Kashish Parpiani
Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (India)

Obama’s Exceptional Funambulism

In underscoring the various challenges riddling the United States, President Obama in his farewell address also purported his rendering of American Exceptionalism.

Trevor McCrisken in American Exceptionalism and the Legacy of Vietnam, defines American Exceptionalism as the belief that the United States is “an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history; not only unique but also superior among nations”. In his farewell address on January 10, 2017, President Obama iterated his confidence in the United States’ capabilities to surmount the world’s impending challenges. He said,

“… we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth. Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours.”

Generally, the idea of American exceptionalism is largely derived from the United States’ primacy in the key realms of military and economic power. According to SIPRI data, American military spending stood at $610 billion in 2014, and as per Word Bank statistics, American economy clocks roughly at $17.9 trillion. American primacy in other realms are also considered, such as economic influence – at 16.54% the U.S. has the largest share of IMF voting rights, power projection – the U.S. maintains about 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories, alliances – the U.S. maintains military alliances with over than 60 countries, technology – the U.S. collected $128 billion in patent receipts in 2013, and soft power – produced by its “civil society – everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture”, American soft power has an unparalleled global appeal. Thus, in addressing the United States’ rise to the world’s most dynamic economic powerhouse, President Obama referenced “… the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral; the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.” In addition, on a constructivist note, American exceptionalism is also derived from an admiration for the “American Creed”. In American Exceptionalism: A Double-edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset defines the same as the liberal values that are unique to the United States’ constitution. Thus, in addressing the world order crafted by the United States primarily in the aftermath of the Second World War, President Obama referenced the relevance of the “American Creed”. He said,

“… It’s that spirit — a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might — that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression; that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but built on principles — the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly, and an independent press.”

However, regardless of the parameters adopted to define American Exceptionalism, 80 percent of all Americans, 91 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats agreed that “because of the United States’ history and its Constitution … the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.” Nearly two-thirds of Americans agree that the United States “has a moral obligation to take a leadership role in world affairs”. According to Pew Research, nearly 50 percent of all Americans agreed with the statement “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others”. Thus, as Michael Hunt puts it in Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy, belief in American exceptionalism has been pivotal in defining the American people’s “vision of the world and defining their place in it” – and by that extension, their identity.

This inspired the formulation of two strands of American exceptionalist thought that has influenced the formulation of American foreign policy over the years. The first being that of an “exemplar nation” – which reflects itself in ideas such as “the city upon a hill”. American Statesmen – most notably Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, evidenced this strand, in defining the United States as a model for liberal values for other countries to emulate. The other being that of a “missionary nation” – upheld by ideas such as “’manifest destiny’… ’internationalism’, ‘leader of the free world’”. American statesmen – most notably James Monroe, James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, evidenced this strand to define the United States as having a special role to play in the world. This strand has been highly dominant especially since the demise of the Soviet Union, which has also bred the idea of America being the world’s sole ‘indispensable nation’. This idea is most notably associated with Secretary of State Madeline Albright and her rigorous advocacy in the 1990s for American action in conflict-laden countries in Subsaharan Africa and Eastern Europe.

However, the Obama administrations’ foreign policy over the last eight years does not run parallel to either strands completely. Not only does one see a combination of both strands in President Obama’s foreign policy, but also the influence of his multilateralist world view – analogous to his domestic advocacy of inclusiveness. In his farewell address, he said, “the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some.”

In contrast to his predecessor’s foreign policy charged with an overt belief in American Exceptionalism, President Obama has attempted to balance out the institutionalised military responses that traditional exceptionalist thought warrants, with an overt emphasis on multilateralism.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush referred to the attacks on the United States as an attack on “freedom itself”, touching upon the ‘city upon a hill’ brand of exceptionalism. By chalking out a Manichaean world view between good and evil – reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s branding of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire”, President Bush proclaimed that the United States now had the responsibility “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil” through the ‘War on Terror’. Thereby, drawing upon the “chosen people” exceptionalist thought, analogous to novelist Herman Melville’s idea that, “We Americans are the peculiar, the chosen people – the Israel of our time. We bear the ark of the liberties of the world”.

By 2008, belief in American exceptionalism had become highly entrenched in the United States’ socio-political fabric. So much so that it came to be viewed as a litmus test – bracketing non-believers as ‘anti-Americans’. This was in-part because the ‘War on Terror’ – as Michelle Bentley and Jack Holland put it, became “a political way of life; a narrative, an idea and a form of affect”. Thus, the Obama administration embraced shades of the traditional conceptions of American exceptionalism, in-part to ensure political continuity. According to Robert Singh, this continuity was reflected in the administration’s national security policies such as, “preventive military action, the vast expansion of the drone programme and extra-judicial assassinations”. And in-part, because of President Obama’s repeated iterations of his belief in the ‘indispensable’ character of American power and its resultant imperatives of leadership. In 2011, noted author Robert Schlesinger, studied the public papers of presidents put together by UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project, and opined that President Obama has uttered, addressed, discussed and thus embraced ‘American Exceptionalism’ “more than his hyperpatriotic predecessor Bush.” Thus, even in interviews as recent as November 4, 2016, on being asked “Does America really need to be an empire?”, the President said,

“… we really are the indispensable nation… There is not an international meeting I go to in which, if we were not sitting at the table, nothing gets done. For the most part, other countries don’t have either the capacity or the inclination”

However, President Obama also sought to depart from his predecessor’s ‘redeemer nation’ brand of exceptionalism which translated into a foreign policy of unilateralism and military adventurism. In conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, he professed multilateralism as the antidote, which he opined “regulates hubris”. According to Georg Lofflmann, President Obama attempted to infuse a “grand strategy of engagement, ‘burden-sharing,’ and ‘leading from behind’”. This ensued a funambulism of sorts, aimed at not abandoning imperatives of American leadership, but at the same time not relegating itself to ‘nation building’ and prolonged militaristic campaigns. This was reflected in the Obama administration’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review which stated “… the United States will remain the most powerful actor but must increasingly work with key allies and partners if it is to sustain stability and peace” (DoD 2010, iii)

This funambulism was clear in case of the administration’s motivation to intervene in Libya. Shortly after the intervention began, President Obama said,

“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.”

