The Common Good

Obama's Brand of American Exceptionalism

As I suggested in my previous post, I was troubled by some elements of the president's recent Oslo speech. But recent statements by former VP Dick Cheney have helped me appreciate a key element of the speech that I enthusiastically applaud.

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Cheney was profiled recently by James Carroll as "the quintessential American," a passionate defender, among other things, of something called American exceptionalism. Both Cheney and his daughter have repeatedly cast aspersions on President Obama by suggesting that the president doesn't hold to the doctrine that America is elite and exceptional, morally superior, divinely privileged, or in other ways on a level above all other nations of the world. President Obama's willingness to honor other heads of state in ways appropriate to their cultures has been offered as evidence of this deficit in exceptionalist attitudes.

Now it turns out that the Cheneys are technically wrong on this criticism. President Obama has in fact asserted his belief in American exceptionalism.

But a strong critic of the president has pointed out an instance where the president explained what he means by American exceptionalism: he believes in it "just as I imagine that Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism and the British believe in British exceptionalism." In other words, his belief that America is an exceptional nation is somewhat akin to the people in Lake Wobegon knowing that all their children are above average. His attitude is in harmony with this beautiful hymn (sung to the tune of Finlandia):

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

Former Vice President Cheney's exceptionalism seems to have a more absolutist character to it. It easily leads its adherents to the belief that America should be exempted from normal protocols such as the Geneva Conventions' ban on torture, participation in the International Criminal Court, trade agreements that are fair as well as free, consistent respect for the United Nations, or responsible participation in global environmental initiatives. It's the kind of exceptionalism that makes exceptions for itself regarding the moral absolutes that it believes apply to others.

Which brings me back to the president's Oslo speech, where he clearly rejects this kind of absolutist exceptionalism:

Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions." To begin with, I believe that all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I -- like any head of state -- reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates -- and weakens -- those who don't.

President Obama's reference to Kennedy made me want to find the speech from which the quote was taken. Coincidentally, I had recently read a blog post from Chris Rice that referenced this same speech, which was originally delivered at American University in June, 1963, just five months before Kennedy's assassination. (You can watch it here, and it is embedded below.)

These lines from the speech especially grabbed me, all the more remarkable because they were spoken as the world faced the unprecedented threats of nuclear weapons in the Cold War:

The most important topic on earth [is] peace. Not a pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war ... I am talking about genuine peace. Not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women -- not merely peace in our time but peace for all time ... Some say it is useless to speak of world peace ... that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do ... But I also believe we must re-examine our own attitudes -- as individuals and as a nation -- for our attitude is as essential as theirs ... And every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace should begin by looking inward -- by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war, and toward freedom and peace here at home ...

Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable -- that mankind is doomed -- that we are gripped by forces we cannot control ...

Truly as it was written long ago: 'The wicked flee when no man pursueth' ... [this] is also a warning -- a warning to the American people to not fall into the same trap as the Soviets ... No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.

Much could be said about the wisdom for today contained in this speech from 1963, and these lines from it. We could reflect on the use of the word "evil" -- by our current and former presidents -- and how careful we must be not to think that the line between good and evil runs between "us" from "them," rather than within all of us -- leaving us to consider "them" as "lacking in virtue" and ourselves as morally exceptional. We could ponder the danger of falling "into the same trap" as our enemies, when we disguise from ourselves how we become the moral mirror-image of our enemies when we fight them using their own tools.

But for now, it seems to me, we should start by seeing how our nation is poised between the exceptionalism of Dick Cheney and the very different exceptionalism imagined by John F. Kennedy and affirmed by Barack Obama. That's why I wholeheartedly applaud these lines from the president's Oslo speech:

... America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don't, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention -- no matter how justified.

My hope for our country is that we will stop seeing and presenting ourselves as an exception to the rules, but as an example of the rules ... not as superior and above other nations, but as a good neighbor with them in the global community. The hymn I noted earlier presents us with the exceptionalism of all, no exceptions:

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

That's the kind of exceptionalism I can believe in, and I hope the president will continue to lead in that direction. While he may not move as boldly as some of us hoped, we must appreciate every step in the right direction, each step representing "a gradual evolution in human institutions."

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a speaker and author, most recently of Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.

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