The Iron Click: American Exceptionalism and US Empire
The Iron Click: American Exceptionalism and US Empire
[This essay was published in 2007 in the book Selling US Wars, edited by Achin Vanaik, Olive Tree Press.]
I am so terrifed, America,
Of the iron click of your human contact.
And after this
The winding-sheet of your selfless ideal love.
Like a poison gas.
DH Lawrence, “The Evening Land”, 1923
“The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise… The United States welcomes our responsibility to lead in this great mission…The U.S. national security strategy will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests.”
- National Security Strategy of the United States, 2002
In expounding the doctrine of “pre-emptive war” and expanding the grounds on which the US considers itself entitled to take military action, the National Security Strategy of 2002 was seen as a departure from the past, in most quarters an alarming one. However, while it certainly reflects a more aggressive posture, the NSS echoes themes that reach back to the origins of the US republic. Its unilateralism is not a novelty but an elaboration of long-standing claims. Its underlying assumptions – that the US embodies the “single sustainable model”, that the US is engaged in a global mission on behalf of universal values, that US national interests coincide with the interests of humanity as a whole – reflect an American exceptionalism that is deeply ingrained in popular conceptions of US national identity.
American exceptionalism: the debate
In its narrow sense, the term “American exceptionalism” refers to the theory that the US is an exception to the general laws that apply to capitalist societies, notably in its lack of a mass social democratic, socialist or labour party and the weakness of collectivist ideas and class consciousness. In its broader sense, American exceptionalism envisions the US as unique among nations and societies; it is a country with a special mission and therefore enjoys special duties and prerogatives. The USA becomes not merely a nation-state among other nation-states, but an idea and an ideal.
There’s a vast literature on whether and to what degree US society actually is exceptional, and whether or not this is a good thing. A number of factors have been cited in attempts to explain the US’s ‘exceptional’ characteristics: the moving frontier, the absence of feudalism, the availability of land, slavery, immigration, the multi-ethnic composition of the working class. Clearly, the US is not a society devoid of class conflict or immune to crisis. Equally clearly, the various factors adduced as explanations of American exceptionalism have shaped the manner in which class conflict unfolds and crises are resolved. Like all societies, the US has distinctive features; among advanced capitalist societies it might be said to lie at one end of a spectrum with the Scandinavian countries at the other. The fact that in recent decades European countries have drawn closer to the US economic and social model suggests that this model is less “exceptional” than was previously assumed. To speak of the US as an “exception” implies the existence of a norm or a general law of development from which it qualitatively deviates, and identifying a norm or law of this kind is always problematic. As a perspective on US history, American exceptionalism fetishises differences and downgrade commonalities.
However, what cannot be denied is the presence and power within US society of the tenets of American exceptionalism, at both elite and popular levels. It’s a living, protean ideology. People in many countries believe their own nation is in some way “exceptional”, but this belief has deeper roots and greater resonance in the USA. It has shaped class relations within the US as well as popular views of the USA’s place in the world. It has played a critical role in securing domestic support for international expansion and deflecting domestic conflict. Crucially, American exceptionalism is today allied to unprecedented military power. Unlike other countries, the USA has the capacity to make real its claims to exceptional status. For these reasons, the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements need to understand how American exceptionalism functions and to devise strategies to challenge it.
Strikingly, in the copious studies of American exceptionalism scant attention has been paid to its impact on or expression in the US’s relations with the rest of the world. Seymour Martin Lipset’s American Exceptionalism: a Double Edged Sword, the most widely reviewed treatment of the subject in recent years, contains not a single reference to US foreign policy, armed interventions, colonial possessions, or military spending – the latter being a category in which the USA is most definitely exceptional. This silence is itself a symptom of habits of thought shaped by American exceptionalism.
“Americanism” and missionary nationalism
US nationalism shares characteristics with and performs many of the same functions as other forms of nationalism. As elsewhere, the “imagined community” of the nation helps incorporate and subordinate the mass of the population into a larger entity guided by an elite. However, because of the circumstances of its emergence, US nationalism could not wear the colours of language or ethnicity or make the territorial claims that sustained nationalisms in other lands. Instead, it posited “America” as an idea and elevated national identity to the status of an ideology: “Americanism”.
Richard Hofstadter observed, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.” To its adherents, “Americanism” is transparent and self-justifying; it’s a set of assumptions one naturally subscribes to because one is “American”. The vagueness of the category enhances its potency. It has a greater elasticity than culturally or ethnically delimited nationalisms.
In general, the tenets of “Americanism” (or “the American creed”) are similar to those recognised elsewhere as the tenets of liberal capitalism. “Freedom”, “opportunity”, “individualism”, the “rule of law” are all corralled into the “American” pen. What’s critical here is not the shifting assortment of ideas but their perennial branding as “American”. “Americanism” is adaptable and expansive – within it, liberalism and authoritarianism, assimilation and exclusion, white supremacism and multi-culturalism cohabit.
The designation of those who fail to conform to mainstream US ideology as “un-American” is revealing. By virtue of their ideas or lawful activities, US citizens are stripped of their national identity. Dissenters in other countries are frequently labelled unpatriotic or ‘anti-national’, but the “un-American” formulation is distinctive. The only comparable formulation is “anti-Soviet” – where the nation-state in question, the USSR, was identified (like “America”) with universal ideas.
One peculiarity of “Americanism” is that it usurps the designation of a hemisphere for a single nation-state, thus appropriating “the new world” and reducing the status of non-US “Americans”. For all its apparent ethnic and cultural neutrality, “Americanism” has always been culturally and ethnically inflected. Its virtues and values have been understood as the virtues and values of white Europeans, in particular northern Protestant Europeans.
“America”, from the outset, is portrayed as a unique experiment in human annals. “The citizens of America,” George Washington said, “are … to be considered the actors of a most conspicuous theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.” This notion of America as the ultimate arena of human nature still informs much US commentary on US culture, in which a variety of common human traits are designated “typically American”. Crucially, “America” is seen as an entity with a global purpose, a mission among the nations. “Our nation’s cause has always been larger than our nation’s defense,” Bush told the cadets at West Point in 2002, “We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace—a peace that favors liberty…. We will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.” As we will see, this is a claim with a long pedigree.
