Beyond the Neocons: Transatlantic Relations and American Exceptionalism

Stefan Halper

Although the neoconservatives’ moment in Washington may have passed and alliances are slowly being rebuilt, many of the underlying forces that plagued the transatlantic relationship after 2001 have deep roots going beyond both the War on Terror and its neoconservative architects.

Considering U.S. foreign policy during this election year, we see a world still struggling to rebalance after the events of September 11, 2001. Some regions remain convulsed by the War on Terror; in other dimensions, we see new terms of competition among the great power blocs, principally the United States, Russia, China, and India.

The Bush administration has generally failed to reach its stated objectives: as The Economist recently noted (“After Bush,” March 27), two-thirds of Mr. Bush’s “axis-of-evil” regimes are still in place; nuclear business with North Korea remains unfinished; Iran has progressed toward nuclear-weapons capabilities and is expanding its regional influence; Hamas and Hezbollah are thriving; the Taliban has revived in Afghanistan. And sadly, much-needed compromise between Israel and its neighbors has been made more difficult by the radicalization of an entire generation in the Muslim and Arab world.

Against this backdrop, transatlantic relations have felt great strains in both official and popular quarters. While Bush leaves unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism among European publics, alliances nurtured over half a century are frayed.

To no one’s surprise, there are sighs of relief on both sides of the Atlantic as Bush and the neocons move toward the exits: the question is how did these strains arise, and what lies ahead? In retrospect, the collapse of the Twin Towers brought a crisis of transatlantic relations, though not at first.

Guided by the new rhetoric of neocon-politik, the American political establishment evinced an extraordinary bipartisan unity after the attacks. It declared a “war for civilization” against the forces of violence, barbarism, and chaos. Pundits and politicians competed for national publicity with sound bites about the exceptional nature of events. “These were no longer normal times,” they told the American public; “nothing would ever be the same again.” and “September 11 changed everything.”

At first, America and Europe changed together, and Europeans showed a strong sense of unity with their transatlantic cousins in the mourning period after the attacks. “We are all New Yorkers now,” read one headline from Berlin. “Nous sommes tous Américains,” went a similar declaration from Le Monde. It didn’t take long, however, before the two sides fell out of emotional and political step.

By the middle of 2002, the two sides reflected fundamentally divergent perspectives—with Tony Blair often stuck in the middle—on issues ranging from the rule of international law and the primacy of the United Nations’ process to the distinction between preemptive and preventive war, the immediacy of Saddam’s threat to the world, his relationship to different types of terrorism, the role of the Arab-Israeli question in regional stability, and the need for a smoking gun in the search for weapons of mass destruction.

Gradually, a majority of Europeans began to think that perhaps America was making too much of the moment, presenting it in unduly messianic terms. Washington’s abrogation of various multilateral agreements—the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Biological Weapons Protocol—seemed to confirm a new American unilateralism. The parliaments and press of European capitals now talked increasingly of American arrogance and superpower hubris.

Across the water, meanwhile, former Secretary of Defense and longtime NATO stalwart James Schlesinger spoke for a growing American consensus when he questioned whether Europeans and Americans have any common agenda anymore. Robert Kagan hit the national best-seller lists with Paradise and Power, which concluded that on account of our different military capabilities and philosophies toward power, the United States and Europe no longer share a common view of the world—and this was not a temporary phenomenon. The transatlantic atmosphere only worsened as government figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Jacques Chirac traded jibes about “Old Europe” and “Infantile America.”

From this low point, it seemed things could only get better—and they clearly have. As prominent neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Douglas Feith left government and profound disagreement over Iraq became routinized, alliances are slowly being rebuilt. The last eighteen months have seen deliberate, even flamboyant displays of renewed friendship between Washington and its once-tricky partners.

More broadly, American and European policy-makers have bonded over new areas of common concern such as the growing assertiveness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. American political stock increased overnight in Brussels following the Bush administration’s admission that climate change presents a significant challenge. We’ve also seen gentle hints from the presidential candidates about making early moves to restore America’s world standing through a number of gestures that include closing Guantanamo, imposing clear bans on any sort of torture, and shutting down the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret prisons.

The Cultural Roots of Neoconservative Triumph

I would like to offer a note of caution going forward. Though the neocons have fallen from grace and the Bush era is ending, many of the underlying forces that have plagued the transatlantic relationship, though quiet, are alive and well.

The constellation of voices that coalesced in Washington around the rationale for Iraqi regime-change has been widely labeled under the catchall of “neoconservatism.” But this is a misnomer for two reasons: first, it is an inaccurate label for a group that came to include traditional nationalists like Donald Rumsfeld, former realists like Jeane Kirkpatrick, and independent academics like John Lewis Gaddis; second, it belies a deeper connection between this nationalist, neoconservative, patriotic discourse and American political culture writ large.

