On September 30, 2004, President George W. Bush and Senator JohnKerry met in Coral Gables, Florida, for the first debate of thepresidential campaign. For months, the two had sparred about how toposition America in a post–September 11 world, with Bush defending apreemptive, unilateralist policy and Kerry arguing for a greaterreliance on the international community. Moderator Jim Lehrer askedKerry and Bush whether the United States had the right to launchpreemptive wars. Without hesitation, Kerry answered yes–with aqualifier. “But if and when you do it,” he said, “You’ve got to do itin a way that passes the test, passes the global test where yourcountrymen, your people, understand fully why you’re doing what you’redoing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimatereasons.” After a moment, during which he seemed almost to be cockinghis fist for a roundhouse punch, Bush answered, “My attitude is youtake preemptive action in order to protect the American people, thatyou act in order to make this country secure … My opponent is forjoining the International Criminal Court. I just think trying to bepopular, kind of, in the global sense, if it’s not in our bestinterest, makes no sense.”
Two days later, Bush deemed Kerry’s statement the “Kerry Doctrine.”Speaking before a convention of home builders, he declared, “[Kerry]said that America has to pass a global test before we can use Americantroops to defend ourselves. . . . Senator Kerry’s approach to foreignpolicy would give foreign governments veto power over our nationalsecurity decisions.” A president, he added, should not “take aninternational poll … our national security decisions will be made inthe Oval Office, not in foreign capitals.” In the weeks that followed,Kerry could not undo the damage. By Election Day, 86 percent of voterswho cited “terrorism” as their top concern voted for Bush–a clearsign that Americans did not trust Kerry to keep them safe.
Kerry won the Democratic Party’s nomination as the candidate ofnational security strength. However, over the course of the generalelection campaign, he came to embody the broader failure ofprogressives to articulate a compelling foreign policy for apost–September 11 world. As Kerry’s loss demonstrated, progressiveshave not convinced the American people that they will do what it takesto defend the nation, that they have a clear direction for the conductof U.S. foreign policy in a world of terrorist threats, and that theyhave core affirmative beliefs, rather than simply critiques of theerrors of the Bush Administration.
But, despite their current disarray, progressives in fact have arich history of just such a foreign policy paradigm, one that can bemined for hints of a way out of today’s morass. Indeed, they shouldreturn to these strengths and espouse a new doctrine of “exemplarism,”a marriage of American strength–both military and moral–and leadership.Exemplarism would value both strength and international prestigeequally, seeing them not as mutually exclusive but rather as mutuallyreinforcing. America’s economic, political, and military strength, whendeployed wisely, enhances our prestige around the world; that prestige,in turn, allows us to expand our influence and power by engendering thewilling followership of other countries.
Exemplarism steers clear of the ideological blind spots that haveplagued other dominant foreign-policy paradigms. In recent years,liberals have underestimated the importance of U.S. primacy, realistshave ignored the power of moral idealism, and neoconservatives havescoffed at the necessity of prestige. Exemplarism would chart a coursethrough these shoals, placing the United States in a community, but asits leader. It is a foreign policy for a time when meeting so many ofthe threats the United States faces requires not only internationalcooperation, but the cooperation of individuals around the world. Andwe’ve seen this approach work before–elements of exemplarism can befound in Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, Harry S Truman’s MarshallPlan, John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, and Bill Clinton’s Kosovointervention. The idea of exemplarism is uniquely American–andrecognizes America’s singular status–while providing a vision of how asuperpower can lead a multipolar world of interdependent nations.
American ExceptionalismExemplarism is a militarily strong and morally ambitious version ofAmerican exceptionalism, or the notion that the United States is uniqueamong the world’s nations. There is nothing new about Americanexceptionalism. It is, in fact, older than the country itself, an ideathat draws on deep reservoirs of moral idealism and civicresponsibility. America’s exceptionalism is also rooted in hard facts.As the international relations scholar Stanley Hoffman notes, theUnited States is geographically privileged, has the most successfulrepresentative democracy in the world, and has long held a distaste forthe rule of force that was common to European colonialism, replacing itwith an embrace of the rule of law. Such exceptionalism, as the humanrights expert Michael Ignatieff explains, has manifested itself in fourdistinct ways: the realist, based on America’s unique power relative toother nations; the cultural, stemming from “an American sense ofProvidential destiny”; the institutional, rooted in America’s “specificinstitutional organization”; and the political, related to thedistinctive conservative and individual character of America’spolitical culture.