Though it is by definition globally expansive, this missionary nationalism insists it is not imperial. Indeed, it is part of its nature that “America” cannot be an empire, at least not an empire like other empires. In the crucial exercise of disguising imperial realities from the US populace, American exceptionalism plays a key role. The NSS refers to an “American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests”. In this marriage of the nation-state-turned-super-power with a set of transcendent values, America becomes a synonym for “freedom” (and “freedom” becomes a synonym for “free enterprise”). De Tocqueville spoke of the US’s “Holy cult of freedom”. “Freedom” (rather than self-defence) has been the putative motivation of nearly every US war: the campaigns against Native Americans and Mexicans, the Civil War (the battle cry on both sides), the Spanish-American War (“freedom” for Cuba and the Spanish possessions), World War I (to make the world safe for democracy), WWII, the Cold War, Vietnam, and now the “war on terror.”
Bush has been careful to deny any “clash of civilisations”, to disclaim American proprietorship of democracy or capitalism; he stresses the universal reach of “god given freedom”, and then invokes the global reach of the US as the instrument of that freedom. Ironically, Bush appeals to an old liberal vein in US thinking about the US global mission: a belief that the USA is the vanguard of human progress, a social and economic model to be exported.
“Ours was the first of the modern ideological countries, born of a revolutionary doctrine,” Gary Wills commented in the 1970s, “We are not merely a country. We are an -ism. And truth must spread without limit; it cannot countenance error.” Americanism is “power purified – and the saints are free of many restrictions imposed on those without proper doctrine.”
Foundation myths and American expansionism: 17th-19th centuries
“The story of America is the story of expanding liberty: an ever-widening circle constantly growing to reach further and include more. Our nation’s founding commitment is still our deepest commitment: in our world and here at home we will extend the frontiers of freedom.”
- George W. Bush, speech to Republican National Convention, 2004
John Winthrop’s oft-quoted admonition to his fellow New England colonists is usually cited as the fons et origo of American exceptionalism: “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” For Winthrop, the colonists’ toe-hold on the North American continent was a moral test, and judgement awaited them if they failed it. The propulsions of Calvinism – the light and darkness of divine election – seemed to be enhanced by the New World setting.
There’s a tendency to view American exceptionalism as a Puritan inheritance, descending in unbroken continuity from Winthrop. And it does retain a religious tinge: “America” is a chosen nation, “Americans” a chosen people. However, it can be argued that American exceptionalism was more profoundly shaped by Enlightenment rationalism’s secular ideas and the mastery of nature and human labour it facilitated. The US’s exceptional historic role was first proclaimed by European progressives. In Rights of Man (1792) Thomas Paine argued: “The revolution of America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics. So deeply rooted were all the governments of the old world, and so effectually had the tyranny and the antiquity of habit established itself over the mind that no beginning could be made in Asia, Africa or Europe…” The USA was seen a unique opportunity for both institutions and individuals to make a fresh start, to get “back to nature” and first principles. In 1827, an envious Goethe wrote:
America, you are luckier
Than this old continent of ours
…you do not suffer,
In hours of intensity,
From futile memories
And pointless battles.
A decade later, de Tocqueville declared: “the position of the Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”
The idea of “America” as a great social experiment conducted on a tabula rasa (the American hemisphere) meant that, from the beginning, its borders were in flux; it was conceived as expansionist. In 1787, John Adams (the future second president of the republic) in his Defence of the Constitution of the United States saw the newly-formed USA as an “experiment…destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe.”
Adams’ successor, Thomas Jefferson, was one of the first to articulate the universal claims of human rights on the political stage. In later ages and remote societies, the arguments and the prose of the US Declaration of Independence, authored by Jefferson, would be echoed by peoples seeking freedom from colonial domination. But even in there, the rhetoric of human rights slides into claims for national aggrandisement. Among the charges the Declaration makes against King George III is that he has blocked “new appropriation of lands”, failed to encourage migration from Europe and sided with “the merciless Indian savages” against the “inhabitants of our frontiers”, i.e. the white settlers seeking to expand the colonial domain.
In 1786, Jefferson declared that “our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, north and south, is to be peopled.” He wrote to Monroe: “I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could be made to our system of states.” What was envisioned here was not the spread of sovereign governments, but incorporation into a system predicated on white supremacy. As president, Jefferson quarantined Haiti, the hemisphere’s second independent republic. Haiti was an even bolder experiment in democracy than the one made to the north, but it was an experiment conducted by black salves, not white property owners. Following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 – in which the US acquired a huge land mass directly from the French Empire – Jefferson sent troops to New Orleans to ensure the reluctant inhabitants acceded to US rule. His belief that “America, north and south, has a set of interests distinct from those of Europe, and peculiarly her own” became the basis for the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared that the US would oppose any attempt by European powers to interfere in the hemisphere’s affairs – i.e. that the right to interfere in these affairs belonged exclusively to the US. This founding claim to hemispheric hegemony introduced an extra-territorial definition of national self-defence, underpinned by American exceptionalism.
Enlightenment universalism was, in the context of North America, made to serve as a settler-colonial ideology. White Anglo-Saxon supremacy was ingrained in it. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that “the origin myth” of the USA disguises the fact that the “American revolution” was “a split in the British empire, not an anti-colonial liberation movement”. Nonetheless, anti-colonial claims became dominant in the official memory and helped shape US popular resistance to the idea that the US should be an empire, and even more to the realisation that it is an empire. Whether it’s the intellectual Jefferson or the ineloquent Bush, a paradoxical claim is made that by virtue of its unique culture, the USA embodies values that transcend culture.
In 1845, on the eve of the war against Mexico through which it would seize what is now the southwest of the USA, a US newspaper editorialised that it was the “manifest destiny” of the nation to spread from Atlantic to Pacific. There was a mixture here of Calvinism (the predestination of the elect) and social experimentalism, the idea that the American model was progressive and superior, and could therefore disregard the claims of others. In due course, the US completed a process of territorial expansion as rapid, brutal and permanent as anything in the annals of the human race.
