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September 29, 2006

Anatol Lieven's Critique of Exemplarism
Posted by Michael Signer

The newest edition of the exciting journal Democracy contains an article by Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author, with John Hulsman, of Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World.  In his article, Lieven critiques my essay in Democracy's inaugural issue arguing for a doctrine of "American exemplarism" that would allow America to be both strong and good.

Lieven's essay is problematic for two reasons:  (1) its general argument illuminates in stark detail the troubling divide within the left that I discuss in my article, and (2) its internal confusions chart out the hopelessly gnarled strands of progressive thought on foreign policy, and exposes just why it's so hard to have any clarity in our principles -- much less our policy.

Both problems march right up to the fore in Lieven's first paragraph:

Michael Signer’s essay is yet another in an all-too-numerous list of recent works by center-left intellectuals arguing that America can recover from its present international difficulties by changing the style of its approach to the world without significantly changing its policies. He denounces the "vulgar exceptionalism" of the neoconservatives and the Bush Administration but does not realize that we are well past the days when a tonier, more agreeably phrased American exceptionalism could command real support from most of the rest of the world. Signer’s argument reflects the fact that, in the end, by far the greater part of the Republican and Democratic establishments share the same basic myths of American nationalism concerning the righteousness of American power, the same commitment to U.S. supremacy in the world, and a common adherence to the same set of basic imperial strategies. And until progressive foreign policy thinkers confront these myths, they only will offer up alternative slogans or tactics but nothing resembling a foreign policy vision.

There are so many arguments going on here that you need a scorecard.  Lieven's first sentence asserts that I focus on the wrong thing -- "style" -- failing to recognize that America "can recover from its present international difficulties" by "significantly changing [our] policies."  I disagree, but fair enough -- it's a clear argument, at least.

Yet Lieven's second sentence makes an altogether different point -- that we are "well past the days when a tonier, more agreeable phrased American exceptionalism" could garner broad support.  His first sentence presumably means that, if America did have the right policies (rather than style), we could generate more prestige and strength.  The second point argues from futility rather than possibility.  In terms of ever gaining real support from the international community, we might as well throw up our hands and give up. 

It goes on.  Lieven's third sentence makes an even more different third argument -- that the problems can be blamed on "myths."  He write, "the Republican and Democratic establishments share the same basic myths of American nationalism."  And "until progressive foreign policy thinkers confront these myths, they only will offer up alternative slogans or tactics but nothing resembling a foreign policy vision."

There's a lot going on here.  First, Lieven seems honestly to believe that the left and the right have virtually identical notions of America's basic national character and promise, which just beggars belief.  How can you say that the "establishment" left and right have similar (much less identical) assumptions about American exceptionalism in the face of the last several decades and deep partisan conflicts over Vietnam, Nicaragua, Kosovo, Somalia, and, today, Iraq?   This gets perilously close to the stuff Ralph Nader was saying during the 2000 campaign -- that the Democrats and Republicans were the same.

Second -- and here's where it gets most interesting -- Lieven seems himself to yearn for something greater.  In his words, not mine, a "foreign policy vision."  But I thought he was saying in the second sentence (whew, it seems so long ago now) that the problem was policy?

I don't mean to caricature Lieven's argument.  There is a lot of good-faith puzzling in his essay about just how America can be strong and good.  But, to go deep into probably an inapposite metaphor, he mistakes his navel for the sun -- he thinks that vision can emanate from deep, head-clutching introspection about America's problems -- its embrace of myths, the similarity of both parties, etc.  In his grasping for some mass recognition of the reflective, Hegelian saneness he seems to be trying to invoke, he seems honestly to believe there's a "vision" here.  It's just like many progressives today -- torn between their desire for an intelligent, iterative foreign policy; their recoiling from the Bush Administration's excesses; and their liminal desire for a vision that would reconcile the leadership of the party of FDR and Truman with the party of the Vietnam revolt. 

Lieven doesn't seem to appreciate that the supposedly crippling problem he lays out with American exemplarism -- namely, that it's difficult -- is exactly the problem that faces what he seems to want -- a vision!  Visions are difficult.  That's why they're visions -- you're seeing beyond the horizon. 