Throughout American history, these different strains have emerged invarious statements on America’s moral mission, from John Winthrop’s1630 “City Upon a Hill” speech to Woodrow Wilson’s mission of spreadingdemocracy. Exceptionalism is deeply and uniquely American, stemmingfrom our essential national character–our generosity, our hopefulness,our ambition, and our sense of possibility.
Today, however, we see a messianic strain of exceptionalismpowerfully realized in the presidency of George W. Bush. His constant,post–September 11 injunction that the United States should democratizethe world at gunpoint posits an America not only above, but apart from,the world. His exceptionalism frames the United States as an exceptionto the world, rather than as an exceptional–meaning excellent–nationwithin it.
This ideology of separateness undermines our ability to translateour uniqueness into global leadership. Our belligerently unilateralapproach to Saddam Hussein’s regime prompted China, Russia, and Germanyactively to oppose our effort to invade Iraq during 2003; as a result,the United States was forced to shoulder a greater burden of troopdeployments in the country, putting our soldiers (many of them membersof the National Guard or Reserves) on two and even three rotations.That stress, in turn, has weakened our ability to threaten hard powerin areas of potential hot conflict, from the Middle East to North Asia.Likewise, the Bush Administration’s disdain for internationalinstitutions and the legitimacy of international public opinion hasundermined efforts to marshal the community of nations to deal withchallenges such as Iran and North Korea as well efforts to convincegovernments in the Middle East, Russia, and elsewhere to take stepstoward democratization. As Harold Koh, the dean of Yale Law School, haswritten, “The greatest tragedy is when America’s ‘bad exceptionalism,’its support for double standards, undermines its ability to engage in‘good exceptionalism,’ or exceptional human-rights leadership.”
The principles of this “vulgar exceptionalism” have largely beensupplied by neoconservatives in the Bush Administration, drawing on thepolitical theory of Leo Strauss: the United States is divinely destinedfor world leadership; we are in an age of moral and intellectualdecline, which only political elites can rectify; moral absolutes arethe path to salvation (rather than prudential, pragmatic norms, whichthemselves reflect weakness and decadence); the individualism found inboth capitalism and modern Western liberalism is a moral imperative anddemands universal application in all societies; force is not to beavoided at all costs, but rather should fit and support Americantriumphalism; and multilateralism, international institutions, andentities (or even thoughts) that pose even the slightest threat toAmerican power deserve skepticism or outright opposition.
Taken together, these neoconservative tenets construct a dense, RubeGoldberg–esque engine, which easily adopts an angry, paranoid, andbelligerent stance toward critics and, indeed, the outside world ingeneral. This engine generated the Iraq war, and it churned out all theother jarring foreign policy decisions of the Bush Administration, suchas the withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty, the opposition to theInternational Criminal Court, the abrogation of the Anti-BallisticMissile Treaty, our declamatory and futile saber-rattling against Iranand North Korea, and our initial withdrawal from the peace process inthe Middle East.
Nowhere has the vulgar exceptionalism of the Bush Administrationbeen more devastating than on world public opinion about the UnitedStates. A Pew Research Center poll released in June 2005 revealed aprecipitous decline in worldwide regard for the United States. From2000 to 2005, favorable opinion toward the United States had dropped 28percentage points in Great Britain (from 83 to 55 percent), 37percentage points in Germany (from 78 to 41 percent), 37 percentagepoints in Indonesia (from 75 to 38 percent), 29 percentage points inTurkey (from 52 to 23 percent), and had remained at 23 percent inPakistan. Only Russia and India saw an increase in support for theUnited States. In his latest book, Aœberpower, German journalistJosef Joffe notes an emergent anti-Americanism in the world that bearsstriking and unsettling similarities to anti-Semitism, includingthinking the United States is at the head of a great conspiracy,responsible for all the evil in the world.
