The recent Obama-Putin tiff over American exceptionalism reignited an ongoing debate over the Obama Doctrine: Is the president veering toward isolationism? Or will he proudly carry the banner of exceptionalism?
The debate is narrower than it may seem. There is considerable common ground between the two positions, as was expressed clearly by Hans Morgenthau, the founder of the now dominant no-sentimentality \”realist\” school of international relations.
Throughout his work, Morgenthau describes America as unique among all powers past and present in that it has a \”transcendent purpose\” that it \”must defend and promote\” throughout the world: \”the establishment of equality in freedom.\”
The competing concepts \”exceptionalism\” and \”isolationism\” both accept this doctrine and its various elaborations but differ with regard to its application.
One extreme was vigorously defended by President Obama in his Sept. 10 address to the nation: \”What makes America different,\” he declared, \”what makes us exceptional,\” is that we are dedicated to act, \”with humility, but with resolve,\” when we detect violations somewhere.
\”For nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security,\” a role that \”has meant more than forging international agreements; it has meant enforcing them.\”
The competing doctrine, isolationism, holds that we can no longer afford to carry out the noble mission of racing to put out the fires lit by others. It takes seriously a cautionary note sounded 20 years ago by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that \”granting idealism a near exclusive hold on our foreign policy\” may lead us to neglect our own interests in our devotion to the needs of others.
Between these extremes, the debate over foreign policy rages.
At the fringes, some observers reject the shared assumptions, bringing up the historical record: for example, the fact that \”for nearly seven decades\” the United States has led the world in aggression and subversion – overthrowing elected governments and imposing vicious dictatorships, supporting horrendous crimes, undermining international agreements and leaving trails of blood, destruction and misery.
To these misguided creatures, Morgenthau provided an answer. A serious scholar, he recognized that America has consistently violated its \”transcendent purpose.\”
But to bring up this objection, he explains, is to commit \”the error of atheism, which denies the validity of religion on similar grounds.\” It is the transcendent purpose of America that is \”reality\”; the actual historical record is merely \”the abuse of reality.\”
In short, \”American exceptionalism\” and \”isolationism\” are generally understood to be tactical variants of a secular religion, with a grip that is quite extraordinary, going beyond normal religious orthodoxy in that it can barely even be perceived. Since no alternative is thinkable, this faith is adopted reflexively.
Others express the doctrine more crudely. One of President Reagan\’s U.N. ambassadors, Jeane Kirkpatrick, devised a new method to deflect criticism of state crimes. Those unwilling to dismiss them as mere \”blunders\” or \”innocent naivete\” can be charged with \”moral equivalence\” – of claiming that the U.S. is no different from Nazi Germany, or whoever the current demon may be. The device has since been widely used to protect power from scrutiny.