The way out (I believe) will be through clarity, vision, and belief in America's ability to lead through admiration -- not through arguments that aim to have it a million ways at once, to argue that, well, yes, America maybe/sorta/coulda be a moral leader, but, really, it's probably not going to happen, so really we shouldn't be a leader, even though it would be nice, and really it's all just going to be about the fine details of policy, read p. 54 and the footnoted table in the Appendix and you'll see what I mean...

All of these complexities are revealed, unsurprisingly, in Lieven's last paragraph:

Signer is so convinced of the obvious goodness of America’s "essential national character" that he cannot imagine how any country could legitimately or intelligently desire not to have the United States as its leader. In the end, as a true product of the American nationalist tradition, he too believes in U.S. world domination by right of America’s unique virtue. Such a program is far beyond both the material and the moral resources of any nation–even one so genuinely good and great in many ways as the United States.

Wait -- so is it an issue of practicality and futility (that the program is "far beyond" our "material and moral resources")?  Or is it a deeper problem than that?  Because pragmatic problems can be resolved by argument and by consensus-building.  If the vision and policy are right (as in the Marshall Plan), you build the material and moral resources.  Lieven seems himself to concede that, just perhaps, promise should trump pragmatics in the initial analysis, when he puts -- in his final sentence! -- that America is "so genuinely good and great in so many ways."

It's like not having your cake and not eating it, too.  Which I suppose is consistent.  But hardly a vision for a nation.


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Somehow the gloss came off the "Shining City" somewhere between slavery and Fallujah, with intermediate stops at various other targets of US government military and economic imperialism. The business of America is business, so just concoct a "progressive" foreign policy that fits THAT paradigm and you're in business (pun intended). Then use the "morality" gambit to sell it to the prols. In other words "strong" and "good" are mutually exclusive, if not in theory then in practice. Nobody likes a bully, in a pulpit or not.


I left a comment on your essay at the Democracy site soon after the essay appeared. My main criticism at the time, which I still think is valid, is that exemplarism, as laid out in that essay, barely deserves to be called a "doctrine" at all. The essay is almost entirely devoted to questions of means rather than ends. The very term "exemplarism", of course suggests an emphasis on leading by example rather than through coercion, and you indeed argue that the United States should readjust the balance among the techniques it uses to influence other countries, with a greater focus on non-coercive leadership by example. But you say next to nothing in the essay about what the United States should try to achieve through its leadership; about what the ultimate aims of US foreign policy are; about what all that influence you want the United States to exert is to be directed toward.

Another way of putting it is that while exemplarism does put forward a certain general vision of the sorts of diplomatic and leadership virtues the US should exemplify, it has nothing in itself to say about either the national and global direction.

Thus, I didn't see how anybody with a clear preference for specific long-term global changes and objectives could take much away from the highly schematic exemplarist outlook you endorse, or sign on to it as a substantive foreign policy doctrine. It certainly can't serve by itself as a foreign policy doctrine. Consider this illustration: Most of us know both Democrats and Republicans who are bare-knuckled, abrasive and aggressive SOBs who try to get what they want through coercion. we also know both Democrats and Republicans who are courteous and considerate gentlepersons who try to achieve their aims through patient argument, modest persuasion, consensus-building and leadership by example. This bespeaks a difference in temperament and character. But in itself it tells me nothing about their ideologies - about the kinds of societies they wish to build.

Since your criticism of the current US foreign policy posture is so fixated on means, you leave yourself open to the suspicion that your ends are not significantly different from those of your Republican opponents, and it is just their methods you find unsound. You claim this is an unjust criticism. But unless you do more to spell out the difference, it is impossible to tell whether you have anything to back that claim up.

Turning now to your discussion of Anatol Lieven, I am totally puzzled by your suggestion of internal incoherence in the paragraph you quote. After correctly noting that Lieven criticizes you for an undue focus on style over substance, you say:

Yet Lieven's second sentence makes an altogether different point -- that we are "well past the days when a tonier, more agreeable phrased American exceptionalism" could garner broad support. His first sentence presumably means that, if America did have the right policies (rather than style), we could generate more prestige and strength. The second point argues from futility rather than possibility. In terms of ever gaining real support from the international community, we might as well throw up our hands and give up.

