Lecture by Prof. Daniele Fiorentino at Univ. of Trento Event

Prof. Daniele Fiorentino

Prof. Daniele Fiorentino
Università Roma Tre – Trento School of International Studies. Feb. 28, 2017

“The End of the American Empire? Transnational and Exceptionalist Approaches”


Exceptionalism revisited:

American exceptionalism is over? What is the role of the U.S. at the world level?

On both extremes of the political spectrum there are talks on the American role at the global level; on whether the United States should go it alone, or find alliances and partnerships, or whether the U. S. should altogether disengage.

Brooks and Wohlforth’s position stays in the middle of the three major ones: The pursuit of a Grand Strategy as America’s Mission, to “expand beyond it by adopting a ‘deep engagement plus stance…” or pull back by disengaging.(US Global role 7-8)

As correctly observed by Peter Beinart in a recent article for The Atlantic:”

“For Obama, what made America exceptional was its ever-expanding circle of inclusion. By overcoming its history of bigotry, and building a society where people of different races, ethnicities and religions lived in harmony, America overcame the tribal hatreds that marred other lands and became a model for the world.

When Obama contrasted the U.S. with countries that couldn’t integrate people of different races, ethnicities, and faiths, he wasn’t only contrasting America with Syria, Congo, and Iraq. Like all American exceptionalists, he was contrasting America with Europe. “Our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans. There is, you know, this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength,”

Obama told British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015. “There are parts of Europe in which that’s not the case, and that’s probably the greatest danger that Europe faces.”

Donald Trump has turned that upside down. It is now clear that Trump and his top aides are telling their own, distinct, exceptionalist story. Like Obama’s, theirs starts with the cautionary tale of Europe as a continent that cannot integrate immigrants, and thus cannot keep itself safe. But while Obama said that what sets America apart is its inclusivity, Trump and his advisors say that what sets America apart is its sovereignty. By embracing the European Union, they argue, Europeans stopped valuing nationhood. And as a result, they admitted Muslims who are threatening the continent from within. “Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world – a horrible mess!”(Beinart)

In order to understand better the debate over exceptionalism and set the record straight, we then need to return to the term exceptionalism, to analyze what we mean by “Pax Americana” and how we conceive of the role of the U.S. at the international level:

The term was born before the Cold War, possibly in the Thirties when the leader of the PCUSA confronting Stalin on why the United States working class did not join the party in big numbers claimed a “special” case for the U.S., its being exceptional and somehow not linked to history as conceived in Europe. This is something we have to keep in mind, since exceptionalism has most of the time been defined vis-à-vis Europe.

We then have to make a big leap backward and return to the famous claim made by the leader of the Puritan community which founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, whom upon establishing the community that was supposed to give a home to a persecuted religious group  in Northern Europe claimed that it was as “A City Upon a Hill.” This term has been often misunderstood as well. As Tom Bender argues, if one reads the famous Winthrop’s speech entirely, can infer something very different; i.e. that community was making an experiment that was under the eyes of the world (Europe) and would be judged by its ability to survive in extreme conditions. The frailty of that group was tested against the hardships of the wilderness and the threats of the European powers. Is this exceptional?

Maybe the City Upon a Hill concept then it’s not that exceptional after all, but it is a fact that it has been connected to the idea of exceptionalism all the same.

Later on, the first American president G. Washington warned his fellow citizens, but especially his colleagues in the political leadership that had created the United States, to stay away from any entanglements with European affairs. “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world – he claimed in his Farewell Address –  and Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural was no less clear: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations-entangling alliances with none.”

In the 19th century a group of militant democrats, of the Jacksonian stream, coined the new ideology of Manifest Destiny. Along with the “City Upon a Hill” this became the mythical foundation of the exceptionalist creed.

As I said earlier, actually exceptionalism is an idea born in the 20th century for entirely different reasons and served a specific purpose. Since then it has been revisited by most politicians and historians especially during the Cold war but also afterwards. Ian Buruma contends that it is linked to a specific concept of the post-WWII world which Trump and Farage are trying to revive in mythical form:

“Trump deliberately tapped into the same animus against citizens who are not ‘real people.’” He made offensive remarks about Muslims, immigrants, refugees and Mexicans. But the deepest hostility was directed against those elitist traitors within America who supposedly coddle minorities and despise the “real people.” The last ad of the Trump campaign attacked what Joseph Stalin used to call “rootless cosmopolitans” in a particularly insidious manner. Incendiary references to a “global power structure” that was robbing honest working people of their wealth were illustrated by pictures of George Soros, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein. Perhaps not every Trump supporter realized that all three are Jewish. But those who did cannot have missed the implications…

The Cold War made the exceptional role of the victorious allies even more vital. The West, its freedoms protected by the United States, needed a plausible counternarrative to Soviet ideology. This included a promise of greater social and economic equality…

But I think it is also true to say that the very idea of Anglo-American exceptionalism has made populism in those countries more potent. The self-flattering notion that the Western victors in World War II are special, braver and freer than any other people, that the United States is the greatest nation in the history of man, that Great Britain — the country that stood alone against Hitler — is superior to any European let alone non-European country has not only led to some ill-conceived wars but also helped to paper over the inequalities built into Anglo-American capitalism.” (Buruma NYT)

End of the American Century?

