Tag Archives: American exceptionalism

Obama discovers American exceptionalism


Obama discovers American exceptionalism

            Among the welter of ironies concerning Pres. Vladimir Putin’s op-ed for The New York Times on the zig-zaggingSyria crisis is that Ras’ ghostwriter has however haphazardly touched on the fundamental issue. Given the arguments and syntax, I suspect the ghost’s first language was American, not Russian, something I will leave to future political exegesis. But one of the things this propagandist does by indirection is to identify Pres. Barack Hussein Obama’s utter intellectual confusion.

There is certainly no reason why the mediocrity who now has through the vagaries of history slipped into the throne of the tsars would know. But the question of “American exceptionalism” played a role in the arguments leading up to Josef Stalin’s becoming the Soviet Union’s bloody dictator and arbiter of the powerful international Communist movement.

Before the Moscow Trials of the mid-30s when Stalin settled all political scores by reducing his enemies by a head as he once joked, when there were still convoluted arguments over international Marxism inside the Communist world, American exceptionalism was an issue. In 1929 Jay Lovestone took off for Moscow to plead his sudden dismissal as U.S. Party chairman. At a meeting of the Comintern, the supposedly independent directorate of world Communism,. Lovestone argued that Communism would not come in the U.S. through revolution. Given his independent character and living standard, Lovestone argued, the American worker was not of the European, Asian and African “proletariat” whom Karl Marx’ had promised would be “the gravediggerers of capitalism and forerunner of The Revolution”.

But Stalin was having none of it. In fact, as Lovestone told me, he barely escaped Vladimir Lenin’s self-appointed heir. Only through the assistance of the American Communist capitalist Julius Hammer, father of his more famous son Armand Hammer who with Soviet assistance became an international oil figure after World War II, Lovestone sneaked out of Russia. He came back to the U.S. to found, briefly, the American Revolutionary Communist Party. How he escaped assassination as was the fate of so many of Stalin’s enemies, even those abroad, is a bit mysterious. But decades later Lovestone went on to become collaborator with George Meany, the old plumber who headed the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. Together with the infant Central Intelligence Agency, they broke the hold of Moscow’s International Federation of Trade Unions on Western European labor trade unions at the outset of The Cold War, crucial in bringing the European Social Democratic parties, particularly the West German SPD, into the anti-Communist alliance.

It is very unlikely that Putin, a quintessential Russian secret police thug, knows much of this history. He was an unknown foreign agent until Russian Pres. Boris Yeltsin plucked him from obscurity to protect Yeltsin’s corrupt “Family” of hangerons when that old drunkard exited power. [Markus Wolf, lifelong legendary head of Stassi, the enormous network of informers and enforcers who kept the East German state alive in The Cold War, quipped: “If he [Putin] spent 15 years [as liaison between the Soviet NKVD/KGB and Stassi at their joint training school] in Dresden, and I didn’t know him, he couldn’t have been much”.]

In America, Lovestone’s sectarian argument was never settled over how to gain influence for the miniscule American Communist Party camouflaging their more important espionage for Moscow. The argument, like the American Communists themselves, was victim of the gyrations of the “Party line”, subservient to Moscow’s international strategy including Stalin’s brief alliance with Hitler that brought on World War II. For a short period when Stalin was “Good Old Uncle Joe” in FDR’s Washington, the essential ally against the Nazis, the American Party under Earl Browder preached gradualism. [These stories never end: Browder’s grandson now wages a bitter argument with Putin over seizure of his extensive investments in Yeltsin’s Russia and the murder of his Moscow lawyer and collaborator.]

But American exceptionalism is framed in more elegant terms as a part of the intellectual life of The Republic over its two centuries. For, singularly. unlike other nation states organized under the aegis of the Westphalian System [Treaty of 1648], the U.S. has no claim to a long history, a common race or ethnicity or even language characterizing the state. [Benjamin Franklin, horrified at the cacophony of German Anabaptist voices on the streets of Philadelphia during the hot summer of 1781 when the U.S. constitution was being framed in secret, toyed with the idea of writing in English as the official language of the new Republic.]

The U.S. was, from its outset, an ideological construct, an original — if heavily borrowing on what The Founders as children of the European Enlightenment saw as the heritage of the democracies of Greece and Republican Rome. It did not celebrate a unified cultural ethos as did France, even the “United” kingdom, and later Italy and Germany. Instead, the American Republic was and is a political concept to insure the rights and privileges of a truly multicultural people to whom, unlike the European nation states, it ultimately owed its genius and power.

That complicated concept has been from the earliest days of The Republic the essence of “American exceptionalism”, the idea that because of the formation and nature of the country, it was different from other nation states in a fundamental way. This distinction has given a sense of mission to the American Republic – not the “gloire” of France, for example, but The Republic’s obligation by its very nature to espouse a new kind of national and international morality.

