Apr/May 2009

Speak Softly . . .

How foreign-policy makers can kick the exceptionalism habit

Matthew Yglesias


If there’s any discipline that could benefit from some linguistic punching up courtesy of Hollywood, it’s the study of foreign policy. The field’s vocabulary is weighted down with exhausted shibboleths like “hawks and doves,” Vietnam and World War II analogies, Harry S. Truman nostalgia, and a clutch of tersely modified variations on “power” (hard, soft, smart, etc.). It might seem a bit frivolous to seek analogies to the prudent exercise of US diplomacy in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Mob film The Godfather, but one has to start somewhere.

For The Godfather Doctrine, Washington policy analysts John C. Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell take their inspiration from divergent ideas inside the Corleone family about how best to react to the shooting of the Don arranged by heroin trafficker Virgil Sollozzo. The idea here is that the Corleones, much like the United States at the end of the cold war, enjoy hegemonic control over a community of interests—only to discover that things aren’t nearly as stable as the family has come to believe. Sollozzo first violates the Don’s moral code by seeking to draw the Corleones into the drug trade; when he’s refused, he decides to take the Don out rather than submitting meekly to Mafia hierarchy.

In the schema Hulsman and Mitchell sketch, Mafia families such as the Tattaglias and the Barzinis are akin to great powers (Russia, China), whereas Sollozzo is like a rogue state. Sonny, the oldest son, wants to strike back with violence; he argues that it’s only through force that the hegemon regains dominance—the position the authors equate with the neoconservatives’ direction of US foreign policy in the aftermath of September 11. Meanwhile, the family’s consigliere, Tom Hagen, preaches patience and a return to the bargaining table—a position Hulsman and Mitchell match up with the liberal penchant for approaching security problems though negotiation and a reliance on the United Nations and other multinational institutions.

The hero of the study is the youngest Corleone son, Michael, a pragmatist whose approach the authors identify with a foreign-policy realism. This outlook is most characteristic of a group of moderate Republicans—figures like former senator Chuck Hagel and retired general Colin Powell, as well as former president George H. W. Bush. Michael recognizes that Sonny’s emphasis on brute force will lead to the family’s destruction. But he also sees that Hagan is unable to broker any concessions that will magically revive the family’s hegemony. So he embarks on a campaign of strategic retrenchment—giving ground to Tattaglia and Barzini on some issues while leveraging the family’s clout to secure its business prospects in Nevada.

Any broad analogy like this invites critics to quibble. For example, the authors produce a labored, unconvincing epilogue that seeks to explain how the climactic bloodbath unleashed by Michael—which seems anything but a triumph of realism—fits into their analytic framework. Such faultfinding, however, misses the forest for the trees. The analogy is intended to be illustrative, not precise, and its thrust—that American foreign-policy makers need to abandon neoconservative dogmatism in favor of flexibility and pragmatism—is clear enough.

But the real trouble with The Godfather Doctrine is its misleading portrayal of liberalism. I’m exactly the sort of liberal institutionalist whom Hulsman and Mitchell criticize, but I find almost nothing to disagree with in their policy prescriptions. Their realist agenda includes such measures as “a carefully timed mixture of both carrots and sticks to dissuade Iran’s leadership from producing nuclear weapons”—an approach that, they say, “realists have been advocating for years and which has been largely ignored.” Clearly, it has been ignored by the Bush administration’s diplomacy-averse neoconservative brain trust, but it is precisely the approach liberals have been stumping for. Nevertheless, Hulsman and Mitchell claim, with high-centrist smugness, that Democrats are not “prepared to use sticks” such as the prospect of an international-investment freeze “to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons”—a view that is pure fiction.

Hulsman and Mitchell offer useful criticism of those Democrats who seemed inclined during last summer’s crisis between Russia and Georgia to push Moscow and Washington into conflict by extending nato to include Ukraine and Georgia. But the Democratic advocates for such a path were largely the same group of “neocons-lite” who endorsed the Bush doctrine of preventive war and the invasion of Iraq—not the liberals in the party.

