Biden’s ‘Slimmed Down’ US Exceptionalism

The most that Paul Hockenos expects from the new administration’s foreign policy is some tinkering around the edges.

Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.

By Paul Hockenos
International Politics and Society

The idea of American exceptionalism — namely that the U.S.  is a morally superior, unique and viscerally democratic nation — has guided U.S.  foreign policy since the country’s earliest days.

Its thoroughly realist international policies never justified such an exalted mantle. But the premise pervaded the foreign policy establishments and served interventionists well — from both political parties. The market economy — and expanding it and trade worldwide — drove this mission, which rationalized military interventions across the globe.

But, surely, after the four disastrous years of the Trump administration the U.S.  can no longer claim such a distinction, even in reduced dimensions. The U.S.  is quite obviously not an exceptional, viscerally democratic nation, but rather one flawed in many ways. It possesses a dangerous authoritarian streak that has deep roots in the population.

Long before the Trump fiasco, it should have been clear to anyone who studied U.S. foreign policy with a critical eye that this pretentious posturing was illusory. The U.S.  had racism written into its constitution and expanded its original borders by displacing and killing the native Americans who had lived there for centuries. More recently, the U.S. record is stained with human rights atrocities from Vietnam to Abu Ghraib.

What Now?

What now, then, if exceptionalism is no longer credible, will steer U.S.  foreign policy? So embedded is the exceptionalist mindset in Washington that there’s been no fundamental rethinking of it — at best a tinkering around the edges. President Joe Biden, an old-school Democrat, and his foreign policy team are similarly steeped in the creed, even if they now say the U.S.  should show a little more humility and work together better with other countries to achieve foreign policy goals.

The fact is that the Democrats have no strategy B – just A light.

The new secretary of state, Antony Blinken endorses a “slimmed-down exceptionalism,” according to one commentator.

In Blinken’s confirmation hearing, former Trump-loyalist Sen. Lindsey Graham appeared thoroughly pleased with Blinken’s responses to his questions.  But the Biden administration, he said elsewhere, wants to bring the U.S.  back to the world stage with such global issues as non-proliferation, Covid-19 and the climate crisis.

Tony Blinken, at right, as deputy national security adviser, with President Barack Obama, Sept. 19, 2014. (White House, Pete Souza)

This might be commendable if it didn’t today sound farcical. A UN treaty outlawing nuclear weapons went into effect this year on Jan. 22, the Biden administration’s second day at work, and was endorsed by 50 countries. But neither the U.S.  nor any other of the world’s other nuclear powers signed it. As for Covid-19, why should the U.S.  lead the global battle against it when it itself is struggling with the world’s largest outbreak? And on climate policy, although Biden rejoined the U.S.  in the Paris climate agreement, it has a monumental challenge ahead of itself just catching up to the rest of the world on climate.

The fact is that the Democrats have no strategy B – just A light.

Transpartisan Consensus?

Very few of the Washington think tanks offer another route. A newish outfit, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, led by the well-known commentator Andrew J. Bacevich, proposes a so-called transpartisan foreign policy. It’s supposed to bridge both parties and offer building blocks for a foreign policy rooted in engaged diplomacy and regional dialogue, rather than repeated military interventions. The philosophy boils down to: shrink America’s global military footprint, reduce militarized relationships and swear off military interventions. At least that’s a start.

The president’s staff are all insiders. Considering their records on backing interventionist wars abroad, we’ll be very fortunate if they give us a slimmed-down exceptionalism.

The Quincy Institute, however, “doesn’t focus too much on how the U.S.  should positively engage the world, because that would strain the transpartisan consensus,” says John Feffer, director of the leftist Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). Of course, progressives on the left margins of the Democratic Party, such as Bernie Sanders and others, have ad hoc bits and pieces of policy ideas that encompass those of the Quincy program and offer a more positive view of global engagement.

No Break with Establishment

Sanders’ Middle East policy, for example, calls for conditioning aid to Israel on respect for human rights. The Biden administration could restart the provision of aid for Palestinian refugees, while enabling the Palestine Liberation Organization to reopen its mission office in Washington. There’s support for these measures among U.S. Democratic voters and left-wing congresspeople but Biden, thus far, has committed himself to none of it. On Yemen the new president seems inclined to end the war — by cutting Saudi Arabia off from weapons imports and intelligence — a demand made by Sanders and his allies in Congress.

IPS proffers a few ideas, too, like having the U.S.  join the UN and 140 world leaders and experts in devising a universally available, affordable and patent-free vaccine against Covid-19. And the U.S.  could really do something about the climate crisis by investing $200 billion in the Green Climate Fund, which finances climate protection in the developing world.

The U.S.  could call to life a “global social protection fund” that marshals global resources to meet the urgent needs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. And as the world’s biggest spender on military hardware, the U.S.  could reverse the rise in global military expenditures by slashing $350 billion from the Pentagon budget and working with China and Russia to reduce global tensions.

Sensible proposals, all of them. But don’t expect the Biden administration to use the unique moment at hand to make a clean break with establishment foreign policy and start off it another direction. The president’s staff are all insiders. Considering their records on backing interventionist wars abroad, we’ll be very fortunate if they give us a slimmed-down exceptionalism.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based author and political analyst. Among other media, he has written for The New York Times, CNN Opinion, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs. Paul served on the postwar missions in the Balkans and is the author of four books on European affairs.

This article is from International Politics and Society.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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8 comments for “Biden’s ‘Slimmed Down’ US Exceptionalism

  1. February 3, 2021 at 22:33

    Somehow there was no mention of Iran and Venezuela.

    Iran was pushed against a war by Trump’s attempts to discombobulate it, and Trump’s and Netanyahu’s blatant assassinations, rather than attacking back waited to see what Biden would do.

    They won’t wait many more weeks to retaliate. Venezuela is being discombobulated, as never popular Juan Guaido, is becoming hated by more and more Venezuelans except for the elite emigrating to America to lobby for regime change in all of Latin America. Trump gave the Venezuelan treasury to which he is lobbying Biden with. A dark cloud likely ahead.

  2. robert e williamson jr
    February 3, 2021 at 17:11

    A brilliant statement of the obvious here by Mr. Hochenos. But he also seems to miss the significance of having to accept the lesser of two evils simply because the money driven two party system mandates such.

    In a more perfect world or more precisely a more perfect U.S.A., his offering could be seen as somewhat enlightening to those not other wise in tune with the status quo.

    I hoping this is not considered some type of attack on him or his take on these matters. In fact I would enjoy to have him comment on my comments here. Paul appears by his photo to be much younger than I, a keen observer who has some remarkable talents.

    So I offer this question to him. Do the Two Parties feel they have manifest destiny on their side and so it follows they are worthy of such royal standing? I would submit they must based on my observations of the level of their arrogant, patronization of all in opposition to their self-stated official policies and actions. Policies and actions that are purported to be in the best interest of we the people who vote and elect them and not those who pay to play and write legislation they want passed themselves.

    SEE; —

    One might want to study that phrase and it’s meaning; manifest – adjective – clear or obvious to the eye or mind; destiny – noun – something to which a person or thing is destined: FORTUNE 2. a predetermined course of events often held to be an irresistible power or agency. Now see Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary tenth addition for the definition of manifest destiny given there.

    If we as a world civilization were faced with a safe place to live on this planet for another three hundred years the Biden plan described here might be an acceptable working model from which the U.S. society might have a chance at rebuilding the U.S. and turning it into something exceptional.

    I feel strongly that such is not the case. We as a society, nation and planetary inhabitants are running out of time.

    The entire premise of American Exceptionalism seems to based in and grown out of the belief of Manifest Destiny as some guiding power provided by in the case of the U.S. God. The Christian God of course.

    I would remind everyone that the two party system has never in my opinion been successful at separating the church and the state.

    I see responding to the story here by Mr. Hockenos as an opportunity expand on the bogus theory of Manifest Destiny and remind anyone interested that U.S. alignment with Israeli policies is needed more by Israel than the alignment will ever aid the U.S. a relationship that fed the superstitious belief in supernatural powers.