The relevance of such missionary brand of American exceptionalism as a motivation behind the intervention, was further consolidated by the presence of liberal interventionists like Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power in crucial positions of the administration. In the intervention’s execution however, the administration did not engage unilaterally. It instead sought the support of the United Nations Security Council via Resolution 1970 & 1973, ‘led from behind’ and paved the way for powers like France and the United Kingdom to operate against the Gaddafi regime after the initial aerial campaign. President Obama thus, balanced his conception of encouraging multilateralism and the traditional conception of missionary America.

This balancing act is apparent in his administrations’ other major foreign policy feats as well. In concert with European powers, it acquired the nuclear deal with Iran, imposed sanctions on Russia, and formed a coalition to combat Daesh. Whilst simultaneously embracing the “imperatives of American leadership” to bolster NATO defences – like overseeing the deployment of F-22 Raptors in Eastern Europe, against Russian aggression.

In Asia, together with Pacific-rim counties, it “set the rules of the road” for Trans-Pacific trade, normalised relations with Vietnam, Laos and Burma, and ramped up military partnerships with the Philippines, Australia, Singapore, and India. At the same time, in view of its indispensable character, Washington bolstered deterrent capabilities in Northeast Asia – by initiating the joint-development of RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 ship-based missile system with Japan, and explored the possible deployment of THAAD antiballistic missiles in South Korea, against North Korean brinksmanship.

The Obama administration’s balancing act on American Exceptionalism was also apparent in its highly controversial “about-face” in case of Syria. In 2013, in announcing air strikes in response to the Assad regimes’ use of chemical weapons, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the regime’s gassing of civilians as a crime against the basic norms and fundamentals of the international community, and claimed, therefore “this matters to us… and it matters to who we are.” Thereby, insinuating the United States’ responsibility to safeguard those fundamental norms of humanity – in accordance with the missionary and exemplar conception of exceptionalist thought. However, the next day, President Obama postponed the strike, and a week later announced that a diplomatic route with the Russian government to seek the surrender of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was in-works. In his address, he cited the “credible threat of US military action” and “constructive talks” with President Putin – thus referencing exceptionalism of superior capability and multilateral engagement, as the cause behind the breakthrough.

In Jeffrey Goldberg’s high revered piece, The Obama Doctrine, one witnessed President Obama’s pride in not giving into what he called the “Washington playbook” in case of Syria. The playbook being the foreign policy establishment’s prescription of responses to various threats – mostly militarised responses, in view of conundrums over the credibility, efficacy, and sustenance of American power – and by that extension, American exceptionalism. According to the president, a blind allegiance to the playbook can “lead to bad decisions” – like in case of Syria, airstrikes could have been a slippery slope to an extensive military quagmire for the United States.

However, the future of this funambulism on American Exceptionalism seems bleak. President-elect Trump has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the United States’ right to spread democracies around the world, dubbed it as a “Third World” country in reference to its crumbling infrastructure, and has spoken of rising economics “eating our lunch” in critiquing the United States’ trade deficits. According to Stephen Wertheim, Trump has “inverted the exceptionalist dogma…  that the United States is the “envy of the world.” Trump, to be sure, assumes that the whole world is watching the United States—not out of envy, but to mock it.” Further, President-elect Trump’s hyperrealist tendencies to advocate putting “America First”, reflects his apparent disgruntlement over America not getting its “fair share”. His rhetoric about making America “great again”, suggests that “he may wish to grab that share from others“, aimed at restoring “respect” for Washington. This worryingly incites the prospect of the United States turning to aggressive unilateralism – in a direct departure from President Obama’s exhortation.

Thus, in bidding farewell to President Obama, one may also witness the end of a carefully calibrated rendering of American Exceptionalism that stood in recognition of the realities of a multi-polar world.

Kashish Parpiani is currently based in the U.K., as the PAIS-India Scholar at the University of Warwick. His primary research interest is the United States’ Primacy & Grand Strategy.

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About the Author
Kashish Parpiani is Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Based in Mumbai (India), his research interests include US–India ties and US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific. Beyond ORF, he has been published at the Institute for National Security Studies (Israel), the Centre for Asia and Globalization (Singapore), Deccan Herald (India), the Marine Corps University Press (US), The Hindu (India), and the Rising Powers in Global Governance Project (Turkey). Kashish is also the co-author of the forthcoming book — America and the Indo-Pacific - Trump and Beyond (Routledge, June 2021). He has presented papers at conferences by the Shanghai University, the International Studies Association (ISA), and London School of Economics–IDEAS. Kashish has been quoted across media platforms such as The Wall Street Journal, South China Morning Post, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg, TIME magazine, and Al Jazeera.
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