Nor was the US’s reach confined to the north American mainland. According to the State Department, the country engaged in 103 overseas military interventions between 1798 and 1895. To protect US shipping, the nascent republic fought battles in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Sumatra, Samoa, Argentina and Peru. The principles of sovereignty and self-government were always secondary to commercial interests. By the end of the 19th century, the US had established bases on dozens of islands across the Pacific and used military force to secure a foothold in the markets of China and Japan.
An American super-race
De Tocqueville noted that Americans lived “in a perpetual state of self-adoration”. As a result of the success and vibrancy of their great experiment, “they have an immensely high opinion of themselves and are not far from believing that they form a species apart form the rest of the human race.” Twenty years later, Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass, an innovatory, rhapsodic poem sequence in which Americans do indeed appear as “a species apart”.
Whitman was self-consciously and professedly an “American bard” and remains the major poet of American national identity. His thrust was democratic, egalitarian and inclusive. He celebrated and identified himself – physically, sometimes erotically – with the life of the streets. In nobody else’s verse does the word “America” recur so frequently or carry such freight. He defined “America”, of course, not merely as a territorial or civic entity but as “perennial with the earth, with Freedom, Law and Love”. He seems, at times, to envision Americans as a kind of super-race.
Whitman supported the Mexican War of 1846-48. He called for US troops to be stationed in Mexico to establish a regime “whose efficiency and permanency shall be guaranteed by the United States.” He hoped this would open an avenue “for manufacturers and commerce, into which the immense dead capital of the country will go.”
Whitman enthusiastically embraced a missionary nationalism. “Sole among nationalities, these States have assumed the task to put in forms of lasting power and practicality, on areas of amplitude rivalling the operations of the physical kosmos, the moral political speculations of ages, long, long defer’d, the democratic republican principle…” Yet this rhapsodic exponent of American exceptionalism shivered in the face of a reality in which “we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal, outvying the antique, beyond Alexander’s, beyond the proudest sway of Rome. In vain have we annexed Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as though we were somehow being endowed with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.”
In a wry key, a similar anxiety was expressed by Whitman’s contemporary, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who celebrated “the young American of the 19th century” as “heir to all old civilizations, founder of that new one which … is to be the noblest, as it is the last” but then went on to warn, “the chief danger is that he will think the whole planet is made for him”.
Empire and denial – from 1898 through the Cold war
Despite incessant foreign interventions, it was only in the late 1890s that the US began to acquire foreign territory outside the continental land mass of north America. This was one of the rare periods in which the US has spoken openly of itself as an empire. The 1890s witnessed a major depression and extensive, often violent conflict between labour and capital, as well as the challenge of a bi-racial, agrarian Populist movement. In the same decade, immigration from eastern and southern Europe reached mass proportions and Jim Crow laws imposed segregation and subordination on African-Americans across the south.
In this context, both government and private corporations sought to promote a new, unifying patriotism. The Pledge of Allegiance was introduced in schools. It became customary to stand for the Star Spangled Banner at public events. State and local Flag Days were inaugurated. At the same time, sections of elite opinion began arguing that the US should become an empire, a rival to the great European powers. Overseas expansion offered a remedy to a crisis of surplus capital and industrial capacity. In this decade, the US constructed a fleet that made it the world’s second greatest naval power. It annexed Hawaii, and in a brief but heavily publicised war prised Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines from the dying Spanish empire. Propaganda for the war emphasised its economic befits to “our farmers and workmen.” A higher gloss was offered by Rudyard Kipling, who urged the US to shoulder “the white man’s burden” and bring civilisation to the dark-skinned Filipinos.
In opposition to the new American imperialism, there emerged a substantial, avowedly “Anti-Imperialist” movement. “I am an anti-imperialist,” said Mark Twain. “I oppose putting the eagle’s talons on any other land.” For the Anti-imperialists, acquiring territories overseas was contrary to the principles of America’s own anti-colonial revolution. They warned (prophetically) that America could not be both a republic and an empire. And they frequently argued that if America became an empire, it would sacrifice the very qualities that made it exceptional. To the extent that the nation acted like a European power, its citizens would forfeit the blessings of their special historic providence.
Initially, there was extensive labour support for the anti-imperialist cause, including Samuel Gompers, leader of the AFL and apostle of “pure” (i.e. non-political) trades unionism. Gompers feared that American workers would be undercut by cheap labour in backward countries. However, along with the bulk of the labour movement, he soon acquiesced in overseas expansion. At this crucial juncture, which saw the emergence of independent labour parties in Britain and Australia, mainstream US unionism rejected political alliances, turned away from the unskilled and the unorganised, and sought accommodation with employers. One of the major factors in this momentous development was the impact of the Spanish War and the consequent US overseas expansion. Years later, the Populist leader Tom Watson observed: “The Spanish War finished us. The blare of the bugle drowned out the voice of the Reformer.” The brevity, success and spoils of the war fueled the new jingoism, which had a fierce racial edge. American superiority had been confirmed; white people who ruled over black people at home could now rule over black people abroad.
According to historian Charles Bergquist: “The imperialist thrust of 1898 coincided with the … the beginning of the long wave of capitalist expansion that lasted until the 1920s. In the Americas, this period witnessed a great burst of US investment in Latin America, US intervention to assure the separation of Panama from Colombia, the building of the Panama canal, and the consolidation of informal US control over the whole Caribbean basin.” The canal fostered the integration of the domestic market, enabled the US to dominate Latin America and penetrate further into east Asian markets. Growth rates after 1898 shot up to 5.2 % per annum. US foreign trade and foreign investment expanded exponentially. Sections of the US working class now enjoyed the fruits of empire, providing a material base for imperial ideology and American exceptionalism.
Filipinos, however, took the rhetoric of “freedom” seriously and rebelled against US rule. After more than a decade of brutal counter-insurgency, a quarter of a million Filipinos had been killed, and 4200 Americans. This was ten times the number of Americans killed in the brief Spanish-American War. Yet US history textbooks routinely assign far more space to the latter than the former. And even the Spanish-American war – with its enormous historical consequences – is treated as a self-contained incident, a curiosity, not part of the larger narrative. Thus the US population knows little of the US’s history as an explicitly imperial power, which makes it harder for it to grasp the imperial nature of its present activities.