While this disapprobation stems in part from the worldwidecondemnation of the Iraq war, it also reflects broader discontent withthe unilateralism that predominated in the early Bush years, whetherhostility to treaties or to multilateral institutions in general. Mostdamaging is that we are especially set back in the region whereadmiration would be most helpful–the Middle East. In 2004, forinstance, diplomats from 57 Islamic countries gathered in Turkey for anOrganization of the Islamic Conference meeting, with an announced goalto “denounce the unilateralism” of U.S. foreign policy. As even formerneoconservative Francis Fukuyama has recently conceded, this worldwidedetestation hurts the United States by making our internationaldecisions more costly, more difficult, and with less predictableconsequences. A lack of international prestige might not prevent usfrom acting in an absolute sense, but it constrains our efforts to acton issues that require the cooperation of other nations, frominternational terrorism and crime to the environment to trade.
Neoconservatives’ political failures result partly from theirradical underappreciation of the value of admiration. Indeed, vulgarexceptionalism comes from their systematic misreading, or outrightmanipulation, of intellectual authorities that they claim sanctionarrogance. For example, the notion of the United States as a nationstanding above the world community, gazing down from a position ofdivine privilege, appears throughout the neoconservative corpus,nowhere more than in the speeches of the Straussians’ favoritestatesman, Ronald Reagan. In his farewell address, Reagan spoke of theUnited States as “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger thanoceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kindsliving in harmony and peace.”
Reagan’s expression of America’s elevated moral stature borrowedfrom John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill” speech, delivered in 1630aboard the Arabella as it made its way from England toMassachusetts: “[W]e must Consider that we shall be as a City upon aHill, the eyes of all people are upon us “” A closer reading ofWinthrop, however, shows that he believed the esteem of other nationsis crucial. In the original speech from which the famous “city upon ahill” phrase is drawn, Winthrop actually concentrated more on thepeople below the hill than the hill-dwellers:
If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we haveundertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, weshall be made a story and byword through the world, we shall open themouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professorsfor God’s sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthyservants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us tillwe be consumed out of the good land whether we are going.
Winthrop’s idea stands startlingly apart from the arrogance ofneoconservatives. Far from exempting the new country from the rulesgoverning the rest of the world, selection by God placed upon theUnited States a new and more serious responsibility. Failure to meetthis burden would lead to ostracism and condemnation by other nations,so complete as to threaten pariah status and even destruction.
If divine righteousness is one arm of the neoconservative conceptionof the United States, the Machiavellian politics of fear is another.American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen–a principaladvocate of the doctrine of unilateral preemption–purports to borrowfive principles from Machiavelli in his book The War Against the Terror Masters,including “it is better to be feared than loved.” Fear, rather thanprestige, he argues, should be at the core of our foreign policy. “Wecan lead by the force of high moral example,” he writes, but “fear ismuch more reliable, and lasts longer. Once we show that we are capableof dealing out terrible punishment to our enemies, our power will befar greater.”
The timeless adage about fear comes from The Prince, a bookMachiavelli wrote for Prince Lorenzo d’Medici in an effort to reinstallhimself in the good graces of Florence’s ruling nobility. In the text,Machiavelli actually makes a far more nuanced argument, based on hishistorical study of the intricate interplay between fear and love froma sovereign’s subjects. The actual passage reads:
[T]he question [is] whether it is better to be loved morethan feared, or feared more than loved. The reply is, that one ought tobe both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two of them togo together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of thetwo has to be wanting.
As his plain language shows, Machiavelli never says that, as an absolute matter, it is better to be feared than to be loved. He contends instead that it is safer to be feared, “if one of them has to be wanting.”
While neoconservatives seem in thrall to the aesthetic grandeur ofgeopolitical fear–to the drama of a world cowering before America’sdivinely ordained might–Machiavelli himself has no love of fear. Itdoes not mesmerize him, and he does not find it seductive or evenattractive. In fact, he’s preoccupied with instructing the Prince on anissue that conservative commentators ignore: the avoidance of hatred.”Still, a prince should make himself feared in such a way that if hedoes not gain love, he at any rate avoids hatred, for fear and theabsence of hatred may well go together,” he writes.