Political scientists and International Relations specialists in the United States and not only, go a great length in trying to explain, “scientifically,” how American power is here to stay and make comparisons and quantitative evaluations of the technological, military, and economic capabilities of the major powers. It is evident that in all these analyses the United States comes out as the dominant superpower by far, despite the rapid and startling growth of China and the Russian comeback. Nye, and Brooks and Wohlforth, give a convincing explanation of how the United States will remain the major power worldwide for quite some time. Only Nye, however, remarks how what matters is not only the economic, military or technological capability of a country, but also its soft power (actually in his latest book Nye looses some of those convincing arguments that had made his theory on Soft Power so successful).

Brooks and Wohlforth show how hard it would be for China to bridge the gap in military power, besides the fact that “during the 2000-2014 period, the United States cumulatively spent nearly $ 9 trillion on defense, while China spent $ 1.5 trillion.”(53)

Possibly China is concentrating on other issues such as its competiveness on the markets and its ability to exercise its soft power. “The United States is the only state that has for decades made the necessary investment to produce and successfully use the full range of systems and associated infrastructure needed for significant global power projection. Especially in today’s technological environment, the choices the United States has made over long spans of time regarding the development of its military capacity have created a reality that will not be easily overcome. Significantly, closing the military gap would be extremely difficult for China even if it were not chasing a moving target.”( Brooks and Wohlforth, 61)

In 2000 Nye in The Paradox of American Power noted that while the US had an uncontested  leadership in the military and the political realms, it did not in the economic; this is an important factor in determining the future of the American unipolarity. At the same time Nye, Zakaria, and Khanna have contented that multipolarity is inevitable in the long run. This is a truism, the question is when will this multipolarity actually come about. In 2008, the National Intelligence Council concluded that the unipolar moment was over then.( Brooks and Wohlforth, 66)

Beyond analyses which predict a unipolar or multipolar world after the end of the Cold war, scholars tend to overlook a very important factor in international relations that is too often discounted as a consequence of economic, political and military might: culture and the ability to inspire. This is something very hard to measure and impossible to quantify. It is the capability of a culture to impose its relevance, to appeal to a mass of people worldwide, to penetrate the minds of people and become an automatic reference.

Again, Brooks and Wohlforth state: “A comprehensive assessment of the distribution of capabilities tailored to the nature of power in the 21st century shows that the United States is and will remain the globe’s sole superpower, uniquely capable of pursuing a world-shaping grand strategy.”(71-72)

Another important aspect of the new role of the US worldwide is the relevance and dimension of American involvement in the security of other countries. Can they go it alone? Or is the backing of the US a necessity. To what extent does American intervention make other countries more secure while ensuring also American security? The contention of B&W is that “…security provided from the outside is likely to make these regions more secure than they would be if security were provided locally.”(89)

Deep engagement ensures a more secure environment for the US and guarantees both the security of its allies and its own through four major mechanism (that seem however still deeply affected by a cold war approach: Deterrence, Assurance, Leverage and Institutional cooperation. Their interaction makes alliances and mutual security stronger. Especially deterrence and assurance have guaranteed security for 7 decades and seem to be the best guarantee for domestic and international security (102).

“One of the major points made by advocates of disengagement and retrenchment is the economic costs and security risks for the US. “Deep engagement and overstretching  hastens US relative decline” (Brooks and Wohlforth, 128-29). There is also the supposed “free ride” that allies make by taking advantage of US engagement which frees resources they can use otherwise. However, this interpretation has its limits if one assumes the impossibility of applying this theory today given the constant hegemony of the US over its allies from an economic point of view (Brooks and Wohlforth, 132). Moreover, it should not be forgotten that there are economic returns for the United States global security role.

A Unipolar v. a Multipolar World.

The world we live in today, which is undoubtedly transnational, always connected with relatively low tariffs, is the result of a world order introduced mainly by the US as a leader of the West during the Cold War and later as a hegemon in a post-cold war order that seemed to be unipolar. To a great extent some of the major values we hold on nowadays are part and parcel of the “American way of  Life” which the United States fostered in the second half of the 20th century.
Brooks and Wohlforth contend that the existing international order can be guaranteed only through a hegemon. In this sense they claim Keohane’s work is key to understanding the transformations inevitable After Hegemony.