Openly imperial rhetoric was soon replaced by something more compatible with American exceptionalist traditions. For the most part, the US chose to shoulder the “white man’s burden” through indirect rule, through economic coercion backed up by the threat of military intervention. In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt issued his Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, anticipating the NSS in its targeting of ‘rogue states’:
“Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilised society may, in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilised nation, and in the western hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”
So it was no longer a question of protecting the hemisphere from European interference, but from the unwise actions of its own residents and regimes. The rationalisation was largely accepted by a US population that had been divided by the overt imperialism of the preceding years.
It was Woodrow Wilson, traditionally viewed, like Jefferson, as an idealist, intellectual and internationalist, who most ruthlessly applied Roosevelt’s Corollary. America, Wilson declared, was “the only idealistic nation in the world”. He argued that the proposed League of Nations would be based on “American principles” which were “the principles of mankind and must prevail.” He proclaimed “national self-determination” as a cornerstone of the new world order, but deployed US military forces overseas more frequently than any of his predecessors: against Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua and the nascent Soviet Union. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen surveyed the scanty consideration of Wilson’s record of overseas intervention in US history textbooks. Of 12 textbooks surveyed, not one even mentioned the anti-Soviet action, although thousands of US troops were tied up on Soviet soil for some two years. Where they do mention foreign interventions, the textbooks present them as reluctant responses to social breakdown. One of the most widely used books, The Triumph of the American Nation, recounts the 1914 invasion of Mexico: “President Wilson was urged to send military forces into Mexico to protect American interests and to restore law and order.”
The US entered World War I only in its final year and enjoyed the boost of quick victory and access to the victors’ spoils. The war facilitated the repression of the most militant and internationalist sections of the working class, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, and the co-optation of the AFL, whose members benefited from wartime increases in production. The US emerged from the war in a position of greatly enhanced strength compared to its European rivals. American exceptionalism was powerfully re-enforced.
Wilson, of course, failed to sell the League of Nations to the US public. “Isolationism” became the prevalent note through the 20s and most of the thirties. Coolidge offered Latin America “dollar diplomacy”, though the military stick was still employed. Isolationism was always mainly a wariness of involvement in European conflicts; no isolationist suggested the US should withdraw from the Philippines or any of its beachheads abroad. As a current of opinion it was bolstered by nativism but also by the particular interests and preoccupations of US capital at that time. Both the “isolationists” and the “internationalists” of the period drew heavily on American exceptionalism. In his famous call to make the 20th century “the first great American century”, media baron Henry Luce – arguing against the isolationists – offered what he called “a vision of America as a world power, which is authentically American.” He postulated “America as the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise, America as the training center of the skilled servants of mankind, America as the good Samaritan…America as the workshop of the ideals of freedom and justice.”
World War II discredited isolationism, but it magnified the sway of American exceptionalism. Military production finally resolved the economic and social crisis of the thirties; the labour unions formed through militant action were incorporated. The US was distant from the fields of battle and shielded from the devastation; it was fighting a just and necessary cause, humanity’s cause; and at the end of the great struggle it emerged as an economic and military “super-power”. All of which ensured the triumph of the Luce version of America’s missionary nationalism.
American exceptionalism made it easy for the US to assume the mantle of “leader of the free world” in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. In the hugely influential 1947 article in which he outlined the strategy of “containment”, George Kennan suggested that Americans should feel “gratitude to a Providence which by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.” Under the Truman Doctrine, the US pledged to send money, equipment or military force to countries threatened by “attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” – which in the first instance meant aiding the right-wing in the Greek civil war. The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms,” Truman explained. In his first inaugural address in 1953, Eisenhower reminded Americans that “destiny has laid upon our country the responsibility of the free world’s leadership.” In a global battle of -isms, “Americanism” squared off against Communism, which was defined as its antithesis.
Cold War military spending helped fuel economic growth, and confirm America as “the land of opportunity.” Having rid itself of the organised left at the onset of the period, US labour fully subscribed to the permanent arms economy and the ideology that went with it, as well as using its resources in the international labour movement to sabotage working class challenges to US dominance.
The Cold War era of the 50s and early 60s was the heyday of American exceptionalism. Academic studies of the subject, overwhelmingly triumphalist in tone, proliferated. Sociologist Daniel Bell proclaimed the “end of ideology” – the American model could not be superceded.
In the competition with the Soviet bloc, it was vital that the US distinguish itself from the old European empires (one reason it refused to back Britain and France over Suez). Here the already established traditions of American exceptionalism made it easier for people in the US (if not elsewhere) to persuade themselves that their role in the world was benign and could be played by no other nation. Henry Steel Commager, a liberal, exclaimed: “The record is perhaps unique in the history of power: the organisation of the UN, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the organisation of NATO, the defence of Korea, the development of atomic power for peaceful purposes – these prodigious gestures are so wide and so enlightened that they point the way to a new concept of the use of power.”
In entering the Korean war in 1950, Truman had insisted that what motivated the US was “basic moral principle” and definitely not any wish for “domination”. Fifteen years later, announcing the despatch of US troops to the Dominican Republic to topple an elected government, Lyndon Johnson solemnly declared: “Over the years of our history our forces have gone forth into many lands, but always they returned when they were no longer needed. For the purpose of America is never to suppress liberty, but always to save it.” The denial of empire and the insistence on the American exception echoes down the years. Nixon wrote in his memoirs that “the US is the only great power without a history of imperialistic claims on neighbouring states.” Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security advisor, insisted: “We are the first global power in history that is not an imperial power.” Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld insisted to Aljazeera: “We’re not a colonial power. We’ve never been a colonial power.” Colin Powell agreed: “We have never been imperialists. We seek a world in which liberty, prosperity and peace can become the heritage of all peoples.” Both men seemed astonished and offended that anyone could think otherwise.