From the days of its earliest religious minorities seeking tolerance in The New World, Americans have always thought themselves “special”as Puritan lawyer John Winthrop proclaimed in 1640 aboard the Arabella enroute to Massachusetts:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Or whether it was the Deist Thomas Jefferson, writing in the Declaration of Independence:

[A]nd accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Or Abraham Lincoln presiding over the greatest American crisis, in his famous Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Or Ronald Reagan, the 20th century statesman bidding goodbye to public life:

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life…. And how stands the city on this winter night? … After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true to the granite ridge, and her glow has held no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

In a sense, it does not matter whether, indeed, the U.S. were “the New Jerusalem”. More important perhaps is that American leaders throughout their history have accepted the concept that The Republic was “different” from other countries, and therefore had a mission that went beyond the simple pursuit of its existence as a nation.

It was perhaps inevitable, if there is such a thing as inevitability, that when the U.S. emerged from the near suicide of the West in two bloody world wars as the overwhelmingly most powerful country with its vast economy and population, the concept of exceptionalism would be applied to international relations. Indeed, however unsuccessfully, three generations earlier Pres. Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed U.S. entry into World War I as “the war to end all wars” and his formulation of the concept of the League of Nations to settle international disputes was part of that American “mission”.

Again, ironically, despite the fact they drew much of their inspiration from Wilson’s “progressivism”, part and parcel of Obama and his supporters’ credo in pursuit of their ambition “to transform” the nation was rejection of  “exceptionalsim”. In one of his too many casual public statements, Obama dismissed it out of hand. At the NATO Summit in Strasbourg, France, in 2009, he said sarcastically:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.

But on Sept. 10, only four years later, in his address to the nation on the Syrian crisis, Obama reversed that view as he floated in and out of issues:

My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security.  This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them.  The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.

In all the rapid permutations of the Syrian Crisis, it has taken [Ras] Putin’s numskull ghost writer to recognize that Obama, too, has come around to recognizing “American exceptionalism” — for better or for worse.

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The hard choices


The hard choices

A perennial American foreign policy debate sets “realism” against “idealism”, national interest versus morality. The dichotomy is often overstated. The two currents divide and merge incessantly in the flow of implementation of any concrete overseas policy and tactics.

American statesmen have argued — contemporary politicians still do as did The Founding Fathers — absent the racial, ethnic and millennia of common history of America’s largely European forebears, the essence of the American Republic was ideological. Most Americans, even if innocent of the larger argument, still do identify themselves as belonging to a society based on freedom of the individual largely lodged in British traditions of common law. But that belief is joined in a larger Judeo-Christian ethos of “the shinning city on the hill”, a perceived model of pursuit of rectitude with an accompanying missionary zeal to share it with the rest of the world. And that is where it enters U.S. foreign policy.

Where American foreign initiatives have been successful, the moral concept has been an integral part of what purported to be hard-nosed, even cynical “realism”– what today has come to be called exerting “soft power” — especially when Washington successfully led coalitions, first against Nazism and then against Communism. For U.S. leadership rested not only on the American economy’s strength helping a devastated Europe and Japan and then trying to energize the so-called “developing” world but on its force as a model for resolving domestic conflict with justice in a peaceful [the Civil War excepted] if not always orderly fashion.

Pres. Barack Obama has specifically rejected this “American exceptionalism”. But his denigration of past U.S. initiatives, his “leading from behind” and the carping by the usual foreign suspects of American “real intentions”, notwithstanding, the world still looks to Washington for leadership. But Americans are now weary: two Mideast wars, seemingly, for the moment anyway, are ending inconclusively despite expenditure by U.S. standards of too much blood and extravagant riches by the world’s count.

Nevertheless, now, again, even while public attention is diverted to a crippled economy and the quadrennial, sometimes silly, season of choosing new leadership, the U.S. is asked to take on new overseas burdens. But just as 9/11 with its unprecedented attack on the American homeland [far more portentous in its strategic implications perhaps than Pearl Harbor], forever changed perceptions of foreign threat, the digital revolution’s effects on mass communications, public opinion and the U.S. political system in evaluating new moral issues is still emerging. The Balkan Wars [Bosnia, 1992-95 and Kosovo, 1996] were precursors in their appeals for adjudication when the Europeans, initially, looked the other way at problems on their doorstep. A generation later in another century Washington’s dilemma has not gone away, but perhaps grows.

Quite suddenly there is a dramatic case in point: if you have not seen the 28-minute video “Kony 2012”, you probably will soon. Whatever its merits – and it is under attack as naïve even from those who share its sponsors’ concerns in Uganda and elsewhere – its protagonists already have mobilized the U.S. government. After a quarter of a century inaction, the Obama Administration has sent a 100-man military detachment to try to help Ugandans and other Central African governments capture and bring to justice one of the world’s greatest monsters, Joseph Kony, leader of his misbegotten “Lords Resistance Army”. For almost three decades this personification of evil has kidnapped and trained thousands of children in mass murder, seemingly without any aim other than inflicting terror and exerting his personal power. The film’s sponsors, reversing old methodology, are now trying to reinforce their successful government lobbying by mobilizing public opinion.

