there is another, more interesting, and perhaps more important reason
for the reawakening of nationalist politics in the United States. It has
to do with the rigidity and frustrating results of Washington's foreign
policy consensus at a time of great flux at home and abroad.
While presidents have avoided talk of "exceptionalism," Washington's foreign policy community has emphasized exceptionalism,
as opposed to realism, in large part because of the politics it faces
at home and the challenges and the opportunities they see abroad. For
much of the post-Cold War era, Republican and Democratic foreign
policy-makers and elites have coalesced around the idea of the United
States as an "indispensable nation" in a "unipolar moment." In other words, America is exceptional in its power and exceptional in its mission and thus must serve, as some have written, as the "world's government" underwriting its security, economy, and development .
exceptionalist consensus means, among other things, that the Clinton, Bush, and Obama foreign policies have all had
this underlying ideology in common. Obama himself, in his 2009 Nobel laureate lecture, may have best defended the resulting good, bad, and ugly foreign policy when he said,
"The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for
more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength
of our arms."
The consensus still holds a tremendous sway in
Washington. Republicans seem to object more strongly to how Obama is
going about the country's foreign policy business than to what he has
chosen to do. The result is a debate on the margins: Republican focus on
the deadline imposed on how quickly to withdraw from Iraq rather than
whether a long-term involvement in that country is in the nation's best
Still, the U.S. foreign policy consensus has a
mixed track record: the nation is in a more frustrating international
position today than it was at the end of the Cold War. Its economy is
beleaguered, its military overstretched, its governance dysfunctional,
and its political influence only somewhat recovered from unpopularity of
the George W. Bush administration. Republicans and Democrats, rather
than revising the prevailing consensus or holding difficult and
politically sensitive conversations over this new reality, have focused
on posture over policy; talking about how the consensus will be put into
action rather than whether its persistence is a good idea.
candidates now are arguing that a more exceptionalist posture, like the
one they believe President Ronald Reagan took in the 1980s, would help
the nation. In 2008, President Obama's supporters believed something
similar: that his persona, based on his international background, racial
heritage, and rhetorical gifts gave him, and thus the United States,
added authority in its relations with the world. This wasn't a campaign
talking point, but it occasionally popped up. In November 2007, Obama told an interviewer:
you can tell people, "We have a president in the White House who still
has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has
a sister who's half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian," then
they're going to think that he may have a better sense of what's going
on in our lives and in our country. And they'd be right.
personal exceptionalism and his view of American exceptionalism will be
put to the test this election season against his Republican opponents.
At a time of limited American focus on foreign policy news and matters,
it's unlikely to be the main event. But with these nationalist stirrings
returning to American politics, the fight over who best envisions --
and who best represents -- American exceptionalism will be a part of the