The Irony of American Exceptionalism

This week brought the stunning news that Russia has deployed technology that records every phone call made in the United States, keeps it for 30 days, and retrieves segments for listening and long-term storage.

Not really. But the United States has done precisely this to telephone users in an unknown target country. Leaked documents indicate “every single” call there was recorded—not merely metadata that tracks numbers called, but the actual content of conversations.

Consider that inversion a political Rorschach test. There is a breed of American elite whose mood, upon reaching the end of the second paragraph, would instantly melt from outrage to relief. That breed lacks the political virtue par excellence—prudence—and it is getting us into trouble.

ExceptionThe utter failure of empathy in American foreign policy is a symptom of the narcissism that lately masquerades as American exceptionalism. Narcissists interpret the world in their own image and cannot see it through the eyes of others. Can we?

Can we for a moment see how Americans would react to the news that a foreign government was taping our personal calls, storing them for a month, and listening in? Can we, similarly, see how it looks when we sidestep international law in our anti-terror efforts, then invoke it when Vladimir Putin moves into Crimea?

The answer, evidently, is no. The defense is the classic “Weekend Update”catch phrase from Saturday Night Live elevated to national policy: “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” Which is more or less what we want the world to accept: We’re America and you’re not. Special power, special privileges.

To be sure, to say that empathy is a necessary ingredient of foreign policy is not to say it ought to be a controlling one. America is certainly entitled to a robust defense of particular borders, particular allies, and a particular political tradition. But precisely because we want others to respect us, we ought to get into the habit of respecting others—not merely out of sentiment but out of self-interest.

Our nation has been known to stand for—indeed, be proof of—the supposition that ideas matter. A crass realpolitik that demands of every nation only that it act in its own immediate interest is one such idea, and if we practice it by our actions, we ought to expect it to propagate. By contrast, a defense of certain principles that, crucially, restrains our own conduct might place us in a better position to restrain others.

That is no substitute, of course, for the force or deterrent power of arms where arms are appropriate and effective. Pollyanna might have believed the world would align behind enlightened principles if only a superpower did first; a statesman cannot. But neither can a statesman deny the fact that the world will certainly align behind crass principles if a superpower legitimates that practice.

The underlying problem is the disordering of our own thinking by the derangement of American exceptionalism, as Justin Litke has brilliantly shown, from its initial roots as an exemplary doctrine to an expansionist one. That the flag of conservatism, a philosophy of prudence, has been unfurled over this new creed only disfigures the initial one all the more. John Winthrop, from whose writings exceptionalism has been wrenched and distorted, indeed said God had special plans for America. He meant not that we had special privileges but that we faced special punishments for moral failure.

Reinhold Niebuhr understood our situation—burdened by leadership yet beset by limitation—in terms of irony. We might do the same. The lesson he drew in the midst of the Cold War was not isolation or retrenchment but rather prudence. And surely prudence counsels against the newly revealed NSA program in a thousand ways—against the ocean of data that must overwhelm the analysts exploring it, against the legitimation of similar techniques by others, against the damage that must accrue to our greatest national asset: a reputation as a beacon of freedom.

In any case, empathy, the capacity to see the world through others’ eyes—to ask how a given action will be seen, felt, perceived—is not to be dismissed as a feeble emotion that has no place in the rough-and-tumble of affairs of state. It is a practical skill. Narcissism distorts it. Prudence, the queen of political virtues, might still be able to reclaim it.

Reader Discussion

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on March 21, 2014 at 21:57:31 pm

Please accept from one of those narcissists who saw action in WW II, a different perspective on American exceptionalism:

While motive does not justify every form of action, nor failure to act, there is an American exceptionalism in motives.

In “foreign policy,” around which this discourse is centered, no actions have been taken with the objective of causing harm, or of acquiring information for the capacity to cause harm, or for aggrandizement, or for territory (other than that sufficient to bury our dead who died for the defense of others as well as of ourselves).

In historical perspective, with the exception of the treatment afforded the indigenous peoples, Americans have not had the objective of taking, nor taken, the private property of others, even in the expansion of contiguous national territory. Americans have not been a predatory people.

For the consequentialists, on balance with the “good” delivered, America has done no harm.

“Can we, similarly, see how it looks when we sidestep international law in our anti-terror efforts, then invoke it when Vladimir Putin moves into Crimea?”

Yes, we can. The American exception lies in the objectives of our efforts and the manner of our executions. Americans do not act by stealth, nor on false pretenses, nor for objectives of political aggrandizement. It is almost an act of naïve relativism to suggest comparison.

As for empathy, an element of American exceptionalism is the preference to be justifiably *liked* rather than a desire to be * *respected*.” To be admired and liked is dependent upon a quality of character; respect can be gained by power and intimidation.