The intellectually rotten foundation laid by such misinterpretationhas unsurprisingly ended up in shoddy policy that alienates our alliesand undermines our security. Neoconservatism has completely misjudgedthe mix of morality, power, and prestige needed to maintain America’sleadership. While they keenly appreciate American power and a deepbelief in the moral righteousness of their cause, neoconservativesmisjudge the role moral prestige can play in strengthening America’sposition in the world. Neither Machiavelli nor Winthrop would counsel aforeign policy that creates destabilizing and inefficient opposition.The president, secretary of state, and other American envoys loseleverage every time their visits to a foreign capital are met withthousands of protesters. If instead the crowds were praising the UnitedStates, our emissaries could argue more convincingly for foreignsupport of policies that would in the end help America. Just asimportantly, many of the twenty-first-century threats weface–protecting the global environment, transitioning to democracy,capturing terrorists–require cooperation and action from those peoplein the streets and not simply the official decisions of theirgovernments.
While neoconservatives ignore prestige, their realist antagonistswithin both political parties similarly under-appreciate the importanceof morality to U.S. foreign policy. From the support of dictators inLatin America, Asia, and Africa during the Cold War, to theiropposition to the Kosovo intervention, these students of Carl vonClausewitz and Hans Morgenthau see little value in any foreign policycommitment that does not directly benefit America’s material andeconomic interests. This outlook blinds them to the power of America’smoral example. As Robert F. Kennedy put it in his 1967 book To Seek a Newer World,”It is not realistic or hardheaded to solve problems and take actionunguided by ultimate moral aims and values. It is thoughtless folly.”Kennedy’s conclusion itself, that ideals and ends are not incompatible,is supported not by an idealistic framework, but rather by a coldcalculation: the pursuit of moral ideals allows the world to improvefor human habitation; slavery and oppression to decrease; and rights,liberty, and knowledge to flourish.
But if neoconservatism ignores prestige and realism ignoresidealism, modern-day progressivism has not sufficiently embraced U.S.primacy and power. The story has been told before and is rooted in theprogressive reaction to the Vietnam war a generation ago. It has led toa preoccupation with the peril–rather than the promise–of America’sstrength. In certain ways, the left’s antagonism toward American mighthas improved the nation, making our intelligence agencies moreresponsible, our defense establishment less political, and our humanrights practice more diligent. But it has also narrowed the liberalforeign-policy worldview to a critique of hard power, rather thanputting forward ways to harness it. It is time for a new direction thatexpressly assigns the United States a unique and robust place as theworld’s foremost force for good and unabashedly believes the UnitedStates must take a leadership role in the world to accomplish thisvital mission.
ExemplarismThe world of exemplarism is a community of interconnected states,as well as multinational corporations, international organizations, andinstant and ubiquitous media–in other words, today’s globalizedenvironment. States still matter–and among them, prestige andleadership still have weight, especially now that most of the worldlives in democracies. But it is no longer only states that areimportant–the opinions and actions of their citizens matter as well.This realization sets exemplarism apart from classic internationalrelations theories built on the presumption that great power politicswere almost the only factors that made a difference. Today, it issimply impossible for any country, even one as powerful as the UnitedStates, to ignore or neglect its interconnections with other nations,not because we want to win a global “popularity contest,” as thePresident said in Coral Gables, nor because we need the world’spermission to act, as he implied Kerry believed. Rather, becausetoday’s economic, information, political, and cultural networks are soinextricably intertwined, the threats we face–endemic poverty, epidemicdisease, environmental destruction, or global terrorism–demand bothmultilateral solutions as well as solutions that require theenthusiastic and energetic participation of billions of ordinary peoplearound the globe. As the world’s superpower, we must fully engage inthe world, actively leading and shaping it, if we are to improve it.And we must do so in a way that recognizes the interdependence of thecurrent age.