    Unless that is you are a true believing Zionist. This relationship has been perverted well beyond any true benefit to the world at large. In fact with respect to nuclear weapons the relationship has been disastrous world wide peaceful relationships.

    Talk to any true believing Christian and you will learn their way and only their was is the only acceptable way to live. The rest of the world be damned. Literally!

    It is my firmest belief that the Christian – Judeo zero tolerance of others is a cancer destroying both. I’m simply in favor of their beliefs not leading to the end of the rest of us.

    See the U. S. of A. endless wars campaign and the policies associated with such madness.

    Thanks to CN PEACE

    • February 3, 2021 at 22:37

      hI hope the Libertarians and Green Party replaces the Republicans. One way or another change will come.

      • Lois Gagnon
        February 4, 2021 at 10:14

        I’m working on the Green Party half of that, but we need more people to do the work. The duopoly is pulling out all the stops to prevent us from running candidates. The corporate media being inextricably linked to the corporate state does the dirty work of repeating smear campaigns against our most successful candidates to turn people against us. Please get involved if you want us to succeed.


  3. Carl Zaisser
    February 3, 2021 at 14:13

    Since Jake Sullivan is now the National Security Advisor, has in the past wielded influence with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, and if tales of how well-respected he is inside Washington foreign policy circles may bode well for his future being around the scene for a long time, it would do well to understand how he himself ‘waters down’ the idea of American exceptionalism. His smoke and mirrors exposition of it removes the ‘high bar’ we usually think of when attacking American exceptionalism as a policy version of “We’re number one!” chants we typically associate with it. And, it serves to get people like Sullivan ‘off the hook’, since he can always say that American exceptionalism and ‘We’re number one’ really have nothing in common anyway. He goes into this in detail in an interview he did with The New Yorker some time back:

    hXXps:// Here is the first paragraph only of his exposition of the term; the rest is worth taking a look at so that we ‘know our enemy’: “The best view of American exceptionalism, from my perspective, is not that America is better than other countries—not America, love it or leave it, but America, warts and all. The notion that the United States has unique and distinctive attributes and capacities that really do distinguish us from any previous power in history and any potential future power—that allow us not only to deliver for the American people but to also contribute to the greater global common interest.”

  4. KiwiAntz
    February 2, 2021 at 19:30

    American Exceptionalism is just a figment of the American imagination, a sorry oxymoron to describe a Nation that deludes itself into thinking its superior to other Nations? The Coronavirus Pandemic has exposed the fallacy & falsehood of this Exceptionalism delusion! Umair Haque wrote a brilliant article called “I don’t want to be Negative but America really is screwed”? The Article goes into great detail about the reasons why America is really, by every measurable fact, a Failed State & not exceptional in any way & why that decline is probably irreversible! Using the Hofstede Index as a guide, America’s Individualism or “I” mentality over other Nations “We” Collectivism mentality explains why it has failed miserably to provide decent Healthcare & other things that other First World Nations provide & which their Citizens take for granted? The much touted & often quoted US Constitution is another farce, drafted by rich, slave owning white men, it has racism written into it & when it opens with “We the People” , what a joke? It should have been written as “I, the Person? Trump highjacked Reagans Campaign pledge, Make America Great again but when was it ever Great or Exceptional? Only in its own delusional Imagination & never rooted in the actual Reality!

  5. bardamu
    February 2, 2021 at 17:13

    Before we decide that the empire’s slimming, we ought to have a good look at the scales.

  6. michael888
    February 2, 2021 at 15:48

    Foreign policy will be turned back to 2016. There are lots of “National Emergencies” with Sanctions that are ripe to become Forever Wars with natural resources to plunder. There will be more coups– but like Honduras, they cannot be called coups– and more narco states. This has had bipartisan support since Reagan (Trump was incompetent). Even Biden could not be stupid enough to cut off oil-rich states (we as yet have no alternative) and he is scared of Israel.

    I’m much more concerned about the Patriot Act 2.0 and strengthening of our more sophisticated-than-Stasi Police State. (Again Trump was incompetent); Biden has the Establishment under him. Kiss the Bill of Rights goodbye.

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