America has been exceptional in that actions taken in our own interest have also been in the interests of others. June 6, next, will be the 70th anniversary of such an action. It remains a wise policy, if there are actions to be taken in the interests of others that there also be a determinable sufficient interest of our own. America does not always do it right, perfectly, completely or even successfully; but it always does so within an exceptional framework of objectives.

Many peoples throughout history have used force and arms to advance or defend their interests and principles. In the American experience of exceptionalism we have deployed to the use and benefit of others our economic advantages, our human and material resources. Where else in history do such examples exist? What principles guided those actions? Were actions on those principles not exceptional?

If we were to view “American Exceptionalism” purely as a political slogan, there might be a reason to suspect some sociological disorder. But that is not the case. As an exception, the social fabric of America, from its beginning, is perhaps the only society in Western civilization that has not been woven from what originated as clan and tribal threads.

To take a single program, originated in response to potential dangers, particularly when there has been no demonstration of any impairment of individual freedom (privacy amongst the peoples widely engaged in various forms of “social media” being excluded as a form of freedom; though designated as a “right”), nor any demonstrable harm or loss, or impositions of costs or obligations, as evidence of the departure from, or absence of, American exceptionalism, is a bit of a stretch.

Dierdre McCloskey has gone to great lengths in pointing out and celebrating the existence of more virtues than simple “Prudence,” which, in our bourgeois based society, may come last after Hope, Faith, Love, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. That view is no doubt Aristotelian, but nonetheless has come through in the American experience and those virtues (pl.) sustain American exceptionalism. That takes us back to what forms the motives of American exceptionalism.

If our greatest national asset is any form of “reputation” for anything other than the widespread possession and practice of those virtues, then our quest for reputation (shaping our actions to create a perception) will defeat our principles which are based on and derived from those virtues.

It is altogether one thing to develop the capacity to understand how others view the world and us, but it is quite another to shape our principles and conduct in order to accommodate those views unless they are compatible with the virtues that shape and drive American exceptionalism.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on March 22, 2014 at 06:35:58 am

Your comments are always thoughtful, but this one was unusually so, and I appreciate it -- as I honor your service in World War II, which is a degree of devotion to which I do not have the conceit to pretend to relate.

I would highly recommend Justin Litke's book "Twilight of the Republic." It captures, more thoroughly and thoughtfully than I did (as does Claes Ryn's "America the Virtuous"), what I meant by my critique of American exceptionalism *as that doctrine has been recently understood.*

The point is certainly not that America has not behaved exceptionally, as you quite correctly note she has, we have and decidedly you have. It is, inter alia, that exceptionalism ought not be seen as a doctrine that exempts us from rules we expect others to follow. There was a time, and perhaps this was the real Wilsonian internationalism -- as many objections as I have to Wilson -- when restraining ourselves according to rules we wanted others to follow was a *form* of American exceptionalism, a source of proud devotion to ideals.

As to prudence, I would argue it is compatible, certainly as Aquinas conceived of it, with the theological virtues you list (although would you mind posting a citation to McCloskey, whom I would be interested in reading?). It is, at any rate, on Aquinas' reading, not "simple" prudence and surely not "bourgeois" prudence. It is a deep moral commitment that includes but transcends caution.

As to reputation, fair enough, it cannot be our only asset. I think we actually agree here. I did not mean reputation in the sense of a hollow image. I meant reputation for devotion to principle, which I take you to mean as well. (Reputation for devotion to exceptionalism would be circular, I think.) But as you suggest, devotion to the cardinal virtues surely includes practicing them with respect to others. I cannot imagine that we would for a moment tolerate another nation recording our telephone calls on the grounds that we have generally given up our privacy in an age of social media, as much as I agree with you that a "right" is not a constructive way of thinking of privacy. (Surely, by the way, there is some connection between freedom and a realm of privacy, again, without elevating privacy to the status of right. Else we would tolerate our own government recording our phone calls. There are, after all, always potential threats afoot.)

It may be, as you say, naive, but I do not see how it is relativistic to compare violations of international law (drones that cross international borders come to mind) with Putin's invasion of Crimea, nor do I see how our motives -- not acting by stealth, and acting for what we believe to be good reasons -- make a difference. If law controls, law controls. If I break into someone's house in the clear light of day in order to do something I feel morally justified in doing, I am still subject to arrest. The point is hardly that the drone program is comparable to annexing the Crimea (*that* would be relativism). It is that law either binds or it doesn't. Once we go down the road of law binding unless it's broken by good people for a good reason (which is how Putin would self-describe), we don't get to say it binds others. Maybe, as many thoughtful people argue, international law is a fiction anyway: an argument for another day. My point here is that we don't get to say it binds others if it doesn't bind us.

