lørdag 20. juni 2015

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Volume 91, Issue 3
May 2015
Book reviews

"American exceptionalism: an idea that made a nation and remade the world. By Hilde Eliassen Restad"

"American exceptionalism: an idea that made a nation and remade the world. By Hilde Eliassen Restad. London: Routledge. 2014. 180pp. £85.00. isbn 978 0 41581 751 6. Available as e-book.

In American exceptionalism, Hilde Restad provides a tightly argued and provocative overview of America's sense of self. The topic is of interest to the world beyond because America's self-perception of its benign distinctiveness has played a tremendous role in shaping and justifying US foreign policy. Given the inherent complexities of the topic, readers will appreciate the author's clear, tightly structured and playful prose.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as the United States suffers an economic setback, another debate on American exceptionalism is about to commence. To non-Americans the debate is outlandish, bordering on puerile, since to the non-American mind the US is quite clearly not exceptional, or at least no more so than powerful nations of the past, say the Greeks or the British. The end of American exceptionalism has long been anticipated. In the opening volley of the mid-1970s exceptionalism debate, for instance, Daniel Bell (The winding passage, Transaction Publishers, 1991) argued that ‘today the dream of American exceptionalism has vanished with the dream of empire’. Those were fighting words. American exceptionalism is inextricably tied to the notion of primacy—of being not only different, but also better than the rest. One man's nationalism is another man's patriotism. Hilde Restad is, if anything, bold to seek an ideational study of exceptionalism amid the mine-strewn landscape of the ongoing American culture wars. The exceptionalism debate has been going for so many years that it has become an identity marker, where one's inclination is assumed to indicate other tenets of the proponent's or opponent's worldview. Sidestepping identity politics, Restad arrives at a simple yet persuasive conclusion, namely that American exceptionalism ‘refers to America's constant goal of changing the world without changing itself’ (p. 228).

In Restad's view, American exceptionalism is drawn from three interconnected notions: ‘One, the New World being superior to the Old World; two, the New World pursuing a mission from God that shall save the Old World and; Three, of this country rising to power yet never declining’ (p. 234). This ambition to make a model of oneself makes American exceptionalism more attractive than exceptionalisms bound by place or race, such as that of Wilhelmine Germany or contemporary Russia. To base power on ideas is, of course, only the point of departure, because what aspects of the American experience are to be exported or preserved—and by what means are they to be exported? Restad's book has several merits. One is that it catalogues past exceptionalism studies from de Tocqueville first mentioning America as ‘exceptional’ via the America that ‘does not go abroad looking for monsters to destroy’ of John Quincy Adams to John F. Kennedy's biblical ‘city upon a hill’. A second merit is the overall argument that continuity prevails over change in American foreign policy and that exceptionalism predisposes the US towards unilateral internationalism (p. 229). These are significant insights the build on the research of Bear F. Braumoeller. Restad only arrives at this conclusion after some 200 pages of analysis, where she dispenses with the false dichotomy of ‘isolationism’ versus ‘internationalism’ in American foreign policy—which she persuasively argues is better understood as a constant tension between unilateral internationalism and multilateral internationalism. The two arguments were embodied in the clearest terms by Henry Cabot Lodge and Woodrow Wilson in the debate over US membership of the League of Nations. Restad tells us that Cabot Lodge's arguments prevailed. This is, of course, not new. Authors from Seymour M. Lipset to Charles Murray and Deborah Madsen have taken the isolationist/internationalist dichotomy to task. But Restad takes this one step further, by arguing that ‘the thesis of an American foreign policy turn-around, in the early twentieth century, overplays both the historic separateness and isolationism prior to the 1940s and the multilateral commitment made in those years. If nothing else this helps explain why America's borders expanded in periods that American scholars tells us were marked by isolationism’ (p. 100).

Having read Restad's book, this reviewer is left with the question as to how distinctive American exceptionalism really is. Of course, it has a unique ideological pedigree—as the author lays out in vivid detail—but is not ‘primacy by God's will’ the storyline of all aspiring hegemons? Restad's three points: the American sense of superiority; being called to play the role of saviour and being made of sterner stuff than hegemons past, chime with Putinian exceptionalism, for one. This is not to try and construct some false moral parity—only to say that powers tend to rise by the grace of God, while decline always seems to be the work of darker powers."

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