The ‘indispensable nation’

In their final debate, which focused on foreign policy, US President Barack Obama called America “the indispensable nation,” echoing a phrase coined during the Clinton years. The less eloquent Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, came up with an equally glowing portrayal of his country as “the hope of the earth.”

Wow. We know that America is a great nation. But hearing such songs of praise from its own politicians is disturbing. One can’t imagine the leaders of China or Russia getting away with extravagant self-depictions like these without the world media commenting on their arrogance and implications.

But, amid the fact-checking and frenzied post-debate analysis, the US media did not take notice. Perhaps that is because political rhetoric everywhere is expected to be laced with patriotic paeans when nations are in the middle of choosing their leaders. Still, one cannot but wonder if this national hubris—sometimes expressed as American exceptionalism—does not in fact constitute the non-negotiable basis of US foreign policy. Indeed, on foreign policy questions, the two presidential contenders had so much in common that they could have played surrogate to one another without difficulty.

I am surprised that US analysts find it odd that Romney chose to agree with Obama on many points instead of sharply differentiating himself from his opponent. I think Romney would have had to be either on the left of Obama, or further to his right, to be able to anchor any substantive disagreement with him. Both positions would have been untenable. The first would have made him look like the “weak” Obama he caricatures, who goes around the world on an “apology tour.” On the other hand, to take a position right of Obama would have made him sound like George W. Bush, whose disastrous wars abroad had bankrupted the US economy.

I would argue that this implicit consensus, which firmly unites Democrats and Republicans even when they seem most apart, is what undergirds the stability of American politics. The terms of this consensus were nowhere more movingly stated than in Bill Clinton’s 1996 speech, where he explained the warrant for Nato’s intervention in Bosnia. “The fact is America remains the indispensable nation. There are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression, between hope and fear. Of course, we can’t take on all the world’s burden. We cannot become its policemen. But where our interests and values demand it and where we can make a difference, America must act and lead.”

This formulation of American exceptionalism is broad enough to permit many variations in timing and approach. George W. Bush pushed it to its limit by advocating preemptive war. Note that it is not the mandate to intervene that is subject to debate but only the form and time in which it is to be carried out. Within that narrow band, politicians are able to stake positions that one may roughly designate as liberal or conservative.

In the last debate, there were moments when Mitt Romney seemed more progressive than Obama. It was he, not Obama, who warned, referring to the turmoil in the Middle East, that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” It was also Romney who, expressing dismay over the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt’s elections following the ouster of the Mubarak regime, called for more active support for civil society.

On the other hand, Barack Obama has disappointed a lot of his admirers by steadily drifting to the right, in marked contrast to the bold initiatives he took during his first year in office. Those initiatives, had they been pursued, could have led to a recasting of capitalism at home, and a redrawing of America’s role in the world that is more consistent with the vision of a self-governing global community.  Romney did not find much to disagree with in Obama’s policies abroad because in truth these do not deviate to any meaningful degree from what the Republicans themselves have espoused.

Both Obama and Romney said they would stand by Israel as America’s most important traditional ally in the Middle East. Both maintained a hard punitive line toward Iran, vowing to put an end to its nuclear program. Both felt vindicated in the US-led Nato intervention in Libya that led to the overthrow and death of Gadhafi. Short of authorizing military intervention in Syria, they each pledged to tighten the screws on the brutal Assad regime. They vied with one another in attacking China’s sordid trade, currency, and investment practices—while holding up the hope that this country, to whom America owes so much money, could be a partner in the quest for global prosperity and peace. They both agreed on the use of drones, or unmanned aircraft, to launch strikes against suspected terrorist targets on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, with or without the consent of the governments of these two countries. They were unified in the view that American leadership in the world rested on its military and technological supremacy, and that this was not sustainable without rapid economic recovery and nation-building at home.

From watching all three presidential debates, I come away convinced more than ever that their function is primarily ideological rather than political. Despite the adversarial atmosphere surrounding them, these debates do not so much open up the political arena to contending voices as they provide America’s elites the opportunity to structure the American people’s view of their country’s reality and that of the world they live in.