On America and the World

In The Nation, David Rieff reviews two new books on America’s role in the world, Elizabeth Borgwardt’s A New Deal for the World and Michael Mandelbaum’s The Case for Goliath.

To emphasize the essential continuities in American perceptions of the United States’ role in the world is not to deny that there are differences between the liberal and conservative versions of the creed. For the Bush Administration, American leadership is a self-evident moral right. In contrast, liberals have tended to be more concerned with the benefits of reciprocity between the United States and other nations. But again, when all is said and done, both sides share the conviction that America has a special mission based on the universality of its values. Thus, one gets George Bush’s self-described “moral clarity” about America’s indispensable role in the world as guarantor and propagator of democracy on one side and on the other the liberal view, implicit in Borgwardt’s book and more explicitly elaborated in Samantha Power’s “A Problem From Hell”, that when all is said and done the United States could and should be the guarantor of an international order based on human rights. Talk about the narcissism of small differences!

Anyone wanting a sense of how pervasive this attitude is among Democratic Party policy analysts need only go to blogs like America Abroad or Democracy Arsenal, where the views of senior Clinton Administration officials like Ivo Daalder, James Steinberg and Morton Halperin, as well as figures touted for senior positions in a future Democratic administration–like Anne-Marie Slaughter, currently dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton–are open for inspection. The fact that a website purporting to represent a critique of the current Administration’s foreign policy could be called Democracy Arsenal is itself illustrative. Obviously, those doing the naming were as enthralled by the memory of FDR as Borgwardt is, and meant to hark back to the days of World War II when America was just that. But the sheer parochialism of such a choice, not to mention the easy assumption about the intrinsic benignity of American power, takes one’s breath away. Such a reference may seem anodyne in today’s Washington. But did Halperin and his colleagues never stop to wonder how menacing that phrase might sound in New Delhi, or Johannesburg, or Jakarta, or Tehran… or London, Paris and Berlin for that matter? Surely, had they done so, they would have picked another name. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the power of American belief in American exceptionalism is now so deep-rooted in mainstream political thinking as to pass unnoticed and unexamined, like some geological fact.