Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Obama's Exceptionalism.

"For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom.
To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. "
From President Obama's Address to the Nation on Libya, March 28, 2011.

Despite what some conservatives may have said in the past, the fact that President Obama’s remarks on the US intervention in Libya smacks of AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM is no surprise and it has been noted by many commentators, including conservative pundit Billl Kristol (see here and here)

Of course, American Exceptionalism has been one of the tenets of the American national narrative since the Revolution,. It may have taken different forms and shapes from “the shining city on a hill”, to the “Manifest destiny”, the Frontier and the American Dream, but it has always been how the Americans have envisioned their nation.

As many of his predecessors, the president linked might (“the world’s more powerful nation”, “our strength abroad (….) at home”) with right and responsibility (“our responsibilities to our fellow humans”), thus offering a new version of the “white man’s burden”.
History itself seems to dictate action (“with the course of history poses challenges”) but the past not only justifies US action in Libya today but it also serves to limit its role (“we went down that road in Iraq (…)something we can afford to repeat in Libya”).

However, if Obama uses a traditional national rhetoric, his Exceptionalism is different from more conservative presidents in that not only does he emphasize cooperation with other countries, but he also shows a very humble facet of American leadership (“The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change”) and justifies action with defending international institutions (“The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security.”)

In his speech, Obama clearly stated his doctrine for US intervention abroad when the US is not directly threatened:
- humanitarian reasons, (“responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace”)
- regional security,
- maintaining the flow of commerce (something that would not never be used in French presidential discourse)

Interestingly to this blog is that France is the other country in the front seat of the coalition against Gaddafi. The Sarkozy government has pushed for a motion in the Security Council of the United Nations to impose a “no-fly zone” over Libya and French planes have played a crucial role in bombing Gaddafi's forces.

So how do the French see their role in this war? Well, France also justifies its action by its Exceptionalism.
As Steven Erlanger reminded us in the NYTimes:
France had “decided to assume its role, its role before history” in stopping Colonel Qaddafi’s “murderous madness,” Mr. Sarkozy said solemnly on Saturday, standing alone before the television cameras and pleasing those here who still have a strong sense of French Exceptionalism and moral leadership.
And indeed there is a wide consensus in France from the left to the right. Of course one can easily see ulterior political motive for the French president – a foreign military venture may help his popularity and unite the French people behind him.

But if the French should so easily rally round the chief in this war, it is because it has been justified on humanitarian ground precisely because they believe they have a “special role to play”. The French people are proud to have given the world the Declaration of the Rights of Man and their politicians commonly call their nation “the country of human rights” (“le pays des droits de l’homme”).
Like the United States, modern France was born out of a Revolution with universal claims of freedom, and its Exceptionalism is based on the intellectual tradition of French republicanism, and its democratic and egalitarian principles of citizenship.

As The Economist concluded a few years back :
Born of revolutions, America and France each established republics inspired by Enlightenment thinking, and based on freedom and individual rights. Within the same year, 1789, both the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Bill of Rights were drafted.
Above all, each nation believed in the universalism of its model—the Americans stressing liberty, the French civilisation—and shared an ambition to spread it abroad. The conviction among the French elite that France represents an alternative to the American way runs deep. It forms part of the national mythology that has helped to shore up French pride. And it explains why the French so readily pick on America at times of self-doubt. (The Economist)

The most virulent supporter of French Exceptionalism in modern French history was no doubt Charles De Gaulle who famously claimed : "Il y a un pacte vingt fois séculaire entre la grandeur de la France et la liberté du monde." (“There exists an immemorial covenant between the grandeur of France and the freedom of the world.”) and very telling these words are inscribed on the base of his statue on the Champs Elysees.

So I would agree very much with what Obama said in 2009 when asked about American Exceptionalism :
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
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. (Time)

In other words, a country’s Exceptionalism should not have to be believed at the expense of the uniqueness of other nations – in some ways, the basis of nationalism in ever country is its belief in its unique destiny but what makes France and the U.S. so different is their belief that each is the role model for other nations to follow.

No comments: