In Brief: Consenting to American Exceptionalism

By Yousef K.B. 

The way that American foreign policy under the Obama administration has been talked about and analyzed publicly and especially by progressives (or those who call themselves progressive/leftist/radical/social justice advocates etc. etc.) is very disheartening and dare I say dangerous.

I know by now we’re all familiar with the list of foreign policies of the Obama administration that many critics point to, but just as a reminder let me throw out a quick list:

  • Drone attacks over sovereign territory
  • Continued imprisonment and torture of individuals deemed as ‘terrorists’ or harbingers of ‘terrorists’
  • Imposing debilitating sanctions outside the framework of any international laws
  • The continued occupation of Afghanistan and full fledged support of the economic policies of the previous administration in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • The murder of people who retroactively are labeled as enemy combatants
  • Continued support of neo-liberal development programs (including free trade, privatization, and de-regulation) that devastate economies and lives throughout the world
  • Full fledged support for the policies of Israel as well as despotic regimes based on some notion of US national interest
  • The mass deportations of people (Don’t forget Obama was deporter in chief)
  • Sustaining and increasing surveillance of peoples in the US
  • Increased militarization of not only the US border but borders throughout central America
  • The continued promotion of the war on drugs outside of the US
  • I can go on, but I think you get the point.

I include immigration policies, deportations, and surveillance in this list because these policies are predicated primarily around exclusion of a group of people from the category of full citizen and as outsiders. Based on this exclusion the policies around these issues become a form of what Howard Winant calls “domestic foreign policy.”

Even if you squabble with me on this list, you must admit that the Obama administration’s policies are not divergent from what was considered to be ultra hawkish policies of the Bush administration. At work here is not a foreign policy of peace, justice, or democracy but exceptionalism. A foreign policy where America claims to be outside the law and acts according to its whims, whims that can at best be described as murderous and thug-like.

Everything I’ve said so far, is nothing new. This has been the policy of the US, well since there was something called the US. What is increasingly prevalent however is the way that people perceive these policies. International relations or foreign policy is seen as just another box to be considered when deciding to assess the administration or to figure out whether to vote for Obama or not. A box next to funding for Planned Parenthood, debt reduction policies, healthcare policies, etc. At best people revert to the tired cliché of ‘pragmatism,’ ‘realism,’ or some notion of ‘political strategy.’ I wished the proponents of these strategies actually carried through with that. However, most quickly forget their own reasoning and are quick to cheer on Obama when he lists his foreign policy credentials, chanting “USA, USA, USA.”

What we are witnessing is the division between “us as Americans” and everyone else. This is a rift that always existed, but one that is being fortified in people’s consciousness all over again. This is a rift that diminished during the Bush administration as Americans rallied in solidarity with people around the world against the actions of their leaders, but now is remerging with renewed depth under the Obama administration.

The rift between “us as Americans” and the rest of the world is a peculiar one if one considers that the nature of the economic interconnectedness of our world requires – more now than ever – a profound sense of global solidarity. In a previous time (think post WWII to late 1960s) the US economy was built around a class compromise that afforded US workers steady jobs with adequate salaries and benefits. Of course when I say US workers, I’m referring to mainly white workers since black and brown workers were mostly excluded form this era of asset accumulation for America’s middle class (check out the impact of this era of asset accumulation on contemporary racial inequality). Compared to the rest of the world the life of the worker in the US and Europe was a relatively privileged one, which led many to talk of the “labor aristocracy” in the global North. But with the onset of globalized production, outsourcing, de-industrializion in the north and industrialization in the south, and all its concomitant social and political processes workers in the north quickly lost their privileged position. These processes of course occurred at the same time as black and brown peoples in the US specifically started to make demands on the class compromise.

There is no longer a “labor aristocracy” that is based on some economic realities. Now we are weaving the illusion of it in our minds and peddling it to those around us like a dangerous hallucinogenic.  An illusion that leads us to see our lives as wholly separate and distinct form the lives of others outside of the constantly moving borders of the US state. There are two strains of this thought. The first is based on a complete acceptance of American exceptionalism, that somehow we are the agents of good in the world and no matter its limitations the US state is a force of good around the world. If it has made any mistakes, they are honest ones and the US state is not malicious or parasitic or imperial. The second strain is based on individualism operating as collective ideology in the international arena. It proclaims we got to get ours because there is no time to think of others. The logic goes that as austerity and crisis hits us hard and forces us to retreat from our previous gains we don’t have the luxury of thinking about what happens outside our borders. This argument put into practice only aids the rift between “us in America” and them everywhere else. It is another form of “labor aristocracy” that operates mentally and emotionally helping people justify their neglect of the suffering of humanity as long as they can get a crumb left over by what is left of the welfare state. It is just another form of privilege.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that noone should have voted for Obama or should work from within the system based on some reformist strategies. What is disheartening and dangerous is the level of comfort shown in completely ignoring the disastrous policies of the Obama administration around the world. There is a morally troubling ease in which the murder of people and destruction of lives are relegated to empty political talking points. It is one thing to support Obama based on complex political calculations and principled compromises, but to be morally at ease and to do so without any spiritual tension or reflexive struggle should come as a warning sign to us all.

In many ways we are still dealing with the same conditions that led Malcolm X to demand from us to internationalize our struggle. We need to broaden our perception of ourselves to see ourselves as part of a global majority and not a national minority. We need to once and for all get rid of the borders that we’ve allowed to be built in our minds that separate us from people around the world. These borders don’t exist for capital and its every exploitation, why should they exist for us? What we need is not a reversion to some twisted sense of national pride as Americans, or politics based on our narrow identity markers shaped in the racial regime of this country. Rather we must construct our identities based on our politics, a politics that is global with a commitment to those on the margins.



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Filed under In Brief, The Body Politic

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