Vietnam and after : crisis and revival of American exceptionalism
Explaining the war in Vietnam to his fellow Americans, Johnson assured them: “We have no territory there, nor do we seek any. .. We want nothing for ourselves…. we fight for values and we fight for principles.” But the platitudes of American exceptionalism were to be profoundly shaken by Vietnam. Not only did the US lose the war, to a poorer, darker people, but its populace for the first time became aware of the immorality and brutality of its government’s foreign policy. In the context of widespread unquestioned assumptions about what “America” meant in the world, this was a profound shock. Cold War liberalism, which had given birth to the Vietnam nightmare, was stripped of its aura of idealism. Coupled with the black freedom struggle of the era, Vietnam made apparent a huge disparity between “America” in theory and the US in practise. In 1975, a traumatised Daniel Bell proclaimed the end of American exeptionalism: “There is no longer a manifest destiny or mission. We have not been immune to the corruption of power. We have not been the exception… our mortality lies before us.”
In the years to come, the Vietnam syndrome – according to which the US population remained reluctant to expose US soldiers in large numbers to danger overseas – acted as restraint on direct foreign intervention. In one sense, it was rooted in a popular recognition of the limits of US power and the fallibility of US leaders. But it also re-enforced the tradition of empire by indirection, and ensured that Americans remained at a safe remove from the realities and consequences of US policy. Under these conditions, American exceptionalism could revive.
Ford, Carter, and Reagan all began their presidencies by advocated the need for the US to return to basic principles. All of them promised – but only Reagan seemed to deliver – a return to a pre-Vietnam America. In his inaugural address, Carter pledged himself to “international policies which reflect our own precious values”. He presented “human rights” as the new, driving force in US foreign policy. He described the new posture as “compatible with the character of the American people. Our country will be a leader in the world standing up for the same principles on which our nation was founded.” But under Carter, “national security” usually trumped “human rights”. His administration opposed embargoes on Uganda and South Africa, extended most favoured nation status to China, aided Zaire and Indonesia, and initiated policies that his successor later escalated: opposition to the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and support for the Afghan mujahedeen. The famous Camp David agreement did little for the Palestinians but did bring Egypt under the US umbrella, making it a top recipient of US military aid. In his last State of the Union address, in 1980, Carter joined the list of presidents who have modified and extended the US prerogatives embodied in the Monroe doctrine: “Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” he said, “and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary.”
Reagan’s faith in American exceptionalism was undisguised and unqualified. He liked to talk about America as “the city on the hill”. In his inaugural address, he promised to make America once again “the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope”. The US has “a destiny and a duty, a duty to preserve and hold in sacred trust mankind’s age-old aspirations.” Speaking to the UN, he told the world that Americans “have never been aggressors. We halve always struggled to defend freedom and democracy. We have no territorial ambitions. We occupy no countries.” In his “crusade for freedom” against the Soviet nemesis, Reagan massively increased military spending; the ensuing economic recovery helped ensure his re-election in 1984 under the slogan “America is back”. He welcomed both the Contras and the mujahedeen to the White House as “the moral equivalents of our founding fathers.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a new wave of triumphalist American exceptionalism. The US model had outlasted all its competitors, who now sought to emulate it. Now it was the “end of history”, instead of ideology, that was declared. As US forces led the assault in the Gulf, the first President Bush told Congress: “The hopes of humanity turn to us. We are Americans; we have a unique responsibility to do the hard work of freedom.“ In the aftermath of victory over Saddam Hussein, Bush declared that America possessed “a saving grace which makes us still exemplary to other nations”. Daniel Bell recanted his 1975 recantation, declaring that American exceptionalism was alive and well and rooted in the fact that the US was a “complete civil society, perhaps the only one in political history”.
After taking office in 1993, Clinton explained that “the over-riding purpose” of his foreign policy would be “to expand and strengthen the community of market-based economies” and “enlarge the circle of nations that live under… free institutions.” Americanism was thus linked to globalisation, seen as the export of the US economic model. The key US successes of the Clinton years were the passage of NAFTA and the Uruguay round of GATT. Along with this economic “enlargement” went the continued exercise of military prerogatives as and when convenient. Clinton authorised the use of force on more occasions than any of his post-Vietnam predecessors. In deference to the Vietnam syndrome, these actions relied mainly on air power rather than troops on the ground. They were also carefully smothered with the rhetoric of American excpetionalism. In his address on the Dayton Agreement in November 1995 he told US citizens: “From our birth, America has always been more than just a place. America has embodied an idea that has become an ideal …Today, because of our dedication, America’s ideals – liberty, democracy, peace – are more ans more the aspirations of people everywhere in the world. It is the power of our ideas – even more than our size, our wealth and our military might – that makes America a uniquely trusted nation.” In the years to come, he and Madeleine Albright, his Secretary of State, frequently described the US as “the indispensable nation”.
None of the central neo-con postulates about the US’s role in the world is novel: America as an agent of global freedom, specifically of “free enterprise”, America as a modern social model which must be propagated, America as a world power that remains distinctively American. Down the generations these notions have formed the common currency of both liberal and conservative US opinion. The universal claims embedded in American exceptionalism have paved the way for an empire that denies its existence. And this denial is re-enforced in countless ways in everyday life. You’ll look in vain in the USA for the kind of visible legacies of empire – statues, street names – that litter European cities.
The living influence of American exceptionalism was starkly displayed in the US response to 9/11. The year before, a poll had showed only 4-5% considered foreign affairs the most pressing issue facing the nation.
In the absence of global context, and in particular of any understanding of the role of the US in the middle east and central Asia, the attacks seemed a case of motiveless malignity. CNN showed footage of a woman running from the smoke and debris and crying, “America doesn’t do this. America doesn’t kill innocent people.” She was genuinely bewildered, and her bewilderment reflected a world view fostered by American exceptionalism.
In his address to Congress after the attacks, Bush posed the question “Why do they hate us?”, and replied: “They hate what we see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected Government … They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other … As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror; this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world … The advance of human freedom — the great achievement of our time, and. the great hope of every time — now depends on us … ”
In this construction, the atrocities of 9/11 were not merely attacks on the lives of innocents or on the US government but on “American values”, which, as ever, were also claimed as universal (or “civilisational”) values). It was argued (demanded) that anyone who shared these values should automatically support the US in its chosen response to the terrorist attack. Those who demurred were condemned as “anti-American”. The US was under assault because of its exceptional nature; it seemed the same special destiny that made America admired and trusted by other nations now made it the object of resentment, envy and hatred.
