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Corruptions of Empire

Getting over the indispensable-nation complex

Editor’s Note, December 6, 2016: This article has been updated to reflect president-elect Trump’s post-election statements and cabinet appointments. A version of this article appeared in print in The Baffler no. 33.

I live in Istanbul and follow American news primarily by reading newspapers and magazines online. Only rarely do I happen upon television news. From this admittedly narrow vantage point, I had deduced during the campaign this summer that if there was a 2016 presidential candidate committed to American exceptionalism, it was Donald Trump. His version of this macho creed, so far as I could tell, came in its most potent form: the diplomatic equivalent of a steroid-lashed but brain-dead prizefighter. The Trump campaign’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” seemed merely the marquee entry in a long litany of knee-jerk patriotic phrases about American uniqueness and superiority.

From abroad, Trumpism sounded like a rhetorical plea to return to the Cold War universe in which endless prosperity was Americans’ birthright, the rest of the world aspired to American progress, and there had never been a black president who admitted that sometimes America screwed up—indeed, there had never been a black president at all. White Protestant Americans have indulged in just these kind of racial, personal, and spiritual regenerative mating calls since the early twentieth-century era of lynching at home and imperial expansion abroad. (The emblem of the tradition is late-career Teddy Roosevelt, on permanent safari until World War I gave him an excuse to go after human game once more.) As an American, I am as sensitive to nationalistic dog whistles as the reddest of red-state Republicans, and “Make America Great Again” sounded as thuggishly exceptionalist as it gets.

So it came as no small surprise to realize—sometime around the July conventions—that Hillary Clinton was out-sloganing Trump to become, if not the loudest, then certainly the most romantic envoy of true-blue American exceptionalism. In response to “Make America Great Again,” the Clinton camp cried, “America Is Already Great!” Many liberals, pundits, and politicians happily launched their own indignant defenses of America. And so the much-anticipated debate about the future of a declining United States was reduced to a dull table tennis match, with volleys and countervolleys: “Make America Great Again!” “America Is Already Great!” “Make America Great Again,” “No! America Is Already Great!” caroming senselessly back and forth.

I understand now that Trump and Clinton were primarily talking about domestic politics when they asserted their visions of American greatness. Trump was plainly uncomfortable with certain American traditions of diversity, immigration, and human rights, which put Clinton in the position of valiantly defending them. But from abroad, I wasn’t thinking of Black Lives Matter, police shootings, Muslim refugees, and rampant inequality as Trump spent the past year and a half yelling “Make America Great Again.” I wasn’t thinking of the first America; I was thinking of foreign policy and of the Second America—the America abroad. The Trump phenomenon seemed to me a manifestation of fury at the decline of American imperial power. The Clinton phenomenon (and its attendant failures) hinged in large part on the reassurance that no imperial power had been lost.

Hillary Clinton actually out-sloganed Trump to become, if not the loudest, then certainly the most romantic envoy of true-blue American exceptionalism.

Trump had attacked the fundamental tenets of exceptionalism as a way of challenging the eight-year-long record of Barack Obama. He was not suggesting that America has never been exceptional; rather, that it had strayed disastrously off course. As a result, a curious thing happened over the course of 2016: American nationalism morphed into two separate, destructive strains. Donald Trump asserted white superiority at home, argued for limited engagement with the world (unless America was threatened, in which case: watch out), and often sounded as though he was questioning (albeit confusedly) the entire post-1945 world order. In response, Hillary Clinton—and much of the liberal media—began to sound like die-hard imperialists, expressing faith in American exceptionalism in every realm, whether home or abroad. As President-elect, Trump seems to be snapping up any foreign policy hawk he can convince to work for him. His cabinet choices so far portend four years of careless violence. But it’s worth considering the nature of the nationalism the Democrats reinvigorated in 2016—one that is just as oblivious to the furies of a post-American world but perhaps more resilient because it wears a less offensive face.

Thinking Locally, Acting Way Too Globally

The Democratic convention was surprisingly parochial, not only for a global power but also for a globalized world. Clinton, for her part, declined to speak directly to the billions of foreigners who were watching this election in a mood of mounting unease. She barely even spoke of Muslims who might try to immigrate to the country. Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton—they were hardly better. I loved Michelle Obama’s speech, but I also couldn’t help but think how insulted the rest of the world must have felt when she delivered her strong, emotional “This, right now, is the greatest country on Earth.” Most foreigners likely thought that kind of talk was out of fashion with people like the Obamas, would not be repeated at the Democratic convention during a race against a nationalistic demagogue lest it encourage him, and should have ended period after the invasion of Iraq, the War on Terror, and its spawning of ISIS—a trifecta of foreign policy horrors that buried all illusions about American foreign policy for good. As one of my Greek friends in Istanbul said in a post on Facebook that night: “Seriously? She could have left that part out.”