But Lieven quite evidently doesn't argue that it is futile for the United States to attempt to gain real support from the international community. What he says is that we cannot gain that support by adopting a "tonier, more agreeably phrased American exceptionalism." The implication, of course, is that your own proposals do amount to just a tonier, well-phrased American exceptionalism. So Lieven's second sentence is an entirely consistent elaboration of the theme set out by the first.

You also argue that because Lieven himself hopes that progressives will formulate a new foreign policy "vision", he undermines his own claim that the main source of current US difficulties in the international arena is due to its strategic policies. I don't see the problem here. Are you saying that a vision can only consist in "style" elements? Can't a new foreign policy vision consist largely of proposed changes in long-term strategic policies?

Much of the remainder of your criticism of Lieven eludes me, and seems to wander off into preoccupations of your own, only dimly connected with things Lieven actually says. But I was taken quite aback by your concluding paragraph. In it, you say:

Wait -- so is it an issue of practicality and futility (that the program is "far beyond" our "material and moral resources")? Or is it a deeper problem than that? Because pragmatic problems can be resolved by argument and by consensus-building. If the vision and policy are right (as in the Marshall Plan), you build the material and moral resources.

This is a stunning assertion. Are you really convinced that if a country has a certain "vision", but lacks the material and moral resources to achieve it, that it can always build those resources by argument and consensus building? Don't you accept any sort of reality principle that recognizes that each country possesses certain inherent limitations beyond which it cannot pass, no matter how hard it applies itself? It's one thing to have a can do spirit, but quite another to believe that literally anything a country envisions is possible, so long as it sets its mind to it. If you are truly serious here then you are confirming, despite yourself, the fear that both contemporary liberal nationalists and neoconservatives share a fanatical and dangerous "triumph of the will" outlook.

The goal of Stigner's exemplarism, stated in his piece, is to promote United States self-interest and we all know that this means power and money. Why doesn't he just say so?

This essay, like the Truman Project of which Stigner is a principal, takes as a given that the United States is threatened by other countries, which it isn't. Rumsfeld: ". . . there's a tendency when you call this a global war on terror to think of it as a war of big militaries -- armies, navies, and air forces -- against armies, navies and air forces, and it is not. It is a totally different thing, and it is not something that the Army is going to be able to prevail and -- or the Navy and have a signing ceremony on the USS Missouri at the end of World War II. It is going to be something that's going to take time. It's going to be a long struggle. It's a struggle basically within the Muslim faith of a small minority of violent extremists against the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are not violent extremists, and we need to find ways to empower and strengthen those moderates who are determined to not have their faith hijacked by these violent extremists."

Now the only part of Rummy's ramble that makes sense to me is that the US is not threatened. And if we're not threatened then we can take a whole new approach to solving life's problems. Call it, let's see, how about world federalism? Which just happens to be the linchpin of this site along with its sister sites the American Progress Action Fund, the Center for American Progress, The Century Foundation, Partnership for a Secure America and the US World Federalist agency Citizens for Global Solutions. So let's go for the multilateral approach rather than the American primacy approach.

We were emphatically correct in invading Iraq, Signer says. Spoken like a true Dem-hawk--Kerry said the same thing and so did many others. Stigner says we just should have paid more attention to our allies. So dumping our old friend Hussein and installing an Islamist fundamentalist government allied with Iran at a cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives, when seventy per cent of Iraqis want us out and sixty per cent side with those who are killing us was a good thing? What do we call bad? If we had just paid more attention to our allies, so what?

Speaking of Iran, currently a hot topic, how does exemplarism apply? It wasn't mentioned, so I guess it doesn't apply. If the assumption is that Iran is not a threat then I agree, don't mention it. But with prominent Dems, Truman Dems, you might say, hollering for military action, and with the US Navy on the move, than I would like to know how exemplarism applies.

Bush says Iran is isolated when it is in fact being embraced by Russia, China, India and the 150-nation non-aligned bloc including Venezuela and all the Middle East countries (including Iraq) except Israel. It is the US which is being diplomatically isolated in the world and so it is hardly a time for American exemplarism. It's so--fifties.

Sorry, got it wrong twice--it's Signer. The least I can do is spell the man's name correctly.

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