In response to 9/11, the display of national emblems became ubiquitous, and in some contexts de rigueur. The corporate media branded their coverage of the crisis with US flags and logos shrieking “America Under Attack” or “America Strikes Back”. From baseball to pop music, there was hardly a facet of US culture that was not mobilised to support “national unity”, “national resolve” and the distinctiveness of the “American way of life”. Although there were certainly chauvinist and xenophobic responses to the bombings of Madrid and London, that was not the prevalent mood in either country. (In London, there was hardly a Union Jack on display; polls showed that most Londoners believed the attack was linked to US-UK policy in Iraq, not a hatred of “British values”.)
In the wake of 9/11, and before the NSS of 2002, the US redefined ’self-defence’ and the superpower’s military prerogatives. It claimed the right to attack (invade and occupy) countries alleged to harbour people involved in terrorist acts against the USA. This was a power the US explicitly denied to others: it would not accept, for example, that India, in the wake of a terrorist attack on its soil, had the right to respond by a military strike against Pakistan. Yet this assertion of imperial right went virtually unchallenged in the USA, except by Chomsky and the far left. The willingness of US intelligentsia to endorse, casually, a doctrine and a practise that could never be sustained as a norm of international behaviour spoke volumes about the uncritical acceptance of long-standing American exceptionalist claims and the historical-geographical myopia they engender.
Bush’s posture drew on widely accepted notions of American exceptionalism and that helped him to secure (at least initially) wide domestic support for “the war on terror”. Here, the USA appeared, once again, as an –ism, as the upholder of universal values, a special nation with distinctive and exclusive prerogatives. The official opposition’s fear of challenging these notions helped render their arguments against Bush hesitant and ineffective.
On April 10, 2003, in the course of his “mission accomplished” speech declaring victory in Iraq, Bush told his audience: “Other nations in history have fought in foreign lands and remained to occupy and exploit. Americans, following a battle, want nothing more than to return home.” It shouldn’t have been hard to expose this bogus claim, and the false promise that went with it, but Bush’s mainstream critics, burdened with a deference to American exceptionalism, were unable to do so.
Colluding or contesting? “Americanism”, liberals and the left
No other empire in its heyday encountered the degree of internal dissent with which the US empire has had to contend – in 1898, during Vietnam, in relation to central America in the 80s, and in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The US elite has often had to work hard to secure domestic support for its international interventions. Repeatedly, American exceptionalism has come to its aid.
In the 1930s, social crisis gave rise to a contest between left and right over the ownership of “America” and “Americanism”. During the popular front period, the CPUSA, the dominant organization on the US left, played down its revolutionary rhetoric and sought to establish itself as a homegrown people’s movement for social justice. The official slogan of the era was “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism.” The left claimed the Founding Fathers and Lincoln as its own. It presented itself as the vanguard not in a global class struggle but in the unfolding American experiment, the expanding circle of freedom that was “America”. One of the missions of the popular front was to “Americanize” a seemingly alien movement (Marxism, socialism). The left fretted that its ethnic roots were showing, and that these roots betrayed a heritage that was less than authentically American.
In emphasizing their national credentials, the Communists were part of a wider movement. The New Deal encouraged interest in American history and culture and a new regionalism in the arts. It sponsored large-scale narrative paintings in public spaces and a wide array of folkloric activities. Alan Lomax, folk music archivist and proselytiser, enjoyed both access to the Roosevelt White House and close ties to the CPUSA. He recorded Ledbelly and Woody Guthrie. In 1937, he was appointed director of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, a platform he used to argue that there was a democratic pulse at the heart of American folk music: “The idea implicit in this great rhymed history of the American pioneer worker can be summed up in the key lines of one of the noblest of the songs: “John Henry told his captain, A man ain’t nothing but a man.” Leaving aside the fact that in the late 18th century, Robert Burns, a Scottish Republican, had declared “A man’s a man for a’ that”, what’s remarkable is how easily even this progressive version of the national narrative turns expansive. Lomax repeated with admiration a tall tale from the old frontier:
“The boundaries of the United States, sir?” replied the Kentuckian. “Why sir, on the north we are bounded by the aurora borealis, on the east by the rising sun, on the south by the procession of the equinoxes and on the west by the day of judgement.”
In adopting the rhetoric of Americanism, the left conceded dangerous ground, not so much to backward-looking nativism as to the emboldened American imperialism that emerged after World War II. The Cold War split the liberal-left coalition of the New Deal; it isolated the Marxist and radical left. The claims on Jefferson and Lincoln, the protestations of “Americanism”, wilted in the face of domestic repression. The left was demonised as alien and stripped of its American credentials – because it was ideologically outside the Cold war consensus. The US and USSR faced off self-consciously as ideological (not just military or economic) rivals. The long-established universal claims of “Americanism” were pitted against the universal claims of Soviet ideology. In these circumstances, loyalty to the USA was tied to acceptance of the latest version of the missionary nationalism – whose terms the liberals and the left had helped entrench.
In the labor movement the Cold War purge led to mass expulsions, splits and a historic de-politicization from which US unions are still recovering. Nationalist paranoia and super-power prerogatives merged, with long-term consequences for US political culture. The divergence of the US polity from its European counterparts was deepened and the centre of gravity pushed to the right, where it’s stayed. The way was paved for the routine acceptance of huge peacetime military expenditure. There was barely a whisper of domestic dissent when the US overthrew the non-Communist, moderately nationalist regimes of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and invaded Lebanon in 1958.
By colluding in the demonisation not only of Communism and Marxism, but of anyone who opposed the Cold War or failed to genuflect before the altar of American exceptionalism, the liberals helped create the political culture in which “liberal” itself eventually became a dirty word. They handed the right a devastatingly flexible ideological trump card: “Americanism”, a means to de-legitimise radical, non-conformist and especially avowedly internationalist ideas.