Clinton’s exceptionalist sermonizing intensified as the election tightened. Some weeks after the convention, she spoke to a room full of veterans at the American Legion. The veterans, she said, had put their lives on the line “to protect the greatest country on Earth.” She then proceeded to spell out the many ingredients of said greatness:

If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this. The United States is an exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country.

And it’s not just that we have the greatest military or that our economy is larger than any on Earth. It’s also the strength of our values, the strength of the American people. Everyone who works harder, dreams bigger and never, ever stops trying to make our country and the world a better place. And part of what makes America an exceptional nation is that we are also an indispensable nation.

In fact, we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us and follow our lead. My friends, we are so lucky to be Americans. It is an extraordinary blessing. It’s why so many people, from so many places, want to be Americans too. . . .

But, in fact, my opponent in this race has said very clearly that he thinks American exceptionalism is insulting to the rest of the world. In fact, when Vladimir Putin, of all people, criticized American exceptionalism, my opponent agreed with him, saying, and I quote, “If you’re in Russia, you don’t want to hear that America is exceptional.” Well maybe you don’t want to hear it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

My opponent misses something important. When we say America is exceptional, it doesn’t mean that people from other places don’t feel deep national pride, just like we do. It means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity. Our power comes with a responsibility to lead, humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values. . . .

At our best the United States is the global force for freedom, justice, and human dignity. . . .

And let me say something else about American greatness, there’s no question we face real threats and real enemies that we need to confront and defeat. But my opponent is wrong when he says America is no longer great. Consider the record of the past eight years.

If time and patience were infinite, one could respond to Clinton’s stirring litany of American virtues sentence by sentence. There was indeed a brief period after WWII when some of the world looked to America’s lead. But that honeymoon came to an end with Vietnam, the Guatemalan and Iranian coups, and sundry dirty wars prosecuted with American connivance on grounds of anticommunist vigilance. By mid-century, it had become brutally clear that the fact that foreigners wanted to live in America had virtually nothing to do with how America acts abroad. It is absurd to call any country, especially an empire, “unselfish” or “compassionate.” Few in the Muslim, Latin American, or Far Asian worlds see the United States as, of all things, a “global force for freedom, justice, and human dignity.” And why in God’s name are we still quoting Reagan?

But Clinton’s speech was a perfect distillation of America’s most popular myths. The exceptionalist creed remains magisterially impervious to mere empirical contradiction. No matter how many acts of mass killing, plunder, and torture are perpetrated in its name, exceptionalist dogma will always insist that the country’s designs are somehow virtuous, or at least purer than those of, say, China or Russia. JFK, for example, distinguished the placement of American nuclear missiles in Turkey from the siting of Soviet missiles in Cuba by invoking a Manichean account of the “intentions” that directed each act of Cold War provocation. American intentions were good; Soviet intentions were bad. This is how exceptionalist myth can bend reality out of all recognizable shape.

Back to Reagan’s Future

Deep down, almost all Americans believe in such dichotomies and would have a hard time understanding our history any other way. Founding myths—Atatürk’s theory that all languages derived from Turkish, say, or Saddam’s fairy tale that the lineage of all Iraqis stretches back to a Babylonian golden age at the dawn of civilization—are a people’s lifeblood. Americans, Turks, or Iraqis who discover theirs to be untrue are suddenly faced with the fearful possibility that they many not know their innermost nationalist selves.

American nationalism, however, is particularly indestructible. It is a worldview deliberately formulated by the Cold War era’s retinue of “wise men”: modernizing warriors whose idea of America as the one true modern nation, the country to which all other countries aspired, guaranteed that Americans would always see themselves as the best-case scenario for the planet at large. In the 1950s, intellectuals like Walt Rostow and Daniel Lerner spelled out, in ideological terms, America’s response to the postcolonial world. Aware that colonialism was out of vogue, these liberal policy intellectuals decided to call America’s version of colonialism modernization. (They were smart enough to know that a loaded term like Westernization would set off alarm bells in the nonaligned developing world.)

The countries of the Third World were deemed “backward” in the teleological scheme of modernization. But—mirabile dictu!—they also possessed the capacity to become as modern as the United States, as long as they allowed the United States to guide them on their course. Under this mighty exceptionalist dispensation, a multitude of geopolitical sins were rationalized, including, but by no means limited to, military coups, support for right-wing dictators, and war. Thus, the hundreds of thousands who died in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos; the governments overthrown in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Greece; the natural political trajectories interrupted in Iran, Congo, El Salvador, Egypt—all these events barely register in American hearts and minds. These painful historical experiences just don’t sink into our collective memory, mainly because Americans believe those wars, coups, and military dictators were necessary evils to help our victims become ideal modern democracies. America did bad things, but for good reasons.

