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Looking beyond the Trump–Clinton duel: The nightmares of American exceptionalism

Confetti obscures the stage as U.S. President Barack Obama celebrates after winning the U.S. presidential election in Chicago, Illinois, November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Scott- Andrews (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS USA PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION)

Featured image courtesy Reuters

The conservative version of American exceptionalism has become a password of sorts for candidates who want to prove their credentials to a right-wing America. –Russ Feingold

The run-up to the American Election is not only drawing attention and controversy in the United States, it is also being closely watched across the globe. Research company Toluna assessed the viewing habits and opinions of adults in almost 5000 interviews in 23 countries across Europe, Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia Pacific, plus Canada, The findings show a level of interest in the US election with 85% of people viewing the election as important for the world at large. Thus, the American presidential election is more than just mere political spectacle for the rest of us in the world too, as its’ outcome will set a precedent for how the global superpower will be approaching the next four years and even beyond!.

With both candidates Trump and Clinton seen to be stepping up their appearances, less than two weeks to go until election day, Clinton seems the red hot favourite to many , which even Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has admitted in an interview. However, be that as it may, as many critics conclude, nothing could be more mistaken, or more dangerous, than the perception that Hillary is the “safer” candidate for President. She is nothing of the kind, and voting for her will not save us whether in US or beyond, either from Donald Trump—or from anything else. Opinion thus remains split as to which of these options would be the absolute worst and which would be only second worst.

Numerous commentators and political leaders have opined that ‘from an immense talent pool, the American political system has managed to narrow the race down to two supremely flawed human beings, neither of whom remotely deserves to be in the White House’. ‘On the one hand we have Clinton, a scandal-ridden, uninspiring pro-war candidate. As John Pilger says ‘She embodies the resilience and violence of a system whose vaunted “exceptionalism” is totalitarian with an occasional liberal face”. On the other is Donald Trump, who demonstrated recklessness far beyond what should be considered acceptable for anyone seeking what is by far the most powerful job in the world; a foul-mouthed demagogue who specialises in whipping up hate and threatening cataclysmic trade wars. Thus, as there will be no good outcome either way, it is apt for America itself as well as the world at large, to begin preparing for four years of purgatory

However, hovering behind the centre stage, and the highlights of the duel between Trump and Clinton, lies the real inherent danger which has been posing a real threat to global peace and fairplay –The Ghost of American Exceptionalism (AE). Despite their differences, all of the Republican and Democratic candidates continue to champion this idea and belief with religious zeal, let alone pay allegiance – a belief that the U.S. is uniquely qualified to lead the world and that the US, in its governance, politics, mission, and place in the world, is unique, and, in its most extreme version, qualitatively superior to other nations — abides to this day.

America is indeed exceptional in some obvious respects, and there is nothing wrong with Americans reminding themselves of those aspects, as long as they do not stick the concept in the face of non-Americans. For example, in 2008, on the night he won the presidency, Barak Obama referred to one such aspect : “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer”. As a new president, Obama tried to dismiss the very AE idea, noting that Greeks and the Brits think their countries are special, too. However five years later, and a little grayer, Obama summed up his feelings on the subject differently. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” he told graduating cadets at the U.S. Military Academy.

In this context, can the world see an end to this American obsession after the November elections? Such expectations will be too simplistic. From Truman to Obama, all US Presidents have been its’ staunch champions, believing that US was “the greatest nation that the sun ever shone upon” and the victory in World War II demonstrated American greatness, but it also placed on the United States the responsibility of ensuring peace and freedom in the postwar world. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties repeat these platitudes. They are taught in the country’s schools. These beliefs are reinforced and circulated by American popular culture. In total, American Exceptionalism is a cornerstone of civil religion in the United States. It provides comfort to a people.

For a change, Trump, at the beginning of his campaign, being a maverick, appeared to trample on AE- one of the mainstay tenets of GOP ideology—and undercut a line of attack often used by Republicans. In answer to a query: “Define American exceptionalism. Does American exceptionalism still exist? And what do we do to grow American exceptionalism?”, Trump didn’t hesitate to shoot down the premise of the question, saying he didn’t “like the term.” He questioned whether the United States was “more exceptional” and “more outstanding” than other nations. Trump added, “I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them. We’ve given them so much.” He suggested that were he to become president, he would make the United States exceptional.

