President Obama has no use for American exceptionalism or any special relationship with English-speaking peoples. Our February 2010 cover story.
“I do not think America is going to smash,” Winston Churchill told his American stockbroker in the depths of the Great Depression. “On the contrary I believe that they will quite soon begin to recover…. They carved it out of the prairie and the forests. They are going to have a strong national resurgence in the near future.”
Churchill’s own belief in the massive regenerative power of the United States was a constant in his life. He believed that given the will, Americans could achieve anything, because America was special. Yet today it is precisely this trust in the exceptionalism of America that is currently being called into question. History shows that nations that retain self-belief are indeed capable of astonishing feats, but those that suspect their time in the sun has passed cannot be saved, however rich they are or successful they have been.
Joyce Carol Oates, the award-winning novelist and Princeton professor, has written in the Atlantic: “How heartily sick the world has grown, in the first… years of the 21st century, of the American idea! Speak with any non-American, travel to any foreign country, and the consensus is: The American idea has become a cruel joke, a blustery and bellicose bodybuilder luridly bulked up on steroids, consequently low on natural testosterone, deranged and myopic, dangerous.” Such searing hatred of the American Idea from within American society—indeed from inside its cultural elite—is far more dangerous than what non-Americans feel. Of course, it couldn’t matter less what one writer feels if she does not represent the zeitgeist, but much more worrying was President Barack Obama’s reply in April to a question from a Financial Times reporter about whether he believed in American exceptionalism. 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.”
This is reminiscent of what the Dodo says in Alice in Wonderland: “Everyone has won and all must have prizes.” Yet that is simply not how international relations work. Greeks might indeed believe in their own exceptionalism, as might Belgians, Thais, or Finns for that matter, but they are not truly exceptional in the light of global current affairs. The West once again looks to America for leadership in a risky world, as we so often have in the past. Although the U.S. economy was in recession in the second quarter of 2009, she pulled out of it in the third quarter. My country, Britain, is still heavily mired in recession, but nothing so cheers our markets as much as knowing that you are finally out of it. American optimism, free market beliefs, and the can-do spirit will raise the Western world out of these doldrums—at least, they will if they are permitted to by your Congress and administration.
Historians will long debate how this recession started and who was responsible—the repeal of Glass-Steagall, Alan Greenspan’s interest rate policies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s lending strategy, Hank Paulson’s stewardship of the Treasury, all will be investigated by what Churchill once called “the pitiless inquest of History”—but however we got into it, only a resurgent America can get us out the other side. Yet with net private investment at 0.1 percent of U.S. GDP in the second quarter of 2009, and the U.S. deficit in 2009 standing at $1.4 trillion, the question the world is asking is: does America retain the belief in her exceptionalism, as in earlier times? All true friends of America must pray that the answer is yes, but if President Obama’s statement is anything to go by, it might be no.
SO IN A RISKY WORLD, where the hegemony of the English-speaking peoples—necessarily led by America—is increasingly being encroached upon by China, India, the European Union, and other powers, will America continue to provide the global leadership she always has, ever since she erupted onto the global stage a century ago? For it was in 1909 that Teddy Roosevelt visited Hampton Roads in Virginia to witness the return, after a 14-month, 45,000-mile circumnavigation of the world, of the Great White Fleet.
On board the presidential yacht Mayflower, Roosevelt watched seven miles of bright white ships— they were painted battle-gray soon after—as they fired a 21-gun salute in his honor. “We have definitely taken our place among the world great powers,” he said afterward, and he was right. The places that the Fleet had visited subtly underlined this important new fact of global geopolitics. From Chesapeake Bay, the 16 battleships had steamed to the Caribbean, past the new possessions of Cuba and Puerto Rico, then down the east coast and up the west coast of South America, protected by the Monroe Doctrine. Each country of the Latin American part of the world cruise at which the Fleet stopped—including Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Mexico—could have harbored any illusions about what this massive new force portended.