In some measure, of course, Hillary Clinton’s campaign posturing on diplomatic issues was purely tactical, driven by a genuine alarm among U.S. allies and policy-minded domestic voters over the disastrous fallout from a Trump presidency. Nevertheless, it is troubling to see that her first tactical instinct in this plight was to recur to the paint-by-numbers moral determinism of the exceptionalist creed at a moment that cried out for some long-overdue introspection. But instead of criticizing Clinton for lapsing into the discredited pieties of the Cold War, many terrified journalists spun romantic visions of America as if they were the only defense against Trump. In May, the columnist Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post, “I’d like to think that Americans really are exceptional, that we have an exceptional faith in democracy and the rule of law,” but thanks to Trump voters he was no longer sure. Cohen never thought a “hateful brat” would be the presidential nominee of a major political party, “someone who denigrated women,” “insulted Mexicans,” “mocked the physically disabled. Not in America. Not in my America.” The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has likewise penned column after column this past year urging America—what he calls the land of “Sure”—to return to its (also mythic) role of global policeman.

After Clinton’s American Legion speech, Dorothy Wickenden and Evan Osnos, in a New Yorker podcast, remarked that Trump and Clinton seemed to be “talking almost about two different countries.” Osnos described Clinton’s view, in a tone of tacit endorsement, as “Americans look beyond our self-interest,” while Trump’s translates as “We are not exceptional; in fact, we are a survivor in a kind of anarchic world.” (There, again, was Trump’s disturbing tendency to be the candidate who was thinking of the rest of Earth’s population, as well as recognizing the normal human frailty of Americans.) In the end, Osnos and Wickenden played Reagan’s “City on a Hill” speech—Reagan again!—to show “how far Trump has veered . . . from what everyone traditionally has thought of as America.” Trump’s rise was so bewildering that even New York liberals—indeed, New Yorker liberals—implied that Reagan’s fairy tale vision of America might be real.

Perhaps one reason they did so was because Reagan sounds strikingly inclusive in that speech, welcoming people of all colors and promising that even walls will have doors in his city—an image that, even so, eerily anticipates Trump’s far more exclusive Wall, barring all immigrants at the border. As historian Maya Jasanoff recently wrote, “The Puritan ideal of a ‘city on a hill,’ long held up as a model of America at its communitarian best, actually rested on the backs of” the enslaved and the colonized.

To overlook the long, ignoble history of xenophobic immigrant-baiting in the American political mainstream—to fail, in other words, to acknowledge that Trump’s historical lineage is in all of us—is dangerously sentimental. The problem with idealizing the exceptionalist “city on the hill” Cold Warrior Reagan is that it suggests that during the Reagan era, Americans “set aside self-interest” abroad too. This nostalgia shoves all of us, in fact, back into 1980s America, to the generation before Sept. 11 and the War on Terror. And it defers, yet again, the necessary hard work involved in sizing up our country’s truly ruinous image. It grows ever more clear that the War on Terror, and Barack Obama’s brief professions of contrition and humility, have done little to change Americans’ fundamental perceptions of themselves.

© Lindsay Ballant

Release the Dogmas

Why is such a transformation so difficult? Supporters of American foreign policy typically float three lines of argument, which all hinge on offshoots of exceptionalist dogma. First, there’s what might be called the appeal to the worst-case scenario. Do you want China/Russia/Islam running the world? its adherents will ask, adding smartly: We may not be perfect but we’re the best option the world has. Then there’s the Golden Door argument, which can likewise be distilled into a single rhetorical question: If the United States is so terrible, why is it that residents of almost every other country on Earth want to immigrate here? Finally, there’s the argument from collective security, which reduces to a single, sweeping claim: American values and diplomatic ingenuity have preserved peace in the world since the end of World War II.

Even in 2016, these three arguments crop up with striking regularity. Hillary Clinton is, of course, a product of her intellectual training and of the casual assumptions about an America-led global order that have informed it, from Yale Law School to the U.S. Department of State. But consider a September roundtable on America foreign policy that appeared in Harper’s magazine—editorially, a loud and principled detractor of Clintonian neoliberalism in virtually every sphere of domestic policy. The roundtable was moderated by Andrew Bacevich, a former U.S. military officer, now a critic of empire. Two of the participants, Paula Dobriansky and Kori Schake, are American diplomats who appear to accept nearly every presupposition of American exceptionalism. The others are French (Dominique de Villepin), Iranian (Hamid Dabashi), and Syrian (Hassan Hassan). The roundtable offers an invaluable case study in how different—exceptional indeed!—Americans are from everyone else in how we think about ourselves in the world.

