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Exceptional America, Universally Right America

The ideology of exceptionalism and universalism driving Hillary Clinton's foreign-policy agenda can no longer be endured by the world


This is one of a series of excerpts from a longer article which originally appeared in Salon under the byline Patrick L. Smith.

The author is a longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker. He is also an essayist, critic and editor.

<figcaption>"Exceptionalism is her ideology as she seeks the presidency"</figcaption>
"Exceptionalism is her ideology as she seeks the presidency"

His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013)


An earlier column singled out the exceptionalist consciousness we Americans share even when we think we have surmounted it. With this we can continue to answer the questions readers posed: What must we reject in Clinton and what do we want instead? To exceptionalism I will add a distinction Perry Anderson, the British writer interviewed for this column last summer, taught me to make: There is our exceptionalism and our universalism, and of the two the latter is the more pernicious.

The need is dire for leadership that can advance us beyond both of these beliefs—neither can be considered a thought—but let’s take these one at a time.

For most of us exceptionalism is more a habit of mind than an ideology, fair to say. And most of us have neither held high office nor sought the highest. Hillary is not most of us in either respect. Exceptionalism is her ideology as she seeks the presidency. One has no idea how or when this came to be—during her Goldwater Republican years, maybe—but she has made the point plain many, many times.

This is not an abstraction, for Clinton’s ideological exceptionalism is an organizing principle, it is a bad one and it comes with consequences. Chief among these I rank blindness and undesirable continuity. She is incapable of shifting perspective—of seeing the world and others as they see it and themselves. She cannot register anyone else’s aspirations unless they match ours. As to continuity, Clinton’s foreign policy thinking is bound tightly to the past: “This worked for a very long time.”

These are not ignorable, forgivable shortcomings. One of the essential responsibilities of our time—for everyone—is to exit ourselves sufficiently to enter “the Other” for the sake of understanding. We must allow ourselves to become “strangers to ourselves,” to borrow a phrase from Julia Kristeva, the French psychoanalyst. Another of our responsibilities—this one specific to Americans—is to find the courage to break with our past. Many of us are getting there on these scores. They are the keys to constructive American behavior in the 21st century, and we ought to be looking for leadership that registers this reality. Hillary Clinton does not.

As to universalism, this is the belief that our way of being—our “values,” if we have any left apart from money and the corporatization of everything—is best for everyone. Those who reject this notion—people who prefer their own traditions and values and rootedness in place and history—are impediments to our worldly mission. They cannot, as the history of our foreign policy tells us, be tolerated.

Exceptional America, universally right America: These two beliefs are bedrock to Hillary Clinton. From them flows all we must reject in Clinton’s foreign policy agenda as it has been and as it will be an HRC presidency—and by obvious extension, all we ought to seek in alternative leaders.

One caveat as I propose a list of the primary problems Clinton faces us with: When you have a liar as compulsive as Hillary Clinton, a political simulacrum whose inauthenticity seems to occupy the whole of her personality, you have to distinguish between what is said and what is done. The latter is what we go by, of course.

There is, first, the problem of American ambition and the corollary question of international law.

Since Truman unsheathed what was declared his doctrine before Congress 69 years ago this month, so starting the Cold War, global domination has been the principal goal of American strategists. This has passed through various iterations. The first we knew as containment, and it applied not only to the Soviets: Washington also sought to foreclose on any alternative pole of power that might originate among Continental Europeans, most notably the French. The evidence of this we still live with.

There is a straight line between containment and “pre-emptive war” as Bush II advanced the principle. By then the Project for a New American Century had published its 2000 report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” wherein full-dress global hegemony—military and economic—come out the far end of the Truman Doctrine as explicitly stated objectives.

It is easy enough to see how this amounts to a commitment to operate outside of international law. Any newspaper archive or Web search will demonstrate this connection in a record of events as they turned out. In effect, we claim the position of the sovereign who is above the law because he is the source of law. This assumption so envelops us that we long ago lost any ability to distinguish between illegality and legality in the international context. At this point the question is a more or less complete blur.

The most obvious case in point is Washington’s long-established habit of fomenting coups in nations that, one way or another, resist our claim to universalist values. Of late the term “regime change” may obscure the reality for some or most of us, but the reality of American lawlessness changes not at all. In response to the American-cultivated coup in Ukraine two years ago, the Russians appear to have put Washington on notice that coups as an instrument of policy will no longer go unopposed (as the attempt in Syria has not). Parenthetically, we need to ask ourselves why it took the Russians to make a point we ought to have made long ago.

The tradition of lawless behavior is the tradition to which Clinton adheres, having done her part to shape it in the post-Cold War period, and she has given no substantive indication of departing from it. She refers rarely to international law but frequently to “vacuums,” as in this from the Goldberg interview:

America has the capacity to grow our economy, solve our problems and continue our global leadership…. And yes, there will be real consequences if we fail to live up to our own promise and potential. Our allies will lose confidence, our adversaries will be emboldened, and other powers will start to fill the vacuum.

This is the sound of exceptionalism and universalism all at once when Clinton articulates these two beliefs. Dean Acheson or John Foster Dulles would not have to change a syllable.


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