After Mexico, the Fleet visited Hawaii (annexed by the U.S. in July 1898), New Zealand, and Australia, China, the (American-owned) Philippines, and then Japan. It then sailed across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, and then across the Atlantic. As a historian of America’s explosion onto the world scene recorded: “The cruise not only impressed the world with America’s newfound military strength, but excited the imagination of Americans as well. A million people had turned out in San Francisco to welcome the ships before their voyage across the Pacific.” There was no talk then of Greek exceptionalism being something that could be equated with American.
So where are we a century—indeed “the American century”—later? All too often in history, it has been the challenge of a small, seemingly insignificant power that has shown up the cracks in a great nation, which has in turn led to the loss of hegemony and the loss of greatness.
Serbia was tiny compared to the Austro- Hungarian Empire in 1914, yet its challenge eventually brought the Habsburgs to their knees. The French Empire dissolved after its defeat by Indochina at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Two years later, the once-mighty British Empire came to grief at Suez at the hands of puny Egypt. Afghanistan saw the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire only 10 years after the Christmas 1979 invasion. America must not allow that same country—Afghanistan—to sound the death knell of American greatness, of American exceptionalism. She did not allow the disaster in Vietnam—where she lost 55,000 dead, well over 10 times more than in Iraq and Afghanistan put together—to deflect her.
For do not think that America’s great wealth will save her, if she loses the willpower to be exceptional. The possession of high per capita incomes does not save empires that no longer believe in themselves. History is littered with examples. The Romans were richer than the Huns, the Ottomans than the Mongols, the Aztecs than the Conquistadores, the Romanovs than the Bolsheviks, the British than the Indian National Congress, and so it goes on. It did none of these empires any good once they had lost their self-belief.
YET ALTHOUGH THE CHALLENGES FACED by the English-speaking peoples today are undeniably challenging, they are hardly unique. History might not repeat itself, but it does occasionally rhyme. The War on Terror would be instantly recognizable to the great leaders of the Englishspeaking peoples of the past. Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill would have heard in the overarching ambitions of the jihadists for a caliphate stretching from Spain to Indonesia an echo of the Wilhelmine ambitions that led to the first great assault on the English-speaking peoples in 1914. Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt would also have seen in the viciousness and ruthlessness of the Taliban a shadow of the swastika that fell across Europe from 1933 to 1945. Harry Truman, JFK, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher would have no difficulty in spotting the similarities between al Qaeda’s creed of universality with the Marxist dialectical claim of the Soviet Communists to eventual world domination.
What we are witnessing today is nothing less than the fourth great assault on the primacy of the English-speaking peoples from aggressive totalitarian belief systems. The methods might be different each time, but the mindset hasn’t changed. Yet what I fear might have changed is a growing unwillingness of the elites of the English-speaking peoples to continue paying the price for their liberty. The sunset clause President Obama put on his latest surge at his West Point speech is the latest example of this unwillingness.
If the United States does not provide the kind of leadership in our risky world that was provided by Churchill, the two Roosevelts, Truman, JFK, Reagan, and Thatcher, and which one day—especially in the field of homeland security—will be accorded to President Bush and Tony Blair, then we must tremble for the future. For America to listen to the siren voices of isolationism and to withdraw into herself— perhaps citing Washington’s Farewell Address as she does so—would be utterly disastrous for our planet in the 21st century. Power abhors a vacuum, and America’s withdrawal would soon be followed by the emergence of another nation that would not exhibit a fraction of America’s decency, fairness, and veneration for the popular will.
Nor her self-sacrifice: the tale is told of Lyndon Johnson in 1966 asking Charles de Gaulle, when France left NATO in 1966 and demanded the removal of all American bases from French soil: “Does your order include the bodies of American soldiers in France’s cemeteries?” (There are 30,922 Americans from the First World War buried in France and 93,245 from the Second.) On D-Day itself, American lost 2,500 killed, Britain 1,641, Canada 359, and there were Australians and New Zealanders too. Indeed, the English-speaking peoples took 98.4 percent of the military casualties liberating France that day, despite the fact that in June 1944 the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia faced no conceivable threat of invasion from Germany.
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