Contra the unfailingly centrist analysis of The Godfather Doctrine, the realist tradition has not been simply stranded in the middle as equally wrong ideas on left and right have taken hold. Rather, the realist and liberal conclusions about the way forward have been converging. Indeed, this was one of the main points of Hulsman’s previous book, the excellent Ethical Realism (2006), coauthored with Anatol Lieven, so it’s a bit distressing that he seems to have forgotten it here. Also missing from The Godfather Doctrine’s analysis is one prominent source of opposition to realist and liberal views alike: the sense that they’re insufficiently moralistic. Similarly, one of the main impediments to the kind of restraint, accommodation, and cooperation that liberals and realists alike yearn for is the sense—powerful especially among the American elite—that it would be wrong for the United States to subject itself to the rules it expects the rest of the world to follow.

This is the subject of Godfrey Hodgson’s The Myth of American Exceptionalism, which argues against those who “have proclaimed that the United States has a destiny and a duty to expand its power and the influence of its institutions and its beliefs until they dominate the world.” Hodgson is an Englishman but also a longtime observer of the United States and the author of several books on US politics and history. He presents himself as a friend of America, a member of “that generation of Europeans who saw Americans as our saviors” during and after World War II. He writes that as a US correspondent, his “sympathies have generally been with Democrats and liberals,” but he is “proud that both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan complimented [him] on [his] work.” Now, though, he feels compelled to write against the same militaristic hubris The Godfather Doctrine is supposed to counter.

Hodgson’s topic is a worthy one. Reform of our foreign policy has often run aground on the insistence that the United States need not abide by the rules applied to other nations in areas as diverse as climate change, development of nuclear weapons, treatment of detainees, and the initiation of military action. And as Hodgson observes, exceptionalist dogma is frighteningly well entrenched in our society. Unfortunately, he has some difficulty sticking to the subject. He does, for instance, make a firm case that the history of US policymaking does not give evidence of a unique level of enlightenment on these shores—and that the United States is hardly the inventor or custodian of the Western liberal tradition. But he overshoots the mark in devoting much of his book to crushing the idea that America is exceptional in any way. This leads him down some blind alleys—he has a perverse desire, for example, to rebut the truism that our country has, unlike its European peers, never had a politically influential socialist movement.

This labored argument—which rests on such gambits as a bizarre effort to analogize Woodrow Wilson to “revisionist” German socialists like Eduard Bernstein—is entirely unnecessary when you consider the inherent limits of the exceptionalist case. Of course the United States is, in some respects, unlike other countries. But this is merely one more respect in which we resemble other countries—all of which are, in their own ways, exceptional. The exceptionalist thesis isn’t wrong because America has no exceptional attributes. It’s wrong because it doesn’t possess the specific qualitites that would justify a foreign policy based on coercive domination and an arrogant refusal to play by the rules. At his best, Hodgson sticks to that point and demonstrates the hypocrisies of a rigidly exceptionalist foreign policy while spelling out why even America’s friends in the world aren’t going to take it anymore. In part, this new spirit of restlessness reflects the Bush administration’s catastrophic response to September 11. But it also reflects a larger structural shift—the rise of China and India, the rapid pace of European integration, and the evaporation of the Soviet threat have altered global attitudes toward American power. Hulsman and Mitchell, in turn, argue that we must adjust our policies as a result. Obama’s election seems to signal a desire to do just this—even as it may deepen Americans’ exceptionalist beliefs about themselves.

For now, the world is accepting the Obama moment as a good enough solution with a considerable sigh of relief. But America is still roiled by the same potentially combustible self-regard—and when a new crisis strikes, the Sonny sc hool of neoconservative retribution could well set us up for a mighty fall at the next international tollway.

Matthew Yglesias is the author of Heads in the Sand (Wiley, 2008), a critique of conservative foreign policy.

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