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February 27, 2010

"Inherently Good" Briefly Revisited
Posted by Michael Cohen

So when I first started blogging here at DA I got in quite a dust-up over a statement I made describing the United States as "inherently good." It was a rather bruising introduction to the world of blogging and one that I'm hesitant to relive. But for some reason David Rieff won't let it go.

You see it's not enough that David used this experience to slather me in the page of World Affairs in 2008 as some epitome of the ugly American exceptionalist . . . he's now comparing me to Michele Bachmann and Glenn Beck:

The formulations of a Bachmann or a Beck may be case studies in chauvinistic self-regard, but they certainly are no cruder than the claims of many so-called Progressives. The liberal policy pundit Michael A. Cohen, for example, claimed in 2007 that America was “inherently good.” This, to the extent his simulacrum of a rationale was intelligible, was because the U.S. had a good constitution and Bill of Rights that somehow reflected the underlying commitment to freedom and opportunity that "underpin" the nation and ensure American democracy’s self-correcting nature. If only Cohen’s views were rare in think-tank Washington; instead, qualified a bit, and usually put somewhat less baldly, they are commonplace. That no nation is inherently good and that no nation gets to choose its own destiny should be self-evident to any adult not absolutely crippled by narcissism.

I am usually a bit loathe to use this forum to defend myself against such attacks, but Rieff's words are so ridiculous that an exception (forgive the pun) must be made.  For starters I will let others judge whether my rationale was "intelligible" in reading this debate I had with Eric Martin. Second, I am uncomfortable with the use of the word "inherent" - and I acknowledge that in retrospect I never should have defended that terminology since it tended to obscure, rather than enlighten the debate. 

Thirdly and quite obviously one can believe in America's inherent goodness and adhere to a non-interventionist foreign policy. I don't know the man, but I imagine that that construct might ably describe Pat Buchanan's worldview - and the worldview of near every major American isolationist who ever lived. It might also describe Max Boot or Richard Perle and certainly describes George Bush. And I'm not exactly on the same page with any of these folks. The idea that somehow believing America is "inherently good" thus provides some verifiable insight into their particular foreign policy orientation is just silly and lazy. 

To this point the very notion that somehow I am the shining example of think-tank Washington's slavish adherence to American exceptionalism is utterly ludicrous - as would be clear to any regular reader of this blog. It's almost as if Rieff is holding on to this trope because he would prefer constructing a strawman narrative that appeals to his "current" world view rather than actual reality. (Crickets, crickets . . )

But on this this issue of exceptionalism, I have been wondering a great deal recently whether it is possible to believe that the US is an exceptional nation . . . but not fall into the trap of the muscular and even deluded American foreign policy that all too often emanates from that world view? Damon Linker had a very smart piece on this a few weeks ago in the New Republic with Niebuhrian overtones. It's worth quoting at length here:

The point is not that patriots and politicians should abandon their faith that American power can play a positive role in the world. It is that they should act with caution in applying that power. Above all, they need to take the lessons of humility closely to heart and resist the temptation to view themselves as God’s agents in history. To do otherwise—to view their policies as having been personally authored or approved by the divine—is foolishness that will tend to distort their judgment, inspiring the distinctly American over-confidence that Niebuhr warned against so powerfully.

The ever-astute Judah Grunstein made a similar point a few days ago. 

The problem of course is how to make that vision of restrained American leadership a reality.  If early indications of the Obama presidency are any roadmap . . . it's not working out so great. (Although I would argue it's less American exceptionalism and more American can-do-ism run horribly amok that is pushing us into a flawed military escalation in Afghanistan. Of course, that might be a distinction without a difference.)  But certainly one gets the sense that Obama shares Linker's sentiments - and that he is a Niebuhr acolyte at heart. Crikey, even Rieff agrees about this.

The problem here is less Obama and more the forces pushing him in the wrong direction. Case in point: this depressing 5,000 word essay from Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru that attacks Obama for failing to tell the rest of the world we're the greatest. Apparently stating that he believes in American exceptionalism; but noting that Brits and Greeks might feel the same way about their country. . . is un-American, as opposed to self-evident. This is the basic distillation of the Republican critique of Obama's foreign policy - we're not exceptional enough and we need to remind the world of this salient fact. Moreover, any critique of America and its foreign policy would, conservatives seem to believe, have the effect of weakening America in the eyes of the world.  It's practically a cult of infallibility.

These views are of course shared by a good number of Democrats. From a national mythology standpoint (although I haven't seen any recent polling) it's a view likely shared by a significant number of Americans. And with the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Obama, one could argue that there might even be some Europeans who are sympathetic to this idea (ish). 

In short, as Rieff points out the assumptions about American greatness that link many Republicans and some Democrats together contribute to a toxic and often counter-productive foreign policy approach that does more harm than good. Here we clearly agree as I made this argument last summer.

Herein lies Obama's greatest challenge - breaking the cycle of our overly exceptionalist foreign policy thinking. To do so would necessitate laying out an exceptional, but unexceptional vision for a 21st century US foreign policy. What that means is that clearly no American president can do away with the particular mythology of America "goodness. The challenge for Obama will come in explaining to the American people that our power and influence has become far more constrained and that we must approach the world with modesty and restraint and in a manner that fosters cooperation and not rivalry. But for political salience sakes, that idea must be grounded in basic American mythology. Since that basically reflects my worldview it doesn't seem that difficult - the problem of course is that I'm just a guy with a laptop and not the most scrutinized politician in the world.

Clearly it's easier said than done; particularly when you have a political opposition that interprets any realistic description of American power as a sign of defeatism - and you have a institutionalized foreign policy apparatus that sees little value in America "doing less" around the world. But then anyone who thought that changing the mindset of American foreign policy - while fixing the host of messes left on Obama's desk by George W. Bush - was going to be simple was kidding themselves.

As I've been thinking for a while on what that restrained foreign policy agenda might look like - and not just in words, but policy prescriptions (as perhaps reflected by this admittedly fuzzy post). . . comments are particularly welcome and encouraged.


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Mr. Cohen - I have the (somewhat vague) impression that "inherently good" once meant "set an example for other nations to follow," not "and force them to emulate us." Wasn't this what was once meant by the "shining city on the hill?"

I can think of a number of other nations that meet this criterion (show a good example) - Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England, France, Australia, New Zealand,...

The American values of political pluralism, a belief in human rights, and civil rights is very similiar to those supported by a variety of European states in the Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki Accords. These values are believed in by a large number of people in Africa and Asia and hence could be considered universal. On another note rightwingers such as Bachman and Beck do not share American values since they are against political pluralism and for torture.

Michael, I guess you didn't get the memo.

Michele Flournoy, the second most powerful person at the Pentagon:

"The United States must exemplify respect for the rule of law. We have to stop invoking American exceptionalism and return to our historical role as champion of the rule of law both domestically and internationally."

Comedic. Now if she had said that AE would continue I might be optimistic that it wouldn't.

The U.S. has often proclaimed its support for the rule of law in international affairs, but has found it increasingly difficult to adhere to it in practice...

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