While the excesses of McCarthyism were eventually curbed, its assumptions remained in place. They came under huge stress during the Vietnam War. Indeed, much of the bitterness that characterised the anti-war movement in the USA sprang from the abrupt collapse of American exceptionalist claims, for which the generation reared on Cold War liberalism were entirely unprepared. The discovery that America was a bloodstained empire was traumatic. But in subsequent years that trauma was largely reshaped in popular culture in ways that displaced it from the context of US empire. It became an “American tragedy”, marked much more by the loss of 58,000 US lives than two million (at least) Vietnamese civilians. In the reactionary version, the war was lost at home, by the weakness and lack of patriotism of the left. In the liberal versions (Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, Platoon), the war is a psychodrama, an arena for an existential struggle for the American soul. Why the US was in south-east Asia in the first place is rarely addressed. The Vietnamese and their struggle for self-determination remain invisible.
The culture of “patriotic dissent” remains powerful in the USA, and has been strongly in evidence during the post 9/11 anti-war movement. US flags are numerous and prominent on demonstrations; the focus is on US casualties. The thrust of the argument is often that the war is bad for people in the US, and the suffering of Iraqis appears peripheral. This is more than the kind of tactical adjustment to parochial concerns that, rightly or wrongly, one sees in struggles all over the world. It reflects and re-enforces the circumscribed moral arena established by American exceptionalism. Once again there is a competition with the right for the claim to “Americanism”. And once again, a fear that opposition to the war in Iraq might be construed as lack of faith in “American” ideals and norms.
There are, of course, other traditions of dissent in the USA, traditions that reject American exceptionalism, among them: the IWW’s opposition to World War I, DuBois’ rejection of the Cold War, Malcolm X’s explicit critique of the category of “American” (“You’re not Americans,” he told black audiences in the 60s, “you’re the victims of America”). There has always been a black exception to the American exception. Martin Luther King often invoked the uniqueness of the American dream, and conflated it with the humanist dream; he spoke of America’s “promissory note” and how it had to be redeemed. But he was also an internationalist. His principal political model was Gandhi and he was inspired by the anti-colonial struggles of the era. In his last years, he moved towards a more explicit internationalism and a sharper critique of American imperialism.
No one likes us – I don’t know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let’s drop the big one and see what happens
We give them money but are they grateful?
No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful
They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them
We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them
Asia’s crowded and Europe’s too old
Africa is far too hot
And Canada’s too cold
And South America stole our name
Let’s drop the big one
There’ll be no one left to blame us
- Randy Newman, “Political Science”, 1970
Anatole Lieven called it the American public’s “intense solipsism”. Here, foreign suffering is largely unreal and global injustice often invisible. Sometimes, as in US sports, the outside world disappears altogether, or is subsumed by America itself: the climax of a competition played exclusively among north American cities is dubbed “the world series”.
A National Geographic survey in 2002 revealed a significant gap in global awareness between young Americans and young people in comparable societies. Only one in seven young Americans could find Iraq (13%), Iran (13%) or Israel (14%) on a map of the Middle East. On a map of Europe only 37% could locate Britain. In addition, a majority of young Americans grossly overstated the US population. Thirty per cent put it at 1 to 2 billion. Respondents in all other countries were better able to identify the US population than were young Americans. Nonetheless, a majority of young adults in the US (59%) believe that Americans, in general, know the same amount of geography as (31%) or more than (28%) people in other countries. Only 11% of young adults in the US reported using the internet to keep up with world events, compared to 25% in other countries.
This disparity takes on particular significance in light of the quantity and quality of foreign news coverage in the US media. During the twenty years prior to 9/11, newspaper editors and television executives reduced foreign coverage by 70% to 80%, according to Newsweek. A Harvard University study showed that the amount of time devoted to international news on network television shrank from 45% of total news coverage in the 1970s to 13.5% in 1995. While the media hyped globalisation, it kept Americans increasingly in the dark about global realities. Media executives blamed the trend on popular parochialism, but when the Pew Research Center asked Americans in 1996 what kinds of stories they regularly followed, 15% named international news, compared to 16% “Washington politics”, 14% “consumer news” and 13% “celebrity news”.
The veil obscuring the view of the outside world from within the US is drawn by the media, educational institutions, and popular fictions of all sorts. It’s also kept in place by Americans’ relatively low level of foreign travel. One reason for this is that holiday entitlement is so meagre in the USA (usually two weeks compared to the European standard of five). Thus, the weakness of labour materially re-enforces American exceptionalist perceptions.
Even after the shock of 9/11 and the debate that led up to the Iraq war, a substantial proportion of the US populace remains unaware of global opinion. When Americans were asked which candidate in the 2004 election they thought people around the world would prefer, only 35% assumed that more would prefer Kerry, 25% thought more would prefer Bush and 39% thought views were evenly divided. In fact, Kerry was the overwhelming popular choice among all of the US’s traditional allies – with margins ranging from 10-1 (France and Norway) to 3-1 in Britain and 2-1 in Japan.
However, US attitudes towards the outside world cannot be reduced to “insularity”. Even in the weeks after the Iraq invasion, surveys confirmed that the majority of Americans continued to prefer a multilateralist approach to world affairs. Presented with three options for the US role in the world, only 12% agreed that “As the sole remaining superpower, the US should continue to be the pre-eminent world leader in solving international problems.” On the other extreme, only 11% thought that “the US should withdraw from most efforts to solve international problems.” A decisive 76% believed that “the US should do its share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries.” As in other polls, a majority (62%) agreed with the view that “the US plays the role of world policeman more than it should.” Presented with the argument, “The US has the right and even the responsibility to overthrow dictatorships,” only 38% agreed, while 57% disagreed.
