I read with interest Michael Signer's account of the Truman Project's weekend meeting. "Finally," I thought, "an attempt to articulate a strong foreign policy in progressive terms." And bits of his account sound really great:
These six principles combine into the single center of gravity for Truman Democrats: we believe in leadership, in inspiring the world community to follow us through our generosity, our values, and our accomplishments.
But when I read the details, I saw that they're still making what I consider to be the key mistake that Kerry and his really excellent collection of foreign policy experts made. They're still grasping to retain America's exceptionalism AND its real hegemonic power.
1) American exceptionalism: Like the neoconservatives, we believe that America is the greatest country the world has known. We are historically, morally, and intellectually unique. Unlike the necons, however, we believe we must constantly earn our exceptionalism through our moral conduct. Our uniqueness stems from our values, and so we bear a unique responsibility for living up to those values in shaping and influencing the world.
3) American hegemony: Like the neocons, we want America to retain its supremacy as the military, political , and economic leader of the world in order that we can maintain our own security, help strengthen the world's safety and stability, and accomplish morally right goals. We are and should be a unipolar power. Unlike the neocons, however, we believe we must constantly earn and affirm the right to exercise that power.
Perhaps I'll be scolded for being a pessimist, but the time when the US could lead the rest of the world by appealing to our exceptionalism AND exert real hegemonic power is over. And the sooner the progressive community acknowledges that fact, the sooner we will begin to formulate a foreign policy that distinguishes us positively from the neocons ... and the sooner we begin to formulate a policy that is feasible.
Signer suggests one of the problem's with appealing to our exceptionalism: with Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and our demonstrably false case for war in Iraq, we have lost our claim to exceptionalism. Signer calls for real moral conduct in our foreign policy, which is necessary, but not sufficient to be able to be able to claim exceptionalism. We will need to do real penance before we can believably claim to lead the rest of the world in human rights or democracy.
But the bigger problem with attempting to retain both exceptionalism and hegemony is it ignores how we have exercised hegemony all these years and it ignores the real obstacles to retaining hegemony now.
We exercised hegemony after WWII through a combination of diplomatic (the UN) and economic (the Marshall Plan) means. At a time when we already had the rare advantage of combining size, agricultural riches, and technical know-how, we leveraged the economic devastation of our nearest competitors into a neat trade relationship. They bought our surpluses and helped us to bridge the period until our consumer economy had taken hold. And meanwhile, in the the UN, we could support a lot of policies that made us relatively stronger (such as pushing our allies to free their colonies) while allowing us to perpetuate the notion that we were democracy and freedom's evangelist.
In this period, we were able to sustain exceptionalism and hegemony because our exceptionalist ideas only served to increase our power relative to our rivals.
With the 1970s, the non-aligned movement and increasing numbers of post-colonial nations made the UN a tougher place to get things done. While the developing nations couldn't force anything through the UNSC, they could pressure the US in embarrassing ways (this is a major part of the UNESCO flap, the developing nations resisting US attempts to exercise hegemony through cultural and information means; the attempt was annoying enough that the US that it took its toys and went home and exerted cultural and informational influence through trade agreements instead). At the same time, the oil shocks and inflation more generally proved that we could be a vulnerable to commodity producers acting in concert. We were still the unquestionably greatest economy on earth, but we were showing real vulnerability.
So over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, we changed the foundation of our hegemonic influence, moving it away from the realm of representative discussion in the UN and into the realm of free trade. With free trade as the primary foundation of hegemony, we could pit developing nations against each other and undercut the power of most commodity producers (but not oil) by forcing new producers online, thereby flooding the market. Add in the dollar as the reserve currency, and we could sustain an otherwise unsustainable consumer lifestyle in the US that served as a carrot to persuade developing nations to enter trade agreements with us. So long as we got the greatest benefit from our trade deals, we would remain rich enough to build a military to equal the rest of the world's put together.
In this period, then, the terms of our exceptionalism changed. No longer were we the beacon of freedom and democracy, but instead we offered opportunity, development, and rewards for the best competitor.