Bacevich begins with an open-ended query: “Various events since 2001 have called unipolarity [i.e., American hegemony] into question. . . . Do you have some type of mental map of the world today?” Hamid Dabashi mentions environmental, migratory, and demographic changes—desertification, unemployment, growing life expectancy—and tells his American interlocutors that “the kinds of bifurcations you’re talking about—the West and the Rest, etc.—are no longer valid.”

Dobriansky disagrees. She calls the present-day geopolitical map, which includes an ISIS-ridden Middle East and a Putin-occupied Crimea, “a challenge to the liberal international order as we know it, particularly the values, alliances, and institutions that have preserved peace, stability, and security since World War II and since the end of the Cold War.” Similarly, Schake contends that the global community is now divided between those countries that follow “the rule of law” and those that don’t. The challenge ahead is to safeguard and nurture “societies that are governed by the rule of law, by the consent of the people, [that operate] with freedom of expression”—which is, in other words, the West and the Rest schema, depicted in impartial-sounding categories of political analysis. Both Dobriansky and Schake fret that America has lost faith in its “values.” “Those of us who enjoy these privileges,” Schake says, “are losing confidence that these values are universal or that we need to fight to advance them in the world.” The solution to flagging exceptionalist faith, in other words, is to embrace exceptionalist pieties with renewed vigor.

The American roundtable participants simply cannot be even nudged for a moment from their appointed scripts. Faced with any challenge, they fall back on the three exceptionalist defenses. The collective-security appeal to exceptionalist vigilance? Check—American values “have helped to preserve the peace overall in the post-World War II and post-Cold War world.” The argument from the worst-case scenario? Check again—“I’m not sure there’s a better answer than us, imperfect as we are.” The invocation of the sacrosanct Golden Door? Also check—“What country does everyone want to immigrate to? The United States.”

In the face of this terminal self-infatuation, Dabashi, the Iranian academic, valiantly tries to inject a dose of reality into the conversation. He tells the panel that on Sept. 11, his hope was that Americans would feel deeply the horror of those two “beautiful, magnificent buildings” coming down—and with that “feel empathy with the rest of the world,” which presumably has seen many beautiful buildings come down, often thanks to American bombs. But that didn’t happen. As the American exceptionalists at the Harper’s roundtable, Hillary Clinton, and much of the liberal press have all shown, Sept. 11 didn’t make Americans think about foreign policy differently. Meanwhile, the rest of the world scratches its head. As Dabashi says, for the non-American global majority, the “United States is not presumed to be the arbiter of truth” or the keeper of the rule of law.

Conspiracy of Dunces

This summer I observed more proof that Americans have not at all revised their old-school exceptionalist stance. In July, Turkey endured its most serious military coup in thirty-six years. (There was one in 1997 too, but it didn’t involve tanks or guns.) Many of us, during the coup’s early hours, didn’t believe it was real; we thought the all-powerful Erdogan must have arranged it himself. What kind of coup is this? everyone said. Quickly, however, as the military began shooting civilians on the Bosphorus Bridge, what seemed like a farce became a trauma. Today’s Turks have lived through four coups, the most destructive of them in 1980; Turks know what coups mean. Coups mean activists hanged for treason and thousands jailed or exiled; books and newspapers banned; the dull, homogenizing plague of military rule that squelches even the faintest outbreak of civilian individualism. They also bring violent economic interruptions to everyday life and jeopardize any effort to plan ahead. “Do you have any idea what this means for my son’s future?” my best friend cried, almost screaming into the telephone. I think she knew that I did not.

Erdogan and his militarized police force eventually quelled the coup, and he emerged even more indomitable than before. The restored, revanchist Erdogan regime began to suggest that the Americans had supported, even engineered, the attempted coup—mostly because, after all, the accused mastermind of the whole thing was Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who lives in the United States. American pundits, journalists, and politicians scoffed at such “conspiracy theories”—shared by many ordinary Turks—with more than a little contempt. According to them, Erdogan and his cronies were merely using nationalist provocations to distract from their own painfully evident crimes and failings.