His contention was therefore based around the belief that although the United States has historically been the most glorious country ever known, it has lost its way. Only Trump can bring the country back to its rightful state of greatness. Trump was therefore apparently getting an initial upward swing , when he promised to make America great again as he was seen to represent some very deep fears in huge swathes of Americans who have seen the boast of “American Exceptionalism” exposed as being just a hollow boast. Trump gave a short lived false hope to the US realists too — those who argue that America should merely pursue its national interests by posing off as their champion, by vowing to avoid foreign entanglements, such as pre-emptive wars in Iraq, and said that America’s allies should pay for more of their defence, or that China is entitled to occupy atolls in a sea named after it. Unfortunately for realists, their ship may go down with him, which means the USS Exceptionalist would set sail again possibly under Mrs Clinton.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is the AE Camps’ unabashed cheerleader. “I believe with all my heart that America is an exceptional country,” she said in June. “We are still, in Lincoln’s words, the last best hope of earth.” Her campaign rhetoric is also strikingly different from Mr Obama’s. The problems come from the tendency , which is implicit in much of the wording of Clinton’s speeches such as “when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void” , as considering US leadership as indispensable in addressing all significant problems abroad.. It is some of the corollaries that tend to flow in an unthinking fashion from the concept of AE and this so-called vacuum metaphor ,which have caused problems. On the contrary, US involvements have become part of the problem. How many countries has US attacked and/or overthrown or tried to overthrow in its’ ‘exceptional’ history? The US has pretty much arrogated to itself the right go anywhere, bomb or invade anyone, remove by overt or covert means any government that offends us. Naked aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya were obvious examples of its’ highhandedness, apart from being part of the cause for the creation of ISIS and the Syrian Crisis.

Many small countries like Sri Lanka too experienced this big bully hegemonic attitude of the Uncle Sam in the past. US, as a global super power has sought to define the norms of International law, by explaining its’ highhandedness by asserting that it can subvert them for the greater good of the world as sometimes International Law is toothless in the wake of true adversity, as well as be the enforcer of International law when other states stray in the absence of a unified mandatory system of enforcement. The outward support for the Zionist Israeli regime is also part of this justification. The circumstances which led to US sponsoring UNHR Resolution on the ‘war crimes’ during the last phases of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009 was reflective of this AE double standards attitude . “When America bombs countless territories costing innocent lives, to kill a few terrorists; that is not a ‘massacre’ but of urgent legitimate national security’ interests’; When other countries which act contrary to their ‘global hegemonic interests’ do it, then such actions are referred to as ‘killing fields’. It was comical how the US tunes changed when power changed hands in Colombo!

American people therefore need to be more mature about the role of their nation in the world, and to be especially mindful of the dangers that come with a type of hypocrisy that deems the actions taken by the US as always appropriate and right by definition and the same actions to be wrong and suspect when committed by another country. Clinton did invoke Abraham Lincoln’s concept of the last best hope of Earth and Ronald Reagan’s image of a shining city on a hill. The idea of making the American republic the best, and the best example, it can possibly be — so that even a demagogue like Donald Trump can’t wreck it — is a better way to implement ideas of exceptionalism than to act like an indispensable vacuum-filler.

In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine pronounced that the United States would no longer interfere with existing European colonies in the New World and proclaimed that European powers were to leave American colonies alone. The Monroe Doctrine was an American policy formulated by President James Monroe in 1823 to limit European interference in the Western Hemisphere. The decision of the Truman administration to establish NATO and commit the U.S. to the defense of Western Europe, the decision of the Johnson administration to adopt Israel as a client state, and the decision of the Nixon administration to attempt to establish hegemony in the Persian Gulf each represent costly departures from the older geopolitical strategy of the U.S. It will be useful for US to re-visit this Doctrine.

As Godfrey Hodgson in an article on ‘‘Time for a New Destiny’ ‘ wrote: ‘Americans have as yet understood even less than their fellow westerners the emerging strength of the weak and the weakness of the strong. . . . there is no hegemony in the multi polar world’ . Earlier the US realizes this truism, and alters its’ world view, the better for the American people and the world at large.

If you enjoyed this article, you may find our articles: “Barack Obama: Hope for America, but not for the world?” and “American people make history, can we Sri Lankans ever?” illuminating.