I admit, more broadly, that I am uncomfortable with the notion of America holding itself aloft as the global exemplar, and practitioner, of theological virtues in a way that, if I correctly understand, exempts us from rules we expect others to follow. At any rate, to compare the *recent* strain of American exceptionalism with narcissism is, again, not to say America has no exceptional traits. It is to say the recent strain interprets the world in terms of itself and is unable to see how the world perceives it. I do not suggest we should subjugate ourselves to empathy, only that -- given that we do not and could not have sufficient arms to impose ourselves wholly without regard to ideas -- how others see us matters.

Thanks again.

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Greg Weiner
on March 22, 2014 at 10:22:12 am


As always, very well said, indeed! Certainly, there is more to this nation, and how we perceive ourselves, than mere prudence. This is also true with respect to our foreign engagements. Those among us who took up arms did not do so for prudence - but rather for those other virtues you mentioned and a desire to provide support / relief to others who were similarly inclined but otherwise prevented from exercising those virtues by overwhelming force. We do not perceive of ourselves as "conquering" heroes but rather as liberators - as has historically been the case.
Yet, Greg makes a credible, if not totally persuasive argument. Some (perhaps, many?) amongst this nations leadership have pursued policies in international affairs that do not do justice to our aspirational notions of self. Calling it realpolitik (not always a bad practice), "making the world safe for democracy", "nation building", etc. while simultaneously endeavoring to gain advantage, without the skill and statecraft necessary to mask that advantage seeking, has left our reputation - our exceptionalism- sullied and soiled. I suspect that this is what Greg objects to in this matter.

And yet Greg, I think, fails to see that that which he advances, "see how the world perceives" us, is precisely what has caused the present commotion in Eurasia (and elsewhere). It is the motivation of the current occupant of the Oval Office and his minions in State, UN, NSA, that believe that this nation is hopeless, is disrespected by the rest of the world due to our "belligerence, meddling" etc that has led us to "lead from behind." Rather interesting is it not that once we embarked upon an approach that "conspicuously" sought to be more aware (and sensitive) to the world's opinion and regard that a) all hell is breaking loose and b) that even our former allies are asking "Where is American Leadership."
I do not here posit that this brand of "American Leadership" is bad nor good - only that it has served a rather useful purpose for the past 70 years and that many of our allies, would- be allies, and global competitors may actually be desirous of having America exercise such a role.

take care

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on March 22, 2014 at 11:16:09 am

As requested:

The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006)

Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World (2010)

Both are from University of Chicago press.
Because of the extensive supporting footnotes, the Kindle edition is has some drawbacks.

Sensing a Thomist interest, there is also "After Virtue" by Alasdair MacIntyre (Notre Dame Press 1981, Now in Its 3rd or 4th Edition). That work is probably already familiar.

Over at Cato.org is "Cato Unbound" where the archives, identified as "other issues" for October 2010 contain a "forum" discussion of the ideas in the 2010 work.

McCloskey also maintains a website, deirdremcloskey.com. There might also be some comparative interest in the current issue of Cato Unbound.

Perhaps, if "exceptionalism" has been captured and converted in meaning to a "recent strain," in the way that "Liberal" was captured and converted, the proper term should be the "American Difference."

"It is to say the *recent strain* interprets the world in terms of itself (how the "American Psyche" [reflected in general public attitudes and reactions]conceives itself?) and is unable to see (or does not care?) how the world perceives it (or finds *those* perceptions deficient?).

" -how others see us matters" is certainly the basis of current American politics, which are devoted to the creation and maintenance of perceptions. How others see us does not *matter* as much as the reality of what we are, what we do, and why we do it. The disregard of that reality is the great deficiency of American politics and American foreign-policy.
Of course, there are differences about what is intended by "matter."

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R Richard Schweitzer
on March 22, 2014 at 11:29:47 am

Of course, you raise the point of an interesting implication. The attempts to translate the current (and now long-established) American political genre of creating and maintaining perceptions as principal goals of activities, over to foreign policy, where perceptions form from many differing perspectives (ideological, social and economic) is productive of disordered relationships; and, can be destructive of relationships.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on March 22, 2014 at 15:28:41 pm

And now for why Ukraine matters and why Russian revanchism may also be lain at the feet of the same folks who brought us "leading from behind."


Apparently, it is our favored "behinds" that also expect the rest of the world to observe / practice our own energy folly. Leaders, however, of a different ilk, seize upon such folly to advance their own and national aims at our expense and that of our allies.
One must also ask, "Do we owe nothing to our allies, those to whom we have solemnly pledged to support. How does failure to adhere to commitments improve how the world sees us?"
This is apart from the ultimate correctness of any given policy - still there is a value (perceived by others) in honoring ones word.

Oh well, so much from an old nationalist!!!!

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