Barack Obama’s capacious case for the nuclear accord with Iran (address at American University) contains an interesting treatment of the myth of exceptional America. “What separates us from the empires of old, what has made us exceptional,” the President declared, “is not the mere fact of our military might” but our advancement, since World War II, of an evolving system of international law “to prevent the spread of deadly weapons, to uphold peace and security, and promote human progress.”
It is unclear whether President Obama means the US in not an empire or that the American empire, unlike others, is a force for good. This point of ambiguity marks a tension between diplomacy and military force that persists throughout the speech. The President manages this tension in a way that makes the US more alike and interdependent with other nations than independent, distinct, above, or apart from them. In his words, “we live in a complicated world” where, despite our power, “we are one nation among many.”
Obama channels John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech at American University to advance “a different vision” on behalf of diplomacy over the prevailing view that equates national security with a perpetual war footing. Obama aims to end the “mindset” that exaggerates threats and prefers unilateral US military action instead of painstaking diplomacy. Such a mindset does not “level with the American people about the costs of war” or acknowledge the limits of power. We should “resist the conventional wisdom and the drumbeat of war”; we should “worry less about being labeled weak.”
This different vision of an exceptional America is not a rejection of military might or even war but instead a shift of emphasis away from sheer militarism and toward increased diplomacy. It is an evolutionary, not revolutionary shift. It rejects the comparison of any diplomacy to Munich but recognizes that “our military remains the ultimate backstop to any security agreement that we make.” It does not shy from “using force when necessary,” but it identifies American credibility with leadership in diplomacy.
Such a shift entails working not just with allies such as Great Britain and France but also adversaries such as Russia and China. It also entails the notion that an antagonistic Islamic Republic of Iran can negotiate rationally in the right circumstances. It even raises the possibility that the US is not the only country with legitimate interests and aspirations.
To acknowledge that an exceptional America cannot force its will on other countries—to abandon an established mindset of virtuous warfare—is, indeed, visionary. It may prove too profound an admission for a war culture to concede.
The metaphor of partnership has been a rhetorical hinge of the Obama presidency—partnership in war and partnership in peace. In neither case does the US act unilaterally. Its considerable power is constrained, and its moral authority is qualified. The metaphor suggests a complicated world. Whatever President Obama means by American exceptionalism—which he professes to believe deeply, with every fiber of his being—we are cautioned to resist the hubris of empire.