Attitudes to foreign aid illustrate some of the paradoxes of popular understanding of the US role in the world. In a PIPA poll taken in 2000, 61% said foreign aid spending was “too much”, 7% said it was “too little” and 26% “about right”. But the catch here is that people in the US believe that US foreign aid is much greater than it actually is. When asked what proportion of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, the median estimate was 20% – more than 20 times the actual amount. Only 5% of respondents estimated, correctly, an amount of 1% or less. This extreme misperception was common to all demographic groups. Even among those with post graduate education the median estimate was 8%. When asked what percentage should be spent the great majority stated figures many times the actual amount. So, in one sense, Americans are in favour, quite overwhelmingly, of a massive increase in foreign aid, a policy advocated by no mainstream politician, and never promoted in the media.
Another poll indicates that 70% would be willing to pay an extra $50 a year per income tax paying household to help meet the Millennium Development Goals on world hunger. However, a key proviso was that “other countries were willing to give this much” as well. This reflects the continuing belief that the US bears more than its share of the human race’s burdens. Americans assume that as a percentage of GNP, the US gives substantially more than other developed countries, whereas the opposite is the case. Despite the facts, and thanks not only to media silences but also to the assumptions of American exceptionalism, the US is seen as a patsy, a nation whose inveterate generosity is exploited by others. The entrenched disparity between national self-image and national reality disarms the US population and perverts the generous impulses it shares with others.
Similar contradictions were illustrated in US responses to the Abu Ghraib revelations of 2004, which severely tested the assumptions of American exceptionalism. In a poll in July of that year, soon after the damning photographs were published, 66% said that the US should abide by the international law that “governments should never use physical torture,” while 29% found that standard “too restrictive.” 77% believed that a soldier “ordered to take an action against a detainee that the soldier believes is in violation of international law should have the right to refuse to follow the order”. Majorities rejected most forms of coercion even when a detainee might be withholding information critical to stopping a terrorist attack on the US. 58% rejected the use of threatening dogs, 75% rejected forcing detainees to go naked – both techniques formally approved by the Secretary of Defence. However, only 35% were aware that Rumsfeld had approved of making detainees go naked, 45% that he approved of using threatening dogs and 55% that he had approved of hooding and stress positions. Among those who knew that Rumsfeld had approved of these measures, 60% favored his removal. Among those who thought that he had not approved any of them, 26% favored his removal. Thus Rumsfeld survived Abu Ghraib, as did the widespread belief that torture was an aberration, an exception to America’s exceptionalim.
A distorting mirror: US self-perception
Ironically, American exceptionalism obstructs perceptions of what’s actually exceptional or at least distinctive in US society. It renders peculiar features invisible to most Americans. Take the absence of universal health care. To most people in the USA, access to medical care is a major anxiety, even though the US has more than twice as many doctors and nurses per head than the UK and ten times as many as India. And it spends lavishly, devoting 15% of GDP to health care, a higher proportion than any other country. A profligate and chaotic health care system governed by the priorities of private profit excludes 14% of the population – the 45 million Americans without health insurance – and leaves most of the rest with only partial and often expensive coverage. The Institute of Medicine estimates that at least 18,000 Americans die prematurely each year solely because they lack health insurance.
American exceptionalism inhibits a comparative understanding of the USA. The assumption that the USA is the model democracy means that developments and improvements made elsewhere are largely unknown or regarded as irrelevant. And antiquated, undemocratic features such as the “federal system” become totemic.
American exceptionalism obstructs knowledge and understanding of US history and the pattern of its involvements abroad, especially any perception of the US as acting, like any other imperial power, on the basis of self-interest. Each intervention is presented as an altruistic response to a crisis. Since there is no American empire, no pattern, habit or system of extra-territorial domination, the motive for each intervention is assessed at face value. Given America’s special status among nations, the exercise of explicitly American prerogatives (as indicated in the NSS) seems as natural to many Americans today as did westward continental expansion to their 19th century forebears. American exceptionalism makes it easier for people in the US to believe that the US is doing the world a favour by intervening, that it does so from benign motives, and that it has a right to seek to engineer the world in its image.
In recent years, the fact that America is an empire has become less of a secret, even to Americans. Commentators such as Robert Kaplan and Niall Fergusson have urged the US to abandon its blushes and face up to its imperial responsibilities. They argue that empires have been and can be benign, and that the US is a liberal empire, or, in the words of Michael Ignatieff, “an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy”. The appeal of this new imperial rhetoric seems largely restricted to sections of the intelligentsia, liberal and conservative. Bush and US spokespersons are careful to avoid or refute it, most Americans are uncomfortable or bewildered by it, and it is simply unacceptable to those in Asia, Africa and Latin America whose lives and consciousness have been shaped by anti-colonial movements. For the foreseeable future, explicitly imperial rhetoric will remain difficult to reconcile with the self-image fostered by American exceptionalism – a self-image that has proved hugely valuable in disguising the realities of US foreign policies and securing domestic acquiescence in them.
It’s important to emphasise that the zealots of American exceptionalism do not have it all their own way. In the USA there is widespread and growing unease about unilateralism. There is a greater hunger than in the past for a non-mythic version of US history (witness the phenomenal sales of Howard Zinn’s People’s History) and increased referral to non-US news source (millions of hits on BBC and Guardian websites). As in other societies, and for similar reasons, there is a greater internationalist consciousness, reflected in awareness of environmental and development issues. Significantly, the huge migration from the south of the last two decades means that large numbers in the USA enjoy living links with non-US and non-European histories.
American exceptionalism fatally compromises the humanist universalism it claims as America’s cause. Culturally, emotionally, it curtails human solidarity. More than ever, “Americanism” is a prison that the US citizenry needs to break out of – in its own interest and in the interests of the victims of US policy. A purposeful self-redefinition of US national identity will require:
1)A frank encounter with the facts of US history, especially the history of US intervention abroad
2) A recognition that US is an empire and that US citizens live in an imperial metropolis
3) A conscious renunciation of American exceptionalism
There is an understandable temptation to adopt a softened or liberal form of American exceptionalism, but history shows that this should be resisted. What’s needed is a consciously selective, critical approach to US traditions – and a willingness to admit and draw on non-US traditions. That process can be aided by an increased interchange between the US and global lefts. In many respects, more of this is happening now than ever before.
Of course, internationalism cannot be merely rhetorical or abstract. Dissent in the USA must speak in an American idiom – but that is not the same as speaking in the idiom of Americanism.