May 21, 2008 During the height of the Vietnam war the late Senator William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, wrote a book called 'The Arrogance of Power' in which he criticized our involvement in the war. Recently I had an occasion to recall Fulbright's book while reading about the war in Iraq and how much the Senator's thesis about America's role in foreign policy seemed to apply to our current situation.
It has to do with the idea of American exceptionalism which we have had throughout much of our history. As one writer in 'The Economist' put it, "All countries are exceptional. But America likes to think of itself as exceptionally exceptional, different from other advanced industrial countries not just in its social arrangements but also in its underlying values."
Like others of my generation and many today I was raised to believe this was true. That we were strongly committed to what Margaret Thatcher called "Victorian values, individualism, volunteerism, (and) patriotism."
In many respects there is nothing wrong with these values but like any concept if taken in the extreme American exceptionalism can easily slip into ethnocentrism which can lead, even a great nation, into the arrogance of power.
When nearly three quarters of the American people think the country is headed in the wrong direction and the President has the worst approval rating in the history of the Gallup Poll it is perhaps time we reconsidered our place in the world and the direction our foreign policy should take in the next few years.
Most likely such national soul searching will be done during the next administration and the image we project abroad will have to be redefined, softened somewhat, so that we are less hated and are perceived as not creating a new world order where our value system is not forced upon other nations simply in the belief that it is superior to any other. To lead by example rather than by force, not an easy thing to do in an age marked by terrorism where our national security must be balanced with how much American power should be projected abroad.
As the writer in 'The Economist' put it, the challenge for the next administration is not so much "an end of American exceptionalism but the end of American triumphalism," while at the same time avoiding a retreat into isolationism and avoid the mistakes which the pre-World War II generation made in refusing to recognize the threat which Nazi Germany posed to international security.
Again it is a matter of balance. How much American power should we project while at the same time avoiding the arrogance which triumphalism can all too easily slip into?
In the present campaign all three candidates have invoked different aspects of American exceptionalism, which emerged as campaign issues, to suit momentary political advantage. In Senator Obama's case and in Senator Clinton's recent appeals each have stressed our strength of religious feeling. All three candidates, including the presumptive Republican candidate John McCain, have declared their support for the American dream and attempted to credential their own brand of patriotism. I think each of the candidates are sincere in their beliefs on these issues.
While such rhetoric is typical of most national campaigns in appealing to both a red (conservative ) and blue (liberal) America there is always the risk that their statements may come back to haunt them down the line.
The caution to observe here for the eventual winner is to understand there is a considerable difference in campaigning for the presidency and actually being president. While a Bill Clinton can describe America as "the indispensable nation" the next occupant of the White House must be willing to temper such rhetoric and adopt a more realistic view of America and its place in the world.
It will be interesting see if the two finalists' campaigns this fall actually reveal something of what that world view will be, thereby giving the voter insight into how they plan to lead the nation once the winner takes the oath of office. One can only hope it will transcend the short term political advantages of the rhetoric heard in the past year.