Obama Too Is An American Exceptionalist

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PRAGUE–On Friday, I wrote a blog post on Barack Obama’s new more collaborative approach to foreign policy, and contrasted it with the approach of President Bush and John McCain, which I described as “American exceptionalism,” or the vision that the United States operated on a plane above and beyond the rest of the world’s nations, and should therefore take a significant leadership role.

On Saturday in Strasbourg, my colleague Ed Luce of the Financial Times asked Obama if he subscribed to the American exceptionalist approach. Obama said he did. And his answer was fascinating to me. While in the past the idea that America was exceptional, the shining city on a hill, was evoked as an objective description, a fact, a prediction and a course by which the ship of state could be sailed, Obama used the phrase, by contrast, in a more subjective, self-aware way, acknowledging that the fact that he held this belief was not so, well, exceptional. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” the president said.

There is a great essay to be written about this nuance, one that might even touch on the changes in how the humanities were taught at elite universities between the 1950s and 60s, and the 1970s and 80s, when Obama went to school–a time when the understanding of philosophical truth shifted to a study of subjective systems of understanding, not objective realities. As I write, it occurs to me that Obama is the first post-structuralist president this nation has had, and the effect is wide ranging. (I will return to this idea later, I hope.) In the meantime, I must admit that I was wrong in that previous blog post. Obama too is a self-described American Exceptionalist. But the difference I described is still real, and it appears in the nuance of how Obama interprets the meaning of that phrase. The Bush vision, as described in his second inaugural address, is far more prescriptive than the Obama vision, and contains far less doubt. A full transcript follows after the jump. I encourage you to read it.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. In the context of all the multilateral activity that’s been going on this week — the G20, here at NATO — and your evident enthusiasm for multilateral frameworks, to work through multilateral frameworks, could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy? And if so, would you be able to elaborate on it?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.