Exceptionalism Without Exceptional Means?


The Obama administration wants to achieve its “pivot to Asia”, its plan to counter China’s rise, without using military force. That is not going to work. The local countries, who the U.S. wants to use as proxies, fear that without a believable threat by the U.S. to cover their asses with its nukes there will be no restriction of what China can and will do around its block. They are right and will have to adopt.

That is why the U.S. is in trouble at the recent security conference in Singapore:

But as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited this city-state for a security conference with all of the interested parties on Friday, that much-vaunted Asia policy appeared to be turning into more of a neighborhood street fight, with the United States having to simultaneously choose sides and try to play the role of referee.

But why anyway is it U.S. business what happens in the in the Pacific beyond Hawaii? It is nothing but “exceptionalism”, the urge for global dominance and the desire to rule the world that lets the U.S. interfere.

Obama’s recent West Point speech was lauded by Pat Lang as a push back against neoconservatives and neoliberals and a step back to rationality in foreign policy:

The president’s wise, if late, decision not to attack Syria’s armed forces, his steadfast search for a negotiated solution with Iran against the pressure of the Zionists, his reluctance to plunge into the depths of the Ukraine crisis and his insistence on continuing the withdrawal from Afghanistan all pointed to a return the kind of rationalist foreign policy followed by the United States from the end of WW II until the hysteria of post 9/11 life swept away the careful consideration of risks and benefits that had controlled US policy.President Obama’s policy speech at West Point announces the end of jacobin imperialist dominated policy in Washington.

It is a step in that direction, but it is not going far enough. Rhetoric wise the speech may have been a step back from the financially ruining use of large scale military forces but despite restricting the use of military force it still contained the stupid claim of “exceptionalism” and the desire to “lead”:

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions. (Applause.)

(Why, by the way, would anyone applause such obvious lies?) Some five years ago Obama hada bit different view of such bollocks:

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

Claiming extraordinary exceptionalism, as Obama again does, without the will to use exceptional means is not going to work for three reasons. It is unlikely to end a push towards new wars, it may instead create more damage without creating any positive results and it makes allies turn away. It would be much better to refrain from both, exceptionalism AND the use of military force. 

That Obama is now back to point out U.S. exceptionalism as something special is not a good sign. As Billmon remarks:

If 1 believes America is “exceptional,” then it’s natural to assume it has the right & the duty to lead.

If 1 assumes America has right & duty 2 lead the world, 1 can logically conclude that opposition to that leadership is morally wrong…

..and that American “values” (however defined) are universal values that the world can & should embrace.

From there, it’s not really a big leap to assume that American values can & should be exported — if necessary at the point of gun.

And that, says Billmon, will create natural resistance and thereby new enemies and wars. If the U.S. steps back from the use of force it also must also step back from its irrational claim of “exceptionalism”. Obama’s speech is contradictory as it does not do that.

As Chinahand points out there is another issue with such contradictory Obama exceptionalism. That even as it refrains from direct use of military force it is still not at all peaceful and may still cause enormous damage but without achieving any reasonable result:

Unfortunately, the flip side of the Obama doctrine, [to use military force only as very last resort,] is that the United States remains committed to a forward counterterrorism posture and US“leadership” i.e. the ability to shape events overseas even without using military power.Even when holding back on military power, there are plenty of ways for the United States to cripple a designated adversary. There’s economic sanctions; financial warfare through the international banking, economic, and trade system; there’s subversion, through the Internet, through support of dissident parties and insurrectionists; there’s proxy wars. There’s JSOC. And of course, there’s drones.

In other words, the United States still reserves the right to cruelly and counterproductively f*ck up any country with any and all means short of the direct commitment of US military forces.

That means plenty more Syrias.

From an ethical point of view, is it a better, more humane policy to eviscerate a country slowly through sadistic proxies than simply to send in the troops and brutalize the locals briskly and efficiently and with some hope of genuine international oversight?

Looking at Syria, I don’t think so.

As a practical matter, I’m afraid the Obama Doctrine won’t fly as a matter of realist geopolitic.

Taking the possibility of US military action off the table in the case of lower-priority objectives undercuts the deterrent character of the US military machine.

It does and it should do that. There is no need for the U.S. to deter China in its local businesses unless one claims some nutty exceptional role. The U.S. must not only refrain from the use of large scale military force but also from claiming a special role in the world.

There is a third problem with the claim of being “exceptional” that it is not backed up by exceptional force. Other countries in a coalition, even when inclined to work with the U.S., do not like to be pushed around as if they were not grown ups themselves. If the U.S. does not want to use its exceptional military force why should any U.S. ally accept its lead? It is rather likely that the desire to lead without the will to use the means will produce more unwillingness by allies to work as subordinates in any coalition with the U.S.

If the U.S. is unwilling to physically lead how will the Japanese, South Koreans and Vietnamese react to being verbally referred to as “kids” -twice- in a story on the front page of the New York Times?

[A]dministration officials have privately prodded their Japanese counterparts to think carefully before acting, and to refrain from backing China into a corner.“If these are kids in the schoolyard, they are running around with scissors,” said Vikram J. Singh, who until February was the United States deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia and is now the vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.

Mr. Hagel and the large American military contingent on hand […] spent their time shuttling from delegation to delegation to make sure those contingencies did not come up.

“Any good teacher knows that you want to get the kids to behave in the first place, rather than try to referee a dispute that breaks out,” said Andrew L. Oros, an associate professor of political science at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and a specialist on East Asia.

The “kids” recognize that the U.S. is not really interested in challenging China. They had agreed to accept a leading U.S. role as long as it was backed up by superb force. With that gone they will no longer accept to play the role of the “kids” in U.S. power games. Being too small and disunited to counter China alone they will now have to accommodate China’s rise and thebirth of the Eurasian century just as they naturally should.

It would be good for the world if the U.S. could find a way back to some realistic foreign policy that refrains from militaristic threats and the use of force. But as long as exceptionalism is held up as doctrine the inherent contradictions between claims of exceptionalism and the unwillingness to use (financially ruining) exceptional means will rip Obama’s envisioned policy apart. A real step back to realism requires to shun both.


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