That was true. Still, I found the Americans’ easy scoffing and dismissive accusations curious. The Turks suspected the Americans of involvement, in part because the last military coup in Turkey, the calamitous 1980 coup, was supported by the United States. Turkey, in fact, has been greatly influenced by the United States since the 1940s. During the Cold War, the Americans helped remake its military, and tens of thousands of American soldiers occupied Turkish soil. The chaos of 1970s Turkey, which saw leftists and rightists fighting Cold War proxy conflicts in the streets, emerged in part because of America’s support for Turkey’s right. America, then, has always shaped Turkey’s fate. Even those progressive Turks who despise Erdogan’s America-blaming (and everything else about him) might be inclined to point out to arrogant Americans that someone like Erdogan would likely never have emerged had the Americans not, after the 1980 coup, pushed Turkey in a particular political direction: one that emphasized Islamic values as well as capitalist ones, the two major factors in Erdogan’s success.

To fail to acknowledge that Trump’s historical lineage is in all of us is dangerously sentimental.

The liberal pundits who downplay the ugly history of U.S.-sponsored interventions in Turkey are merely echoing the apparently still-compelling jingoist worldview that sparked Hillary Clinton’s stump speeches. They continue to believe that Americans are innocent and objective, as if past deeds have nothing to do with present-day events (presuming, that is, they know anything at all about those past deeds). To make fun of Turks for suspecting the Americans might be behind a military coup—to call them conspiracy theorists, when the United States bears responsibility for many of the dozens of military coups between 1950 and 1990 in Turkey and around the world—is to disregard the foreign populations we’ve cavalierly fucked with. “Confidence is a valuable commodity for any country,” wrote Stephen Walt in 2011. “But when a nation starts to think it enjoys the mandate of heaven and becomes convinced that it cannot fail or be led astray by scoundrels or incompetents, then reality is likely to deliver a swift rebuke.” Seen from outside its borders, America does not look like an “unselfish, compassionate country,” let alone a “city on a hill.” For Turks—and many, many other nations in the Middle East and beyond—America abroad means violence in their streets, religion in their schools, and drunken sailors in their ports.

Humble Apple Pie

As the most powerful country, the onus is on the United States to understand the rest of the world, or at least to try. But Trump and Clinton have driven our conversation about foreign policy into a hole—we are, all of us, sequestered in the intellectual equivalent of a mirrored basement, screaming to ourselves about how indispensable we are to the redemption of world history and the reclamation of global peace. As a result, we are further than ever from acknowledging our empire, let alone from beginning to bridge the enormous cognitive gap separating empire and colony. Trump went down in the basement first, but the Democrats were all too happy to follow. As Richard Hofstadter wrote, the fate of America is “not to have ideologies but to be one.”

The “be” in that sentence has some serious existential repercussions for Americans. What would happen not only to our national self-esteem, but to our personal self-esteem, if we were to relax our death grip on the rote rhetorical assertion of American greatness? What would we lose if we stopped believing in American exceptionalism? You can descry the general outlines of that loss in the marked panic that Trump supporters showed as their hero ticked off the evidence of the formerly Great America’s terminal decline. And you could see that same flickering alarm in the Clinton supporters who were apoplectic over Trump’s lament. If America is no longer exceptional, then what does it mean to be American?

If it’s shameful that American politicians are only now beginning to confront the depth of America’s race problem, it’s also terrifying that fifteen years after Sept. 11 and the start of the War on Terror, a presidential election can run its course without either major-party candidate exhibiting a new kind of contrition or humility toward a world they have broken. During the first televised debate in September, the candidates spoke only of their respective plans to destroy ISIS—i.e., how America will kill more Muslims—as if the tragedies of the War on Terror had never actually occurred. There wasn’t even any mention of Aleppo, notwithstanding the disgrace of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s failure even to recognize the name of the battered Syrian city in a media interview.

Trump notionally conjured the old Republican specter of isolationism on the debate stage—and so it fell to Clinton to draw the pointed ideological contrast by striking the still older pose of the well-intentioned American warrior. Conveniently, this pose, with its pious, creaking illusions of America’s foreordained progress, jibed perfectly with the strategic efforts of the Clinton campaign to temper every mention of ceiling-shattering with an appeal to another, more venerable form of toughness. In a Frontline documentary that aired the night after that debate, Clinton is shown celebrating after the U.S.-backed killing of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya—mostly, the film implies, because the invasion of Libya was the only major foreign policy “achievement” of her entire tenure as Secretary of State. This was the sort of credential that Hillary Clinton, aspiring leader of the Free World, chose to seize upon to leverage her way into power. As usual, the First and Second Americas were made to elegantly align in the dreamspeak of our political leaders, and progress at home was made to depend on the benign discharge of violence abroad. It was always difficult to compare Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy to Donald Trump’s given the latter’s incoherence and blatant racism. But both candidates drew on different strains of the same destructive American nationalism, ensuring its victory in 2016.