But our hegemonic foundation is falling apart now. And the most logical thing we have to replace it--sheer military might--offers us no claim to exceptionalism.
Put aside the likelihood that the rest of the world will move away (pdf) from the dollar reserve system. Put aside arrival of Peak Oil, which will make our economy relatively less competitive than most other countries (with the exception of China, which is even less efficient than we are) and will make the consumer economy totally unsustainable. Put aside the fact that our deficit is so large that we will soon no longer be able to fund the military that keeps us hegemonic no matter what.
Put all of those issues aside and there's still a fundamental flaw to our hegemonic foundation. We can't compete anymore. We have told the rest of the world that the country with the most efficient economy will be the most powerful. All the while, we've been underfunding the investments we needed to stay the most efficient, things like our roads and broadband and education. And now we're in a position where our workers are competing against people who are as well-educated as Americans but are willing to work for a fraction of the pay. We're in a position where decades of protection (in agriculture, in automotive, in steel, and more) have made our industries flabby and uncompetitive. We can no longer compete by playing by the rules, the rules we ourselves wrote. Instead, the current Administration is resorting to desperate games to prop up the stock market by raiding the retirement accounts of our seniors, to change the rules to make it easier on our software or textile producers. To fight off attempts to make the rules more fair. To do things like invading resource-rich and strategically located countries.
The only way we're going to be able to retain our hegemonic position (barring some really drastic changes to our economy and society) is to cheat.
Which is why we can no longer enjoy the luxury of claiming exceptionalism for the very principles that allow us to exercise hegemony. We can't celebrate competition, because we can't compete. We can't celebrate democracy, really, because we need pliant governments to provide us advantageous terms for our commodity goods. We can't even celebrate the rule of law because we intend to break that law, whenever necessary.
The neocons, I believe, understand this. Currently, the neocons claim to retain both hegemony and an exceptionalism of freedom and democracy. But anyone who looks--even just at our coddling of Uzbekistan's dictator Karimov--should admit this is no more than show. (Arguably, the Neocons and their forebears were never serious about the exceptionalism part; but the Cold War gave us cover because it let us argue that capitalism was the same thing as democracy.) In fact, I suspect the realization that they can no longer sustain the claim of exceptionalism is part of the reason why the neocons seem so unperturbed by widespread evidence that we're torturing and disappearing people. They've made the decision they'll need to give up the exceptionalism; they just won't admit it until the Press forces them to, which doesn't appear to be coming any time soon.
The Neocons, at least, have recognized that they can no longer appeal to both exceptionalism AND maintain hegemony. They may try to pretend otherwise. But their actions suggest the appeal to exceptionalism is only a smokescreen.
Progressives, however, keep trying to have it both ways. I said this was a problem with Kerry. As an example, in all the discussion of making Iraq a multilateral venture, Kerry and his advisors never ceded the one thing that would have made it worthwhile for other countries to join in. They never ceded control of the oil or the military footprint. They wanted to turn Iraq into an exercise of democracy, but not if it meant giving up the strategy advantage that Bush had invaded Iraq in the first place to gain.
We're not going to be able to retain our hegemony under the guise of some exceptionalist project anymore. So Progressive, IMO, need to embrace the alternative. They can cede their insistence on hegemony and instead use the waning days of US power to set up a system that fulfills our exceptionalist ideals, is sustainable, and allows others to enjoy the fruits of this supposed ideal system.
There are a lot of reasons we should opt for exceptionalism over hegemony, not least because the globe is really too small to play hegemonic games anymore. But there is one more critical advantage to the alternative of ceding hegemony in favor of pursuing our ideals. One of the most intractable challenges we will face in the foreign policy arena in the near future will never be solved so long as we pursue hegemony and refuse to accept cooperation: We will never find a solution to global warming so long as we are unwilling to give up the advantages of unfettered access to oil-based economy. We will never be able to retain hegemony and do the things needed to prevent major environmental catastrophe.
If we embrace America's exceptionalist principles and accept cooperation, progressives will be able to offer solutions to problems the neocons won't be able to address. And our solutions will offer a much better quality of life--to everyone involved--than the endless wars of the neocons.