The quotation from Keohane is interesting since in a 2012 article in Foreign Affairs he claimed that cooperation among countries is ensured mainly thanks to a leadership that acts as a mediator and a judge and is capable, at the same time, to provide the necessary material and financial support. And the US, he claims, is the only country that has “…the material capacity and political unity to exercise consistent global leadership.(159)

“The underlying theoretical takeaway is straightforward: US leadership makes the continuation of the order more likely and its leadership capacity is partly a function of its globally engaged grand strategy. It follows that the current order might not be stable and might be consequentially challenged in a counterfactual world in which the United States retrenched.” (161) (It is necessary to highlight here how we may be living in a counterfactual world where basically all the myths and exceptionalist principles which have served mainly to create a national identity and a common cause become true).

However, the U.S. hegemonic position has gives and takes, the US of course risks more by being overexposed but at the same time it has benefited greatly from its hegemonic role. At the present time, it is still the only country which can ensure a degree of international stability by exercising its prominence. The world order established after WWII is the most wide-ranging and open in history both in economic linkages and institutional cooperation. The US extracts economic benefits from deep engagement and from maintaining its hegemonic role: “First the United States benefits greatly from the stability of economic globalization due to the fact it is the most significant economic player in the system. Second, the United States has not simply promoted an open global economic order but has also structured some of its long-term features to match up its own particular interests. Third, on occasion the United States has been able to secure better bargains during particular negotiations on specific economic issues due to its globally engaged security policy. And fourth, deep engagement helps to protect the current global order from potentially damaging conflicts, which is very beneficial for the United States. (Brooks and Wohlforth, 171-72).

This interstate cooperation that is sustainable thanks to the deep engagement of the US carries with it also other benefits and not only economic: fighting terrorism becomes easier when cooperation is in place. “A more violent and unstable interstate setting would arguably increase the incentives, opportunities, and capabilities of terrorist organizations.” (Brooks and Wohlforth, 192-93)

For this reason, a Grand Strategy is much needed in the United States. This is not the first time in the past seventy years that the country is lacking it, but it is definitely one of the most difficult times. As stated by Hal Brands, a Grand Strategy: “It is the foundation, the anchor, the center of gravity – …the intellectual architecture that gives form and structure to foreign policy.” (Brands, 3). For about 70 years the US held fast to this idea giving the impression of not being able to think it over once the Cold War ended. As already said at the beginning, the big debate is now between those “who favour continued deep engagement and those who advocate fully ‘coming home’.”( Brooks.Wohlforth, 81). Moreover, among the former there is an additional debate between those who support “Deep Engagement Plus” vs. Deep Engagement. There are four major factors that distinguish these two positions: Power, Threat, Economic importance, Importance to core international institutions (Brooks.Wohlforth, 84)

The ability of the United States to manage them all at the same time, I would say, was the major strength of the country until few years ago. The end of the Cold War and the threat of terrorism have set American foreign policy off balance. Barry Posen argues that  “Unipolarity and U.S. hegemony will be around for some time.” In his “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar holds that how long this will be it likely depends on the Grand Strategy the United States adopts

Posen maintains that U.S. military command of the commons— land, sea, air, and space— has enabled the Bush administration to pursue a strategy of “primacy.” Posen argues, however, that despite its overwhelming military superiority, the United States will continue to encounter military resistance in so-called contested zones such as Somalia in 1993 and Kosovo in 1999. He contends that the inability of the United States to establish command in these areas suggests that, in the near to medium term, Washington may have greater success in meeting its foreign policy goals by adopting instead a strategy of selective engagement.

To conclude, I would underline a factor these analyses show but do not explicitly tackle: the major point here is not so much the United States’ capability of detaining its international standing or keeping its global influence, rather it is the American self-perception and new role in a world that is under constant change. This anxious debate over confirming or denying the continuous American dominance in the world shows an intrinsic spiritual and moral weakness, the fear of losing that position which in itself is already proof of the American loss of power. This crisis started much more as a domestic and inward critical transition in the 1970s than as an actual weakening of American relevance on the world stage. Since then, the United States has dealt in a different way with its inevitable inner contradictions and has started disputing its own role, also at the world level. If one turns the attention to American popular culture and its “collective imaginary,” one has a clear perception of how this sentiment of inadequacy was strengthened  with the end of the Cold War and later by 9/11. They were then matched by the rise of China, the consolidation of Putin in Russia and the impossibility of achieving results in a torn-apart Middle East. What we see today in the United States’ attitude is as much a reaction to a world which is undoubtedly shifting toward multipolarism as it is a crisis of anxiety. It has many points in common with what happened in the country and its international role in the early 20th century and again in the 1970s.


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