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While America Slept

President Obama has no use for American exceptionalism or any special relationship with English-speaking peoples. Our February 2010 cover story.

By From the February 2010 issue

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"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.

WHEN IT COMES TO THE great power that might take America’s place as the 21st century’s hegemon, consider the field. There is the European Union, with its 500 million population, its profound anti-American prejudice, its endemic corruption—its auditors haven’t signed off its accounts in more than a decade—and the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the European project. Would Americans want the French and Germans to replace them and be bathed in the warm limelight of History’s favor? Or there’s China, a vicious totalitarian regime that treats its own massive population with cruelty and contempt, and would undoubtedly treat any other subject people worse, as the Tibetans’ experience proves. Perhaps the least bad would be India, which at least has similar political and legal systems, the rule of law and democracy, and 18 percent of whose people speak English, all thanks to the careful two-century stewardship of the British Empire. Yet can one really see India acting altruistically in areas of the world where her immediate self-interest is not evident, because her Founding Fathers imbued her nation with a noble and all-encompassing mission, as America’s did?

When American hegemony disappears—and, in the words of the hymnal, all of “Earth’s proud empires pass away”—the world will be a poorer and much more dangerous place. Nor is it the case that the election of President Obama will defuse the anti- Americanism to which Joyce Carol Oates so gloatingly referred. Despite his outrageously premature Nobel Peace Prize and his global friendship tours, the eternal verities of global Realpolitik cannot be gainsaid. Wealth, success, and greatness lead to envy and thus hatred; it is an inevitable part of the human condition. The reason the Belgians, Thais, Finns, and those oh-so-exceptional Greeks are not hated today is simply that they are not powerful enough to warrant it. But consider the experience of the Roman Empire, the British Empire, indeed every top-dog power in history. “I never spend five minutes in inquiring if we are unpopular,” the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Selborne, in 1900. “The answer is written in red ink on the map of the globe. No, I would count everywhere on the individual hostility of all the great Powers, but would endeavour to arrange things that they were not united against me. I would be as strong in small things as well as big.”

The way that the United States can ensure that the world is never united against her is to abide by the spirit of the Special Relationship. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve read the obituaries of people who have written obituaries of the Special Relationship, yet it is thankfully still with us, as is America’s special relationship with the rest of the English-speaking peoples. If one looks at the forces presently deployed in Afghanistan—i.e., in the vanguard of the struggle between civilization and barbarism in our world today—you see 98,000 American troops and 35,000 from the rest of NATO, of which the British make up the second largest element, with 10,000, then the Germans (in the safest province), but after that the Canadians, who have taken the larger per capita proportion of casualties, and there have been special forces contingents from faraway Australia and New Zealand, even though they are not in NATO. (This is one place where Greek exceptionalism does come into play, in that there are exceptionally few Greeks in Afghanistan.)

As Churchill put it: “It is the English-speaking peoples who, almost alone, keep alight the torch of Freedom. These things are a powerful incentive to collaboration. With nations, as with individuals, if you care deeply for the same things, and these things are threatened, it is natural to work together to preserve them.” Today, we in Britain fear that President Obama has little or no time for the Special Relationship. One of his acts on entering the Oval Office was to return the bust of Churchill given by the British embassy in the wake of 9/11 back to the embassy. More seriously, he canceled the European missile shield. Teddy Roosevelt and Lord Salisbury, Churchill and FDR, Macmillan and JFK, Reagan and Thatcher, and Bush and Blair have defined the Special Relationship, but nothing like that closeness exists between Obama and Gordon Brown. We must hope that Obama and David Cameron get on once the Conservatives win the 2010 election in Britain, for in this risky world we both need the Special Relationship.

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM is not just something that Americans claim for themselves,” Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out. “Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it. I’m thinking of qualities such as American optimism even when there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it. That’s quite uncommon among the peoples of the world. There is the striking lack of class envy in America—by and large, Americans celebrate others’ success instead of resenting it. That’s just about unique, certainly compared to European countries, and something that drives European intellectuals crazy. And then there is perhaps the most important symptom of all, the signature of American exceptionalism—the assumption by most Americans that they are in control of their own destinies.”

It is that assumption, that sense of mastery of their own fates, that I fear might be faltering in modern America, and if so it will be the forerunner of a world historical tragedy, not just for America and the rest of the English-speaking peoples, but ultimately for the whole world. With the risks facing us today, American leadership is needed as much as ever before. America should hold on to her exceptionalism, never apologize for the American Idea, and be proud of the fact that you do things differently there.

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About the Author

Andrew Roberts is the author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 and, most recently, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War