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Without Exception?

September 23, 2012

Steven Cook argues in a recent piece for Foreign Policy that the U.S. is fated to remain deeply engaged in the Middle East in a leading role. A conclusion, that, on its face is quite reasonable. But if you’ll indulge me, Cook starts out early with an appeal to American exceptionalism that I think is demonstrative of how even incredibly intelligent analysts let certain mythic variations of the concepts intrude on analysis (not always extremely perniciously):

The concept of American exceptionalism is in danger of becoming a political cliché, but who would deny that the United States saved the world from fascism and communism and has been a beacon of freedom and prosperity for people the world over? The two major parties have it right: Despite the background chatter of the America’s diminished global stature, the country is uniquely positioned to lead the world and remain the preeminent power in the Middle East.

In their early 21st-century malaise, citizens of the United States have been told that the American Dream is dead, but it is clear that the rest of the world does not believe it. There is something to this idea of American exceptionalism: People do not swim to Brazil for a better future; authoritarian Russia is a model for no one. India and China are still very poor countries, and millions of their citizens want to build their futures in the United States.

Let me be the first to deny that the United States saved the world from fascism. The United States certainly ensured that democracy would have a place in the post-World War II order, but by any reasonable metric the vast majority of fascist killing falls to the Soviet Union. As Norman Davies pointed out in No Simple Victory’s examination of the European theater, the German-Soviet war accounted for 406 million man hours, compared to just 16.5 million for the Western Front and 5 million in North Africa.

We can certainly note that the end result of those 406 million man months was, for Central and Eastern Europeans was a new form of tyranny of comparably attenuated brutality, rather than a moment of liberation. As far as burying the ideology and its political-military manifestation goes, though, the label “This Machine Kills Fascists” best belongs neither on Woody Guthrie’s guitar nor the Arsenal Democracy, but the Red Army and its industrial support base.

(As for defeating communism, certainly the U.S. played a significant role there, but in many areas which fell under the sway of communist government, it was more internal decay and rejection than an exertion of American will which ultimately did the system in.)

America is, in many ways, positioned to play a unique role in the international system. But it is not because of some mystic course of history nor even American ideals or political self-beliefs – for the U.S. would retain enormous advantages and exert a unique role regardless – as Cook acknowledges, “The continuation of U.S. leadership has more to do with the structure of international politics and Washington’s capacities than the values Americans hold dear.”

Yet embracing exceptionalism, as so many American policymakers and politicians have made at least rhetorical commitments to, imposes arbitrary limits on the menu of U.S. foreign policy options. Sure, the United States is in much better shape than any other country to exert a hegemonic role in the region and throughout the world generally, but clearly at some point the mundane material facts of decline, and the more fickle issue of American political will for continued political-military exertion in a volatile region, alter the likely fortunes this effort will yield. The material factors that give the United States to project power abroad with relative impunity and more safely navigate the pitfalls of great power politics with less harm than its continental counterparts usually suffer also give it the ability to, unlike many other countries historically, withdraw into postures of much more limited military engagement with the world.

There is, of course, some connection between what makes America’s internal politics and values unique and what gives it its enviable geopolitical position. Hamilton thought as much when he explained America’s insular position provided opportunity for a government based upon protection of liberty, and Jefferson did too when he saw America’s potential to be a government reliant upon a class of virtuous yeoman farmer citizens. And of course America’s position as a colonial enterprise in a vast continent meant its demographic and political makeup would become in many respects fundamentally different from Europe’s.

But none of the peculiarities of American government make it destined to lead, and certainly not to lead or engage with regions the way it now does in the Middle East. For a long time, the qualities that made America exceptional in popular discourse also obligated it to stay well away from the affairs of the European continent, and to limit its engagement with Latin America and Asia to manners profoundly different from European foreign policies in the same areas. To be sure, constraints on material resources and political will also affected these choices in foreign policy, but they remained just that – choices.

