In the Arena

Exceptional Myopia

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Assorted wingnuts have begun to refer to President Obama’s travels abroad as his “Global Apology Tour,” which demonstrates how entirely out of touch they are with the (a) the actual practice of diplomacy and (b) reality. Obama’s overseas excursions have been extremely popular with Americans–and, more important, they’ve laid the groundwork for the long-term work of diplomacy. The latest installment in the right-wing canard comes from the overwhelmingly limited James Kirchick of the New Republic, who has somehow convinced the Los Angeles Times to publish his nonsense.

Leave aside the much-reported fact that almost every one of Obama’s alleged “apologies” for American behavior have been twinned with parallel criticisms of other countries’ misdeeds and misapprehensions, leave aside the fact that George W. Bush’s macho neocolonialism and gratuitous dissing of allies left us with much to apologize for–let’s take a look at Kirchick’s lead criticism, that Obama didn’t stand up for American “exceptionalism” during a town meeting in Germany:

Rather than endorse the proposition — as every president in recent memory has done one way or another — Obama offered a strange response: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
This is impossible. If all countries are “exceptional,” then none are…
Well, yeah–that was sort of the point Obama was making, an essential point if we are to successfully launch the new era of international cooperation at the heart of the President’s foreign policy strategy. What Kirchick doesn’t understand is that American exceptionalism means one thing to Americans and quite the opposite to most of the rest of the world, especially after the Bush fiasco. To Americans, it refers to our most obvious and unique strength–that ours is the only nation where citizenship is not dependent on ethnic identity, but on the willingness to subscribe to the ideas of freedom, equality and democracy. When we’re at our best, America tends to mean that to the rest of the world as well.
But in recent years, much of the rest of the world came to see American exceptionalism as a belief that we can make our own rules, make exceptions, as it were. We could unilaterally decide to make war in Iraq, withdraw from the global warming negotiations, allow India and Israel to abide by one set of rules when it came to nuclear proliferation and Iran to another. What Obama was actually saying was this: While America regards itself as extraordinary, we will no longer act on the international stage as if we are the ultimate repository of wisdom and righteousness. We are going to try to defuse tinhorns like Hugo Chavez with civility. We will sit and patiently listen to Daniel Ortega’s toothless rant, just as all the other countries in the hemisphere do. We have enough faith in our values that we’re willing to open relations with anyone–Cuba, Iran–secure in the knowledge that the more those countries are exposed to us, the more they’ll want to be like us, which will put enormous pressure on their governments to change (as was the case with Russia and China).
This sort of policy, which should have been America’s default position since the end of the Cold War, was delayed first by Clinton’s weakness and defensiveness and then by Bush’s crude xenophobia. It will take some time for the world to get used to it; it may not work in every circumstance. There may be times when the U.S. has to go it alone. But the past eight years were an unprecedented American disaster overseas and the overwhelming majority of Americans–an exceptional 7 out of 10 in some polls–believe that Obama’s new path is the right one.