A better way to view the emotions arising from September 11 and the determination to project American values on the global stage would be to see the moment as a recurrence of American Exceptionalism. The patriotism, the promises, and the posturing that defined the Bush administration’s publication of its 2002 National Security Strategy may have looked new, but they were quite old in many respects.

This is about more than patriotism or flag-waving. Neoconservative rhetoric struck a mighty chord with the nation post-September 11, because it captured a deep syndrome in U.S. political culture, particularly evident since World War II, in which the nation reacts to a challenge or crisis by projecting its values upon the global stage. These passionate expressions of American Exceptionalism, seen previously during the “Red Scare” (in the late 1940s to the early 50s) and with the Vietnam War (in the early 60s), have not only inhibited the development of effective policy in Washington but have alienated allies and transformed enemies into existential concepts.

As the Allensbach Opinion Research Institute concluded in 2002, American patriotism runs deep. No other developed country sings its national anthem as often or displays its flag as compulsively. The proportion of Americans
that described themselves as “very proud of their country” numbered over 80 percent—well above the corresponding figures among Europeans. Six in ten Americans believed that U.S. culture is superior to all others, compared with only three in ten French people and four in ten Germans and Britons. At various times between 1998 and 2006, the National Opinion Research Centre attempted to quantify the comparative level of national pride and patriotism expressed freely across the bodies-public of some thirty-six countries. The United States topped that list every time as the most overtly patriotic country in the world. Among the variables were “pride in national achievements,” “economic success,” “military victories,” and “international involvements.”

This underscores a crucial point. Arising from the special circumstances of its birth, America owes a large amount of its identity to the substance of big ideas about its own exceptionalism. Historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote that “America is not just a place, but an idea.” John Gunther proclaimed, “Ours is the only country deliberately founded on a good idea.”

What Elements Comprise American Exceptionalism?

There are three crucial factors that have helped to sustain and proscribe this “big idea of Exceptionalism” in the public square. They have also helped to forge underlying differences between Americans and their European parent cultures.

The first may be called the “discourse of mission.” The United States is the oldest constitutional democracy in the world. The language of the Founding Fathers still informs secondary-school civics lessons and major declarations of foreign policy verbatim. American political debate has been heavily proscribed by the uninterrupted continuity of its founding mythology in the public sphere. The notion that Americans are a special people born of exceptional circumstances into the unique role of liberty’s champion is the oldest, most enduring theme in the national discourse. It was the basis on which Americans asserted their right to separate from their imperial ruler; it was the basis on which they created a homogeneous, political whole out of many heterogeneous parts; and it remains a basis on which the modern United States interacts with the world.

The second element found in American Exceptionalism is the “challenge of heterogeneity.” A crisis of self-definition implicit in the immigration experience resolved itself in a national mythology of separateness, mission, exclusivity, and superiority, which became integral to America’s socio-political development. The glorification of this idea throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became the agent of creation for community itself. But the founding generations of the United States were not merely special because they had found a political theory, a scheme of values, or a tradition of democratic governance. They were also special because of the very environment that became their home.

This is the third constituent theme of American Exceptionalism: the “legacy of abundance and opportunity.” A land where any person—most recently and famously Barack Obama—can transcend social, ethnic, and economic barriers presents American Exceptionalism as a form of salvation for mankind. This image of unlimited opportunity has become one of the most enduring shorthand definitions of the American dream in the national discourse.

These three themes—the discursive inheritance of mission, the challenge of heterogeneity, and the legacy of abundance and opportunity—were central to the formation of an American national self. They have also helped the country evolve over the last two centuries, making it more patriotic, more individualist, more religious, and more culturally conservative than Europe.

The United States has no large socialist party, nor has it had a significant fascist movement. Unlike conservative parties in Europe, its homegrown version has no aristocratic roots. America has one of the lowest tax-rates among rich countries, the least generous public services, the highest military spending, and the most persistent work ethic.

The Negative Effects of American Exceptionalism

As notable commentators like Walter Lippmann, George F. Kennan, and H.L. Mencken argued in the twentieth century, the footprint of the first two hundred years in American history yields a powerful—at times negative—influence on political debate in the modern era. Lippmann claimed in 1948 that America’s institutionalized attachment to the rhetoric of Exceptionalism had created the tendency to “absolutize” major issues of foreign affairs. The nation’s leaders were often tempted, he observed, to define America’s response to a question of foreign affairs in the familiar terms of her role as the leading proponent in a universal system of liberty, freedom, and progress. But in this context, the issue is too easily transformed into a binary contest between the American way on one hand and evil on the other. Little room remains for rational discussion, because the issue becomes widely perceived as nothing less than a challenge to the existence of the republic. Moreover, it opens the way for flamboyant orators to stigmatize those skeptical of patriotic orthodoxy as dangerous or disloyal. If the foundations of American civilization are under threat, political criticism can be labeled as an act that aids the enemy.