The problem with the rhetoric of exceptionalism, even in the very mild forms that analysts present it when weighing in on policy debates, is that it unnecessarily constrains our views of the choices the United States makes. The material and structural conditions that Cook examines absolutely are the driving factors, but they do not compel the United States to take leadership of the region as some “price of exceptionalism.” When politicians and commentators note that nobody else can lead a region or the world, they are more than often correct. The current distribution of economic capacity, military capability, and diplomatic influence is such that there are few regions where local or extra-regional powers are likely going to exert the same degree of power and control the U.S. is able to now.

That issue is entirely separate, however, from the question of whether that power and control is necessary for achieving U.S. desired end-states in a region, or whether having the U.S. doing so is a worthwhile investment under the circumstances. Cook is correct when he notes:

The United States has made a military and financial investment in the Middle East that no one else will match. There’s good reason for that: Other powers are only too happy to benefit from the security Washington provides without bearing the cost. With all the gauzy talk of the “New Silk Road” and China’s global rise, Beijing’s diplomatic, political, and military roles in the Middle East have remained relatively modest even as its geostrategic and economic interests have grown. The Russians, meanwhile, have proved themselves to be demonstrably on the wrong side of history as Arabs struggle to build more just societies. Moscow’s support for the Assad regime has proved that it is more interested in maintaining a toehold in the region at the Syrian port of Tartus than saving thousands of Syrian lives. And despite Morsy’s planned visit to Brazil in late September, Brasilia is not a player in the Middle East. India, which has strong intelligence and military ties with Israel, also has a very low profile in the Arab world.

Yet what dividends is this reaping for the U.S.? Are there alternative courses to maintaining a system of hegemonic patronage in the region that would serve our interests there? Is the amount of America’s financial and military investment in the Middle East commensurate with the policy outcomes it produces in the regions? Are they commensurate with the benefit it provides to shoring up U.S. capabilities and achieving U.S. policy outcomes in other regions?

Cook is likely right that the U.S., thanks to the willingness of other powers to basically comply with U.S. hegemony in the region, will have some durability. But obvious free riding, particularly by powers with which the U.S. is competing in other theaters, such as China, ought make us question the value that our leadership in the region is getting us. If the U.S. could maintain its core objectives without exerting as much influence on the domestic policy of other Middle Eastern states, without precluding emergent realignments, and without the same degree of financial and military intensity, while sacrificing more discretionary objectives to make such retrenchment soluble, would that be worth it?

Unfortunately, when we frame hegemonic obligations as a price of exceptionalism or indispensability, we lock ourselves into a mindset where the lack of alternative hegemons, or worse, the presence of an alternative hegemon, becomes inherently at odds with America’s engagement with the world. America’s exceptional role in international politics, if anything, is the range of options it has enjoyed in its foreign policy. That the United States could emerge from World War II with expanded mastery while making its future rival absorb the vast majority of the casualties is an advantage in crafting alliances and projecting power which a rare group of great powers get to enjoy. It was not because the U.S. had to play that role, as Patrick Porter has explained, the U.S. had a great deal of discretion about how it chose to go about contributing to fascism’s defeat in World War II.

Discretion about how we engage in international politics has always been part of what has given the U.S. to take its principled stands on international affairs, from its rejection of European power balancing games to its more recent forays into crusades and attempts to administrate global and extra-regional orders. There is no set price of this exceptionalism or indispensability. America has often had the good fortune to convert its exceptional material and geopolitical status into foreign policies permitting the preservation of its internal liberties and the advancement of its ideology abroad. But it is always piecemeal and limited by the material circumstances. America’s exceptional status allowed it to help defeat fascism without bearing the majority of the costs, but the price of that was ceding Eastern Europe to another form of odious domination. The price of exceptionalism – to the extent that its price is borne by Americans – are the lost opportunities to seek alternative strategies that might better preserve the material advantages which ultimately underpin America’s ability to conduct an ‘exceptional’ foreign policy in the first place. At a time when the U.S.’s ways and means are increasingly out of sync with the extent of the end it seeks, embracing the multitude of foreign policy options the U.S. enjoys, rather than locking ourselves in to the truisms of exceptionalist thinking, will be a vital task for the makers of American foreign policy.

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