambitions. Whichever they choose, the age of exceptionalism is over.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData