Another Epitaph on American Exceptionalism
This slender volume consists of four essays offering four variations on a single theme. Since “the American century is behind us now,” veteran journalist Patrick Smith writes, “Americans must now learn to live in history,” forswearing the mythic but now “exhausted narrative” that provided the foundation of the American century in the first place. Simply put, Americans need to give up their narcissistic claim of being a chosen people endowed with “privilege and immunity” while exempted from laws binding others. There you have Time No Longer in a nutshell.
Smith’s American century began in 1898, when the closing of the frontier prompted the United States to declare war on Spain. Nominally inspired by a determination to liberate Cuba, the war’s actual purpose was to locate “a West beyond the West,” thereby facilitating continued expansion. At the behest of leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Americans set out “to remake the world in our image, such that we ourselves would never face the obligation to change.” Yet TR’s rival and nemesis Woodrow Wilson made the crucial contribution. Wilson made “possible the impossible thought that empire abroad and democracy at home were not mutually exclusive.” Power and virtue were entirely compatible. For Americans intent on doing well and doing good, the world itself became “our new wilderness,” its frontiers first territorial and commercial, then scientific and technological. Always the aim was for more and bigger. Improvements, Smith writes “would be quantitative … rather than qualitative.”
This American century ended abruptly on September 11, 2001, when as Smith writes, “America’s long mythological notion of itself crumbled along with the Manhattan towers.” In the course of a single morning, the events of 9/11 demolished American claims of being unique and somehow insulated from history’s horrors.
Between those two events came 103 years of mostly unhappy developments, with Smith fingering the United States for the lion’s share of the blame. For my money, if the twentieth century was something of a disaster—I readily concede that it was—then Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union, not to mention Great Britain and France, should share in the credit. Yet Smith essentially gives these reckless mischief-makers a pass while all but ignoring the rise and fall of rightwing and leftwing totalitarianism. For Smith, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were bit players, at most petty criminals. It was those who wielded authority in Washington who really screwed things up.
In effect, Time No Longer turns American exceptionalism on its head, transforming the United States from agent of salvation into Great Satan. But myths inverted can easily become the basis of alternative and equally bogus myths. Consider, for example, this judgment: “[T]here is little doubt,” writes Smith, “that the span of American interventions beginning in 1898 and ending now in Afghanistan has caused more suffering than it has relieved.” There are at least two problems with this claim. The first and lesser problem is that it depends on whom you ask. After all, on the odd occasion some peoples have found reason to see U.S. forces as something other than a source of pain and affliction. The second and greater problem lies with the implication that the relief of suffering provides the appropriate criterion for evaluating U.S. policy. It doesn’t—unless, that is, you ascribe to the United States motives and standards more exalted than those expected of other great powers. Yet Smith’s central purpose is purportedly to debunk any such immodest supposition.
So Smith’s American century is itself a caricature and an exercise in myth-making. “The task of the historian in our time,” he observes at one point, “is disillusionment—that is, to free Americans of their illusions about themselves.” Unfortunately, the upshot of his analysis is to foster new illusions based on his own untenable version of American exceptionalism. Smith assigns to post-9/11 America the task of creating “a global community of nations,” an endeavor he believes will “almost certainly win worldwide applause.” But Smith does not venture to say whose values should define that community. Nor does he speculate on who will applaud. Will Russians? Pakistanis? How about Iraqis?
Worse, in constructing his own sandcastles, he underestimates the durability of the original. Consider his take on 9/11. On the one hand, Smith contends that “September 11 marked the shockingly abrupt end of several centuries of thinking, feeling, hoping, and believing in a version of America and its place in the world.” Here, he asserts, was “the moment [when] America joined the world at last.” On the other hand, as if in an instant, the moment passed.
The administration of George W. Bush somehow never got the message. Instead, it promptly resurrected and refurbished the nation’s preferred myth-history and—doing a good imitation of Woodrow Wilson—set out to purge the world of evil. Once this “global war on terror” won the support or acquiescence of many millions of Americans, it was off to Baghdad.
Contemplating this bizarre turn of events, Smith concedes that “everything had changed on September 11, but at bottom nothing was different.” Just so.
Nor, it should be emphasized, was this refusal to see in 9/11 a refutation of American exceptionalism unique to the Bush administration. On that score, Bush and his successor occupy the same page. In a text that Smith does not cite, Barack Obama used the occasion of his 2012 State of the Union Address to signal his own fealty to the received myth-history. “America is back,” the president declared.
Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. … America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs and as long as I’m President, I intend to keep it that way.
Needless to say, the line generated loud bipartisan huzzahs.
Patrick Smith believes that “Our past as we have it now is of little use to us.” That the point is not original does not detract from its accuracy. But however disconcerting, Americans cling to that hyped-up, self-aggrandizing past and show little inclination to relinquish it anytime soon. Weird, even preposterous, almost certainly doomed to fail. Yet come to think of it, what could be more American?
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.
Posted: September 8, 2013