A City on a Hill
Neoconservatism has failed. Realism compromises our identity. Why exemplarism is the right choice for a post-Bush foreign policy.
On September 30, 2004, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry met in Coral Gables, Florida, for the first debate of the presidential campaign. For months, the two had sparred about how to position America in a post–September 11 world, with Bush defending a preemptive, unilateralist policy and Kerry arguing for a greater reliance on the international community. Moderator Jim Lehrer asked Kerry and Bush whether the United States had the right to launch preemptive wars. Without hesitation, Kerry answered yes–with a qualifier. “But if and when you do it,” he said, “You’ve got to do it in a way that passes the test, passes the global test where your countrymen, your people, understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.” After a moment, during which he seemed almost to be cocking his fist for a roundhouse punch, Bush answered, “My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure … My opponent is for joining the International Criminal Court. I just think trying to be popular, kind of, in the global sense, if it’s not in our best interest, makes no sense.”
Two days later, Bush deemed Kerry’s statement the “Kerry Doctrine.” Speaking before a convention of home builders, he declared, “[Kerry] said that America has to pass a global test before we can use American troops to defend ourselves… . Senator Kerry’s approach to foreign policy would give foreign governments veto power over our national security decisions.” A president, he added, should not “take an international poll … our national security decisions will be made in the Oval Office, not in foreign capitals.” In the weeks that followed, Kerry could not undo the damage. By Election Day, 86 percent of voters who cited “terrorism” as their top concern voted for Bush–a clear sign that Americans did not trust Kerry to keep them safe.
Kerry won the Democratic Party’s nomination as the candidate of national security strength. However, over the course of the general election campaign, he came to embody the broader failure of progressives to articulate a compelling foreign policy for a post–September 11 world. As Kerry’s loss demonstrated, progressives have not convinced the American people that they will do what it takes to defend the nation, that they have a clear direction for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in a world of terrorist threats, and that they have core affirmative beliefs, rather than simply critiques of the errors of the Bush Administration.
But, despite their current disarray, progressives in fact have a rich history of just such a foreign policy paradigm, one that can be mined for hints of a way out of today’s morass. Indeed, they should return to these strengths and espouse a new doctrine of “exemplarism,” a marriage of American strength–both military and moral–and leadership. Exemplarism would value both strength and international prestige equally, seeing them not as mutually exclusive but rather as mutually reinforcing. America’s economic, political, and military strength, when deployed wisely, enhances our prestige around the world; that prestige, in turn, allows us to expand our influence and power by engendering the willing followership of other countries.
Exemplarism steers clear of the ideological blind spots that have plagued other dominant foreign-policy paradigms. In recent years, liberals have underestimated the importance of U.S. primacy, realists have ignored the power of moral idealism, and neoconservatives have scoffed at the necessity of prestige. Exemplarism would chart a course through these shoals, placing the United States in a community, but as its leader. It is a foreign policy for a time when meeting so many of the threats the United States faces requires not only international cooperation, but the cooperation of individuals around the world. And we’ve seen this approach work before–elements of exemplarism can be found in Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, Harry S Truman’s Marshall Plan, John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, and Bill Clinton’s Kosovo intervention. The idea of exemplarism is uniquely American–and recognizes America’s singular status–while providing a vision of how a superpower can lead a multipolar world of interdependent nations.
American Exceptionalism Exemplarism is a militarily strong and morally ambitious version of American exceptionalism, or the notion that the United States is unique among the world’s nations. There is nothing new about American exceptionalism. It is, in fact, older than the country itself, an idea that draws on deep reservoirs of moral idealism and civic responsibility. America’s exceptionalism is also rooted in hard facts. As the international relations scholar Stanley Hoffman notes, the United States is geographically privileged, has the most successful representative democracy in the world, and has long held a distaste for the rule of force that was common to European colonialism, replacing it with an embrace of the rule of law. Such exceptionalism, as the human rights expert Michael Ignatieff explains, has manifested itself in four distinct ways: the realist, based on America’s unique power relative to other nations; the cultural, stemming from “an American sense of Providential destiny”; the institutional, rooted in America’s “specific institutional organization”; and the political, related to the distinctive conservative and individual character of America’s political culture.
Throughout American history, these different strains have emerged in various statements on America’s moral mission, from John Winthrop’s 1630 “City Upon a Hill” speech to Woodrow Wilson’s mission of spreading democracy. Exceptionalism is deeply and uniquely American, stemming from our essential national character–our generosity, our hopefulness, our ambition, and our sense of possibility.
Today, however, we see a messianic strain of exceptionalism powerfully realized in the presidency of George W. Bush. His constant, post–September 11 injunction that the United States should democratize the world at gunpoint posits an America not only above, but apart from, the world. His exceptionalism frames the United States as an exception to the world, rather than as an exceptional–meaning excellent–nation within it.
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