Think of the quarterback of a football team. More celebrated thanhis teammates, he leads by his own example of excellence in the sportand is rewarded with the willing followership of his teammates. Theyfollow, but they are woven with him into the fabric of the team. Hecannot win without them, and he must constantly earn their help throughadmiration and respect, rather than awe and fear. When he succeeds, hecollects more garlands (admiration, money, authority) than they do. Heleads by example, but it’s the team that wins the game, not thequarterback. And he grows stronger, through the collective success ofothers.
The United States is still the “quarterback” of the globalcommunity–or, in the words of Bill Clinton, the “indispensablenation”–and it is in the American interest to remain in that position.After all, an abdication of that responsibility would most likelyresult in China’s ascension to an even a more dominant place positionin the world, the position of one of the world’s dominant powers, andeven the most dovish progressive should not want a world orderdominated by such a hegemonic, authoritarian nation (to take oneprominent competitor).
Exemplarism’s roots in exceptionalism mean that the United Statesmust recognize its special role in the world. We cannot always actthrough international institutions like the United Nations. But, when”the eyes of all people are upon us,” and us alone, we must be able toconvince other nations to join us in the “city upon a hill.” Unlikeneoconservatism, realism, or liberalism, exemplarism embraces morality,power, and prestige. Exemplarism perceives synergies betweenthe three values and collective strength–like three pillars under astone tablet–in their combination.
Above all, exemplarism grasps the enormous latent authority inAmerica’s almost congenital idealism. Perhaps it is best explained asthe hard power of imagination. Idealism allows the United States toshake off the blinkers of self-interest and discover new horizons.Through idealism, we expand our understanding of the new and, in sodoing, create possibilities. Whether it be through creative newmultilateral institutions, innovative diplomacy, improved human rightsregimes, sophisticated trade and economic systems, partnerships forenvironmental ameliorations, or new energy schemes, the new world weenvision, and create, is–in theory and in practice–better for us andour neighbors. Idealism, to the United States, is self-interested–becauseit speaks to, and supports, our best national self and because it isbuilt on an unshakable confidence that America’s democratic values–intheory, if not always in practice–are universal aspirations.
Exemplarism has deep roots in the neglected, though fertile, soil ofAmerica’s past. When the United States plowed years of effort andbillions of dollars into building constitutional democracies in Japanand Germany in the wake of World War II, we generally avoided thecharge of imperialism and unwarranted intrusion. This was partlyattributable to the plain belligerence of these two countries towardthe Allied powers. But we also succeeded because we were seen not asoccupiers per se, but rather as leaders bringing the conquered nationsback to the fold of the world community. In Japan, General DouglasMacArthur could have completely suffocated local desires with aconstitution cut from American cloth. Instead, the 1948 Japaneseconstitution carefully incorporated Japanese custom, while evading theclassism and centralization of the prior Meiji Constitution. Thenation-building that followed earned the support of the Japanese andthe watching world, and helped confer moral credibility on the UnitedStates in the cold war that would follow with the ussr.
A similar story can be told about Germany. That Germany today is amodern liberal democracy can be attributed largely to the carefulstewardship of the postwar occupation and de-Nazification program. As aresult, during the Cold War West Germans sought to be more liberal anddemocratic, more like the United States, rather than either a communistor authoritarian country. Germany was part and parcel of the MarshallPlan, which invested billions in rebuilding societies that ultimatelywould share (if not surpass) most American values; that is exemplarismpar excellence.
As Truman once told Henry Kissinger, in response to a question aboutwhat he wanted to be remembered for, “We completely defeated ourenemies and made them surrender. And then we helped them to recover, tobecome democratic, and to rejoin the community of nations. Only Americacould have done that.” The United States used its moment of triumph notto shame or annihilate its vanquished enemies, but to rebuild them, toshow the world the moral quality of its leadership and the rightness ofits military might. America’s postwar behavior quickly redounded in itsfavor–had we treated Japan as a conquered colony, it is unlikely thatwe would have received such support from the United Nations during theKorean War. Had we followed Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau’sadvice and exacted retribution on Germany by returning it to apre-industrial pastoral life, we almost certainly would not have beenable to build as strong a Western European alliance as we did.