The American military detachment’s task is awesome for Kony has retreated into the Africa of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As in so many guerrilla conflicts, there is considerable possibility of “escalation”. It is not that the U.S. has not been down this road before. But in this instance, no real argument has been made for U.S. “national interest”, i.e., “realism” – but only an overwhelming case for a humanitarian cause for which American expertise is critical.

U.S. military assistance is turning up elsewhere in volatile Africa; for example, a military training group recently in Mali to help reserve another fragile post-colonial state from disintegration. There will be other requests, certainly.

And so a new round in the debate on realism versus idealism begins.

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American exceptionalism” – the long and the short


In that strange way the history of ideas swivels and turns, an old internal Communist argument is back – but as so often happens, the sides reversed. And few recognize its origins.

When Josef Stalin was wrapping up his enemies inside the Soviet Union and its appendage, the Comintern, the world Communist headquarters, he ran into an ideological problem with the miniscule American Communist Party. Stalin wanted to reconstitute the U.S. party with his own hacks. But as happens among Communists – even to today in Beijing – Stalin needed a “theoretical” issue to justify his actions. He seized on a heresy rampant inside the hugely unsuccessful 1930s American left: namely, without Europe’s ancient class structures and conflicts, the breathtaking exuberance for life and opportunities on this side of the Atlantic would block Marxist apparatchiks bringing on “the revolution”. That was the climatic event Kremlin leadership [even if Stalinists were increasingly skeptical themselves] preached would solve the world’s problems

The then American representative to “The Socialist Motherland”, Jay Lovestone, called it “American exceptionalism” in Party councils, an unpardonable sin.

Lovestone, an old American revolutionary despite his ideological transgressions, escaped Stalin’s goons. But it was by a hairsbreadth with help from a fellow American Communist then in Moscow, one Dr. Juluis Hammer, New York City physician, abortionist, ex-convict, who had befriended V.I. Lenin, the Russian revolutionary who led the radicals to power in 1917-22. . [Hammer would found a dynasty of billionaires prospering from their Moscow connections through the long line of Soviet dictators.]

Lovestone, briefly an “independent revolutionary”, blossomed into an exceedingly effective anti-Communist, first with the WWII Office of Strategic Services [OSS], later transformed into the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]. Then working as international director for Mr. George Meaney, the old plumber who headed the AFL-CIO, Lovestone helped bring much of the European left into the anti-Soviet fold

American exceptionalism, as clever slogans are wont, metamorphosed over the decades. It has melded with the beliefs of religious reformers who originated some American colonies [the Pilgrims, Ann Hathaway, William Penn, George Lord Baltimore, etc.] They saw themselves as precursors of a new social order. Their phraseology often borrowed from Judeo-Christian thought, specifically Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Later, the American Republic Founders believed they were creating a new civilization on the western shores of the Atlantic, distinct from Europe’s old evils. When asked by a passerby the result of the secret conclave of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin, the grand old wizard of American Revolution international politics, told her, “We have created a Republic, Madame, if you can keep it”.

The latest to use the concept, if not the slogan itself, was Pres. Ronald Reagan. In his 1989 farewell speech, he explained:

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.”

This recurring theme divides the U.S. polity today as perhaps no other intellectual current. Much of the self-anointed, sophisticated “political class” [European jargon recently brought to America in defiance of the Founders’ dream of citizen-politicians] denigrates the whole idea. Pres. Barack Obama, for example, recently said in France he believed only in American exceptionalism as a rationalization every nation state has for the importance of its own credo. Some of his most loyal political base has long argued American exceptionalism camouflages rampant chauvinism, xenophobia, arbitrary use of power for self-interest — even opportunism and greed.

That line of attack was enhanced when in the post-World War II world, American exceptionalism took on new meaning. With a Europe in ruins and even in recovery dependent on the U.S. defense umbrella to prevent Soviet domination, America’s economic aid was overwhelming. Its support was not only brute strength but set patterns for economic development and world order. Official U.S. aid and private investment outflows created the norm for industrial countries’ international relations. American-style multinationals replaced, then dwarfed old European trading companies outgrowths of European colonialism. The dollar became the international currency in which most values were expressed.

Battered and tarnished as the current U.S. economy may be, when the EC attempted to meet “the Greek crisis” — which could lead not only to the destruction of the Euro but “the European project” itself —  it begged for help from the International Monetary fund. There, indirectly, the American taxpayer carries a disproportionate load — more evidence of the U.S.’s still special role in world affairs.

American exceptionalism lives!

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