Obama one year on…and American exceptionalism

What I’m reading: Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, 2008.

Since November articles and features have trickled through the popular press trying to assess and comment on Obama’s progress, variously marking the one year since his election, and now one year since his inauguration. Most of them have focused on the specific achievements (or rather, lack thereof) by his administration, and of disillusionment setting in across America reflected in approval poll ratings and a Republican win in Massachussetts, all ahead of midterm elections later in the year. Were the promises of change merely illusory?

I’ve recently finished reading the The Post-American World, by Newsweek columnist and editor Fareed Zakaria. The big idea that he was trying to convey was of the continuing preeminence of American power in the coming century. Instead, that its challenges lie instead in the waning of its global purpose and influence. He spends a fair amount of time (a chapter each) to see where China and India are going, that they are the up-and-comers in a way that Japan never was and could be. But their potential place in the world will lie not in directly challenging US military, demographic or economic might, but in providing an alternative model to reshape world affairs so that all roads need not lead to the US, as it has for the past half-century. America’s choice therefore, will be like that of Britain at the end of the 19th century (although in a different way) – the world is catching up to it, and while for Britain smart politics belied its economic position, for the United States it can still be the preeminent economic power. The question is whether it will be politically so.

I mention this book because it’s an engaging critique of where American exceptionalism has gone so wrong over the past two decades. America has since its founding, seen itself as special, a ‘city on the hill’ founded distinct from the fusty, convoluted Old World of Europe. But in its more recent global conduct it has seen itself as exceptional so much to the degree that international law is to be flouted willingly and treaties to be unilaterally abrogated, all guided by the conviction that it is the world that must conform to the US, rather than the other way around. Imperial aggressiveness has generated widespread resentment. It has lost the respect that the world has had for it, and the legitimacy of being the first among equals – or, in Joseph Nye’s famous phrase, its ‘soft power’ has been gradually eroded and whittled away.

And Obama recognises this (a great deal of his appeal arguably because of this recognition), speaking of improving American ‘standing’ in world affairs (see an interesting project piqued by this question of ‘standing’ as a foreign-policy goal). But Obama also has to be seen in light of this deeper cultural background of insularity and smugness – the effects of which are to dump on healthcare reform as ‘socialized’ medicine and unworthy of America, or insist that it’s unfair that China doesn’t have the same climate change obligations than the US, or require a chest-thumping response to its military presence in Afghanistan.

The exceptionalist impulse, fed by the assertive posture of the Clinton and Bush years, remains strong. If there is disappointment in Obama for not achieving enough, it seems to be largely because this hasn’t been able to dial down this aggressive exceptionalism as yet.  Zakaria offers a series of guidelines to restore American purpose as that which the rest of the world still has faith in (making strategic choices about its involvement in distant lands, creating a structure of rules and values for the whole world, engaging with all rather than balancing against some, and so on), which is sensible and all well and good.

But I think many people often forget Obama doesn’t have a blank sheet with which to set about the task of restoring American legitimacy in the world (or indeed its own direction domestically). I say this not as excuse but in trying to put his task into a bit of context. In one of these one-year-on pieces, a line by Anna Quindlen in Newsweek last November has stayed in my mind: “If the American people want the President to be more like the Barack Obama they elected, perhaps they should start acting more like the voters who elected him.” Reshaping American exceptionalism for the global good has to confront the current hyperexceptionalism, which is no small order. And doing it all inside a year may be just a bit too much to ask.

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2 thoughts on “Obama one year on…and American exceptionalism

  1. […] community were now being defined independently of that community. An unsurprising extension of American exceptionalism? But the idea of Iraq marking the emergence of “imperial authority” where the US […]

  2. […] as I’ve posted a year ago, the Obama administration has had to face certain structural conditions and ideas that circumscribe his freedom of movement, conditions that are easy to forget about. But the […]

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