American exceptionalism rightly understood?

Damon Linker, who I think it’s fair to say, represents a liberalism informed by E.J. Dionne’s three conservative insights, defends a qualified version of American “exceptionalism.” It’s foolish, Linker says, to pretend that the U.S. is a uniquely virtuous nation; our history of barbarism toward indigenous Americans and black slaves and our mischief-making abroad should be enough to disabuse us of that notion. Still, Linker thinks there is a sense in which our country can be seen as exceptional:

In what sense, then, is America exceptional? In the sense that we believe, in part for religious reasons, but also out of humanistic principle, that the benefits of political liberalism, which our nation achieved first in human history, can and should be enjoyed by every country, and by every person in every country, in the world. This conviction—an almost missionary compulsion to champion liberal-democratic self-government—is what most makes America exceptional. It is the core of our civil religion—and the goal that ought to guide our actions in the world.

By “political liberalism” Linker doesn’t mean a narrowly liberal agendy, but liberalism broadly understood as the ideological underpinning of our whole form of government:

Liberalism in this sense is a form of government—one in which political rule is mediated by a series of institutions that seek to limit the powers of the state and maximize individual freedom: constitutional government, an independent judiciary, multiparty elections, universal suffrage, a free press, civilian control of the military and police, a large middle class, a developed consumer economy, and rights to free assembly and worship.

This is the liberalism that unites most of the Left and much of the Right in this country. The outliers tend to be conservatives who reject a secular government and leftists who reject the market economy (however qualified) and “bourgeois” democracy. These folks represent a distinctly minority view in American politics.

There are two criticisms one could make of Linker’s argument. The first would be to argue that liberalism as he defines it is actually a bad thing, not a good one. This is what the aforementioned Rightists and Leftists would say. It’s a critique also sometimes voiced by some of our most respected and influential contemporary schools of theology. Postliberalism, Radical Orthodoxy, and other schools of theological thought are highly critical of liberalism and view it more as the source of our contemporary woes than something to be celbrated and exported.

The second criticism would be that, even if liberalism is good for us, it’s not necessarily a universal good that the U.S. should undertake to spread abroad, whether by “hard” or “soft” means. This view would be shared by non-interventionists on the Right and the Left, as well as certain “realists” who deplore idealism in foreign policy or deny that it can effectively guide a nation’s behavior.

Personally, I find the second criticism more persuasive than the first. Reactionary, radical, and theological critics of liberalism can score some points about its excesses, but I’ve yet to see any of them provide a persuasive, appealing, and feasible alternative to it.

The second criticism has more bite, primarily, I think, because Linker, for all his Niebuhrian/Lincolnian realism, seems to underestimate the extent to which laudable ideals can be used to mask and justify unjust policies. A lot of “liberal hawks” jumped on the Iraq war bandwagon in part because the Bush administration used high-flown idealistic rhetoric to justify the war. Moreover, it’s not clear to me that he fully appreciates the contingency of the conditions that might be required for liberalism to flourish. Even confining ourselves to “soft” power, it’s not obvious how one can transplant liberal institutions, habits, and values to soil where they weren’t previously flourishing. And, as Dionne’s conservative would remind us, the delicate web of social habit and custom can be easily torn by even well-meaning attempts to improve it.

Linker says that we need “intelligence and sobriety about how best to affect liberal change in divergent places at different historical moments” and that a “proper response to [America’s] failures is redoubled resolution to do better, to be smarter, to choose more efficacious means, in the future.” Which is surely true, but the call to “do better” doesn’t tell us how to do it. Doesn’t the fact that idealistic crusades have gone wrong so many times before may indicate that there’s a more systematic problem at work here? In fact, to suggest that all we need is intelligence, sobriety, and resolve may simply perpetuate the politics of the will that characterized the worst misdeeds of our past.

I’m not sure my disagreement with Linker is really that severe. I don’t doubt that a foreign policy that is sincerely committed to spreading liberal values and also constrained by a realistic assessment of means is preferable to the likely alternatives. But the ever-present danger is that idealistic language will be used to mask brutality, self-interest, and injustice.

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