For several years now there has been a raft of books and articles aimed at debunking notions of “American exceptionalism.” With respect to the last century of “secularization theory,” that debunking is necessary. In that theory, the vitality of religion in the United States was the mysterious exception to the presumed and necessary link between modernity and secularization. Of course, that theory was chiefly propounded by European thinkers, and now it is more generally recognized that it is Europe, especially western Europe, that is the exception while America is more or less in step with the rest of the world with respect to the perduring power of religion and its role in culture and public life.

“American exceptionalism” is also an important idea in understanding America’s place in world history. While other nations sought dominance through empire and their foreign policies could be understood by reference to what Hans Morgenthau called “politics among nations,” America was the exception—or so it was said—in that it only reluctantly accepted the global responsibilities that the fortunes of history forced upon it. The latest challenge to that claim is Charles S. Maier’s Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors (Harvard). The title and subtitle display the argument. It is time, contends Maier, to face up to the fact that, like Rome, Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire, the U.S. is in the empire business.

Adam Kirsch takes exception to the argument. Writing in the New York Sun , he says:

But none of Mr. Maier’s criteria really fits the United States, if only because the United States does not seek territorial expansion, surely the sine qua non of any empire. Only by the most tortuous analogy can the U.S. invasion of Iraq be called, as Mr. Maier calls it, an “imperial” war designed to pacify a “frontier.” Rather, the Iraq war rested on the belief that U.S. interests are best served by the spread of a liberal order, or at least of a stable, nonviolent one, which specifically excludes territorial conquest. There can be no doubt, of course, that the United States, like every other polity that has ever existed, uses its power to advance its own interests. The unusual and significant point is that, since 1945, it has generally done this in a way that also advances the world’s common interests. As Mr. Maier reminds us, despite himself, there are other ways of exercising power, even great power, than through empire. This, too, is part of the American exception.

In much commentary on world affairs, there is a peculiar moral quirk that leads people to assume that there is a necessary conflict between national interest and moral purpose. And so one hears it said that an American policy, especially if it involves the use of military force, is morally illegitimate, or at least morally tainted, if it advances American interests. To be morally pure, an action must be entirely altruistic. This notion was prominent in discussions of “humanitarian interventions” during the Clinton years and is now widely voiced in connection with the Middle East. America is interested in securing a stable oil supply from that part of the world, and it therefore follows that its actions there are morally questionable, if not criminal.

In his Second Inaugural, President Bush stated that American ideals and American interests are now one. That is to say too much. There is such a thing as politics among nations. St. Augustine’s rule that such politics are marked by libido dominandi —the lust for advantage and power—has not been repealed. America, like all worldly powers, will at times trim its ideals to secure its interests, not least by working with other powers that have little but contempt for those ideals. Saudi Arabia is an obvious case in point.

But the stated goal of the U.S. in the Middle East and elsewhere is to advance a modicum of democratic, or at least decent, government, joined to the expansion of economic development. It is objected that the expansion of market economies under the banner of globalization is, in fact, today’s version of “territorial acquisition.” In this view, America merely represents a new form of imperialism that allows cooperative nations to retain their nominal sovereignty.

This is not very persuasive. One must ask, What is the alternative to expanding political and economic liberalism? In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year), John Paul the Great contended that the source of global poverty is not to be found chiefly in exploitation (as Marxist theory held) but in exclusion from the circle of productivity and exchange. Justice, he said, requires a constant expansion of that circle. On balance, that is the goal of U.S. policy in the world. I say “on balance,” because there are notable inconsistencies, such as barriers that deny African nations, for instance, fair access to world markets for their agricultural and other products.

The gap between American ideals and interests still needs to be narrowed. In a fallen world marked by libido dominandi , the gap will never be entirely closed, and sometimes there will be not just a gap but contradictions. This brief comment is not intended to defend the specifics of U.S. actions in Iraq or anywhere else. It is intended to say that, whether in the long years of the Cold War in which the U.S. protected Europe from Communism, or in South Korea, or in Vietnam, or in the Middle East, it is inaccurate and distinctly unhelpful to describe American policy, as Mr. Maier and so many others do describe it, in terms of imperialism.


In addition to which :

In his typically winsome manner, Joseph Bottum writes in “The Mad Scientists’ Club” about the difference between science nerds of thirty years ago and those who came up in a world of computerized reality. This is in the April issue of F IRST T HINGS . Kids used to be Newtonians, fiddling with something like how the real world works, while now they’re Cartesians “whose first idea for a problem is to model it on a computer.” Those who remember the excitement of launching a model rocket—a real model rocket—will recognize a deep change that is underway, and perhaps unstoppable. Isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?


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Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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