A Few Notes on the Inauguration

January 22, 2016

American exceptionalism is an American concept. President Obama has referred to it on more than one occasion. During a news conference in Strasbourg on April 4, 2009, on his first trip abroad as President, in responding to a question as to whether he subscribed to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, he said:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world… if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
“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…”

In his “Address to the Nation on Syria” on September 10, 2013 he expressed similar views:
“… America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth…”

In an op-ed published by the New York Times the next day President Putin disputed American exceptionalism:
“…. My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” (1)

Regardless, two weeks later President Obama again stressed American exceptionalism before the UN General Assembly:
“… I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. But I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional — in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all…”

It was not only Mr. Putin who challenged President Obama’s references to American exceptionalism. Some of Mr. Obama’s political opponents have criticized his understanding of the concept which also emphasized multilateralism. Others have said that he has stolen Republicans’ best rhetoric. During the last presidential campaign, some Republicans expressed regret that because Mr. Trump discarded messages regarding America’s family values, patriotism and American exceptionalism, Democrats seized the chance to argue that they had always believed in the same things too, perhaps a little differently.

Those interested how American exceptionalism has evolved may wish to read Professor Greg Grandin’s excellent article “The Strange Career of American Exceptionalism” published in “The Nation” on December 6, 2016. (2)

I listened carefully to President Trump’s inaugural address. I watched him wave to the crowds applauding him and raise his fist in a display of force and determination. The new White House spokesman had said the day before that this would be a philosophical speech rather than the announcement of a program. Having listened to him, I concluded that this was a defiant speech not a philosophical one. I also came to believe that the concept American exceptionalism is over and done with until Mr. Trump redefines it through the prism of his own accomplishments. Because, in underlining the failures of preceding administrations he said, “For too long …”, “For many decades …”. How far back do those comments extend? Probably quite far…

However, at least for Middle East countries, the inauguration of America’s 45th President witnessed one important dimension of American exceptionalism. The day following the Mr. Trump’s inauguration, hundreds of thousands of Americans participated in anti-Trump marches and the police did not intervene to stop them.

On foreign relations, the President said:
“… We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.
“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.
“We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth…”

No one would dispute the right of nations to put their interests first within the parameters of international law. This is the rule. And, Mr. Obama had also said in his Cairo speech that no system of government should be imposed upon one nation by any other. But, President Trump’s reference to the “civilized world” was something new. Who exactly belongs to that world? How does he view America’s traditional Middle East allies in this respect? After all, “eradicating radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth” would depend on putting an end to Middle East’s sectarian wars and dealing with what the West perceives as the “jihadist ideology”. Would those traditional allies now be ready and willing to cooperate with the US on Mr. Trump’s terms or would they continue to pursue their own agendas? Would they ever reach a common understanding among themselves on extremist ideologies and “radical Islamic terrorism” or would they prefer to sidestep the former and concentrate on terrorism? Should President Trump’s remarks comfort or alarm them?

One may continue with such questions but in the final analysis it will be Mr. Trump’s perception of American interests that would define relations between the US and its Middle East partners. And, indications are that he is going to be a different partner than his predecessor whom some of America’s regional allies sadly came to dislike. So, one would have to wait and see, though not for very long…
(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/opinion/putin-plea-for-caution-from-russia-on-syria.html
(2) https://www.thenation.com/article/the-strange-career-of-american-exceptionalism/

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