In the buildup to invading Iraq, the combined effects of this syndrome were numerous: they shut down alternative forms of interpretation and marginalized the notion that Iraq should be approached as a “problem management issue”; they encouraged groupthink and group conclusions; they reinforced an inbuilt prejudice that favored the executive leadership at the expense of critics in Congress or in the country at large; and they prioritized emotional language about American power over more narrow or limited definitions of the national interest.

And, of course, this process also has consequences for the health of transatlanticism. With rhetoric that did little to impress or inspire, it left a bad taste in European mouths.

The historical perspective provided by September 11 supports a further contention: that the rise of powerful narratives about Exceptionalism is a recurring theme in U.S. foreign-policy debate. It can be triggered by identifiable variables, but it remains an ongoing force just beneath the surface of political culture, which will rise up under suitable circumstances. If the institutions capable of political pushback were overwhelmed after September 2001 by the combined forces of fear and patriotism, it was not the first time. America has been here before, when a different group—the China Lobby—sought to force-draft government policy and public opinion in the 1950s to fit the view that monolithic communism threatened U.S. security interests in East Asia. During the Red Scare, when public space was captured by anti-Communist scare scenarios and patriotic rhetoric that foreshortened the national debate, many with alternative views were branded as traitors and Communist conspirators. The syndrome appeared again in the early 60s, when Washington believed Vietnam was again threatened by monolithic communism directed by Moscow. The Domino Theory was the phrase that defined the era as Washington asserted that if the United States didn’t fight communism in Vietnam, it would spread throughout Southeastern Asia to India and then to the Middle East.

Looking beyond the faces of today’s neocons, therefore, there are continuities between earlier periods and post-September 11 milieu that indicate a tendency for core institutions—the press, Congress, academe—to remain silent or semi-engaged when the nation is drawn into a crisis and patriotic passion sweeps the political debate.

Accordingly, if we look at the 2008 election—which some claim will change the direction of the country—we see one aspect of the political culture that doesn’t change. Differences of ideology or policy aside, each candidate has taken his or her turn in boasting about America as the indispensable nation—the country that stands taller and sees further than its rivals.

Even the changing of political guard is a process that underscores the immovable status of American Exceptionalism. Politicians and pundits are reluctant to challenge its honored place in the national discourse. Instead they prefer to exploit it as reliable vocabulary in the lexicon of American politics.

Neither McCain (a maverick) nor Obama (an exotic) would have been viable candidates without the toxic political environment created by Bush’s mishandling of American Exceptionalist impulses (including the Iraq War, the “democracy project” in the region, preventive/preemptive strikes, and the like).

Moreover, both Obama’s idealism and McCain’s “Don’t tread on me” problem-solving realism are equally subject to the potential pressures of American Exceptionalism—and equally challenged to contain it.

And so a leading, albeit neglected, question for this election year is why the warnings issued by Lippman and Kennan were not heeded in the half-century that followed. We can also ask whether American Exceptionalism—arriving as neoconservatism, the Red Scare, or whatever its new nom de guerre happens to be—can be managed so that the United States leads by example and remains a productive transatlantic partner, and, finally, whether it is McCain or Obama who can best manage this tricky syndrome that has at times made America the shining city on the hill and at others the author of chaos.

Further Reading

  • Kyl, John. “The Future of Transatlantic Relations.” Lecture at the Heritage Foundation, Washington D.C., August 6, 2002.
  • Micklethwait, John, and Adrian Woolridge. The Right Nation: Why America Is Different. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
  • Rogers, Joel. “The Myth of Neoconservative Triumph in US Foreign Policy Debate after 9/11.” Doctoral thesis. Cambridge University, 2007.
  • Bowen, Ezra. “Looking to Its Roots.” Time, May 25, 1987.
  • Parker, John. “A Nation Apart.” The Economist, November 6, 2003.
  • Staff. “After Bush.” The Economist, March 27, 2007.


Stefan Halper

Stefan Halper is a contributing author for Free Inquiry

Although the neoconservatives’ moment in Washington may have passed and alliances are slowly being rebuilt, many of the underlying forces that plagued the transatlantic relationship after 2001 have deep roots going beyond both the War on Terror and its neoconservative architects. Considering U.S. foreign policy during this election year, we see a world still struggling …

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