Obama has been critiqued by some conservatives for a lack of sufficient embrace of “American exceptionalism,” which is normally defined as the view that America is a unique nation, with a unique international role, which views that role as chiefly a positive for the advancement of human rights and justice around the world. As the Washington Times put the matter:
President Obama’s reference to British or Greek exceptionalism suggests a belief that the United States doesn’t stand alone with a particular greatness but that every nation is great in its own way and America is simply one of many nations with something cool to offer.
This kind of multicultural, politically correct, “we’re all unique in unique ways, every kid must win at dodgeball” thinking is the basis for his economic and foreign policies, from his schemes to nationalize the auto, banking, and health care industries to his lollygagging on behalf of those fighting for greater freedom in Iran.
So, we are led to believe by interventionist neoconservatives and others, the choice is between the John McCain and George W. Bush approach that would have America involved everywhere fighting for democracy and justice. And, on the other hand, we have the “internationalist” approach of Barack Obama, which also wants to be involved in the world, but shows contempt not only for America’s military and diplomatic power, but contempt for all distinctive aspects of America, such as free markets and limited government, an historical people of mostly European ancestry, a history of very charitable treatment of the defeated in foreign conflicts, and an historical desire to maintain sovereignty and independence.
Missing from this false dichotomy, and the political scene generally, is a true nationalist voice that is neither excessively indebted to nor overly influenced by or concerned with the rest of the world. A humble view that is aware of our limitations and jealous of our advantages. A view that does not seek to manage or influence the world with the exception chiefly of providing a good example to others and protecting what is ours.
America’s foreign policy and sense of self was, to some extent, permanently altered by its heading down the wrong road in World War I. That was the war “to make the world safe for democracy” where our elites’ first widely embraced the idea that we should be transforming the world to make the rest of it more like America. It’s not clear this sunk very deep in ordinary Americans’ consciousness. It took Pearl Harbor for America to get involved in World War II, in spite of FDR’s best efforts, and the Cold War was largely understood as a unique threat that called for a unique response by Americans fearful of domination by an aggressive internationalist ideology. Even then, Americans desire not to get too involved in unnecessary conflict eventually led to an early withdrawal from Vietnam and a more practical approach of containment, with a special emphasis on our backyard in the Western Hemisphere. In any case, regardless of the merits and rhetoric of that lengthy detour, the world changed dramatically with the fall of the Soviet Union, and Americans more or less remained aloof from and only mildly supportive of our activities overseas in the 1990s.
With the 9/11 attacks, like Pearl Harbor, Americans widely called for tribal revenge for our murdered countrymen. Bush and Obama both have misread the cause of this attack as the lack of American-style institutions overseas, and Bush in particular sought in its aftermath to make the spreading of democracy in the Middle East by force of American arms the central strategy, even when ordinary revenge attacks would have sufficed for his conservative supporters. Some conservatives, liberals, and moderates all eventually soured on the nation-building approach in Iraq in particular. Obama now has scaled back these ambitions, even as he desires to get foreigners and international institutions more involved in controlling America and its policies, whether on carbon output or the use of force and much else. His incoherence reflects this tradition of division between foreign involvement as “savior of the world” and its equally liberal counterpart in the form of deference to the UN and suspicion of American unilateralism of all types.
What neoconservatives and liberals both reject is the tradition of American non-intervenetionism. The distinct American tradition is one of avoidance of controlling and being controlled by foreigners. It stretches from George Washington’s Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine, to the so-called Know-Nothings, and more recently to Charles Lindbergh, Robert Taft, and Pat Buchanan. It has been the abiding idiom of American conservatism. It is the real exceptionalism because, in addressing the uses of American power, it does not seek domination of others whether from the will to power or the missionary impulse to transform the rest of the world. Its ideas on the use of force are largely defensive and focused on the preservation of the American way of life. It’s a view largely absent from both parties, yet it finds support in what is likely a majority of working class ethnic whites, business-oriented conservatives, many Vietnam veterans, as well as a swath of anti-war Americans who come from a variety of traditions.
The nationalist is against the proposed surge in Afghanistan (and was against saving the anarchy of Somalia or liberating the supposedly victimized Kosovars) not because such acts are an evil to these people–to them, they are probably on balance a good–but because such activity distracts us from our chief concern, which is our own flourishing as a people and the protection of a distinct way of life from foreign attack and excessive foreign influence. This older tradition has the benefit of being more just, less costly, and more consistent with free institutions and fiscal austerity than the so-called “American exceptionalism” of the bellicose neoconservatives.