Then there is the Peace Corps. President John F. Kennedy announcedan executive order forming the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, and hisremarks while doing so placed a striking emphasis on America’sleadership of the world–rather than the self-indulgent, feel-goodimpulse of the archetypal “bleeding-heart liberal.” As Kennedydescribed them, Peace Corps volunteers were “sharing in [a] greatcommon task,” creating the building blocks of societies, themselves”the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.” But the work washard. The volunteers would have no salary, and would live simply, on”allowances sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs.”In the almost 50 years since its founding, the Peace Corps has servedas a powerful rebuttal to those who accuse the country ofneo-imperialist tendencies, while making valuable contributions to thedemocratic development of Third-World countries.
Looking forward, exemplarism presents a roadmap for many of ourknottiest foreign policy problems. Regarding the torture of terroristsuspects, an exemplarist would differ slightly, but significantly, fromSenator John McCain, who has argued pragmatically that “mistreatment ofenemy prisoners endangers our own troops who might someday be heldcaptive” and that negative public opinion will counterbalance anypositive effect from the information gained. While both propositionsare true, the exemplarist would subsume both in a broader claim: if werefuse torture from a position of strength, other nations will followour moral leadership and, ultimately, serve our interests.
Or take the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. The Bush Administrationhas refrained from committing any real U.S. resources to the country,and yet this is precisely the sort of crisis that would benefit fromU.S. action. From a moral perspective alone, we have ample grounds fordeploying more assets and troops. But exemplarism would advise actionon further strategic grounds. By fighting harder for a resolution inDarfur, by deploying a multilateral force, by investing more resourcesin infrastructure, and by striving to invest all the sectarian forcesin a single political process, the United States could prove itscommitment to leading a less-cruel world. As it did in the past, theworld would most likely reward us with loyalty in other emergingtrouble spots.
Would exemplarism have allowed the United States to lead an effortto topple Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq? The answer is anemphatic yes–though on a different set of prerequisites. Exemplarismnever would have imposed a “global test” for military action, becausethat would undermine exemplarism itself; in order to lead, the UnitedStates must maintain the ability to defend its relative power positionunilaterally. But exemplarism would have required American policymakersto weigh more seriously unilateralism’s impact on our standing in theglobal community–not because we wanted to be popular, but becausedecreased international prestige would have limited our ability toadvance our interests in Iraq and the Middle East–as, in the end, ithas.
Already, elements of an exemplarist worldview are starting to bubbleto the surface. Since the late 1980s, the Harvard political scientistJoseph Nye has convincingly argued for a new emphasis on America’s”soft power”: our ability to persuade and attract other nations throughour culture and political ideals. And last year Bob Boorstin andLawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress released a reporttitled “Integrated Power,” which called for marrying both hard and softpower in a new progressive foreign policy and “merging the many andvaried powers of the United States–military, economic, political,cultural, and diplomatic, among others”–to put the United States in”the strongest position to address threats, prevent conflicts, andrecapture its moral leadership.” While both of these theories provideuseful and in some cases profound insights into how the United Statescan better promote its self-interest, neither provides a vision for howrecapturing America’s unique role as a force for moral justice in theworld can greatly expand our nation’s power and prestige.
In the end, vulgar exceptionalism simply fails to understand thatthe path to strength lies in confidence and generosity rather thanparanoia and hostility. And it is a connection that has been understoodfor centuries. The complementary relationship of strength andadmiration was explained by the Stoic Roman poet Seneca, who urged thebrutal Emperor Nero to practice clemency toward his subjects:
[I]t is a mistake to suppose that the king can be safe in astate where nothing is safe from the king: he can only purchase a lifewithout anxiety for himself by guaranteeing the same for his subjects.He need not pile up lofty citadels, escarp steep hills, cut away thesides of mountains, and fence himself about with many lines of wallsand towers: clemency will render a king sage even upon an open plain.The one fortification which cannot be stormed is the love of hiscountrymen.
We need not be the world’s emperor of fear, embattled, like Nero, behind citadels and towers. We are a more confident nation than that.The America of exemplarism is the America of imagination, of moralvision, and of courage. It is a nation that can grow stronger by theineluctable attractions of its own unique capabilities and goodwill–bythe charisma of its own great character.