Monday, January 9, 2012

What Does That Mean?

I'll be teaching American Foreign Policy again this semester for the first time in a few years.  And though I've already decided not to use any textbooks, I'm looking through some of the ones that publishers have sent me, and fighting the urge to vomit.

Am I teaching political science, or some mix of high school civics, diplomatic history, and current events?

Of course, that's the poli sci textbook market in general.  Nothing unique to AFP.  The one thing I am finding that resonates through most AFP texts that I don't find in other undergrad texts (at least in IR -- I can't speak for American politics) is the emphasis on American exceptionalism.  It's not just a topic most feel the need to cover, which would be perfectly understandable.  Rather, it seems that most texts on the market have a lurking, implicit assumption in favor of American exceptionalism.

And the more I think about it, the more I find that I'm not even entirely sure what the word means.

Of course, when I say that I don't know what it means, I don't mean to feign utter ignorance.  What I mean is that the word seems to mean at least three different things.  If we could disentangle the different meanings, maybe we could have a real conversation about how appropriate is for our textbooks to be pushing them on our students.  We might, perhaps, decide that students out to be exposed to all of the component ideas, but that our textbooks should implicitly assume the inherent correctness of each of those ideas.  Or maybe we'd drop some entirely.  I don't know.  But I'm pretty sure it's doing our students a disservice to fail to distinguish between the different components.

So what are the different component ideas to which I'm referring?

First, there is the historical/sociological argument that the United States is unique because it was "conceived in liberty", embodies a frontier spirit, and to this day defines itself by its ideals rather than ethnolinguistic nationalistic identity.

Second, there is the view that the US occupies a unique position in the international system currently, and as such, is best positioned to provide global public goods like fostering a system of open economic exchange, keeping sea lanes open and safe from threats posed by piracy or rogue states, combating transnational terrorism, combating nuclear proliferation, etc.

Third, there is the view that the US is destined to lead the world towards liberty and democracy.

My guess is that, if you surveyed IR scholars, you'd find that a pretty large number agree with number two.  And not just as a matter of ideology.  A number of well-developed theories of international cooperation emphasize that global public goods are best provided by the system leader.  The thing here, though, is that there is nothing mystical or magical or unique about the US.  This isn't about destiny.  Historically, Great Britain played a similar role.  In the future, China, or India, or a United Europe, or who knows who else, may possibly play the same role.  At this moment in history, it just so happens that the US has greater military, economic, and institutional capabilities to play such a role.  But that's all.  I have no particular objection to our textbooks teaching this argument.  But I strongly prefer that they use slightly more objective language in so doing, that they point out that what is exceptional about the US is its capabilities.  One need make no moral presumption about the quality of the character of its people to believe this argument.

The first, on its face, does not appear to be pulling at anyone's heartstrings.  It walks and talks like sensible scholarship.  But I have serious doubts about it.  First of all, while it may be true that the modal form of nationalism is based on ethnolinguistic identity, it is not true that the United States is the only state that exhibits what some scholars refer to as civic nationalism.  So, uh, where's the exception?

For that matter, one might take issue with the idea that nationalism in the US is defined solely in terms of commitment to certain principles.  Most politicians are careful to stick to such language, and perhaps that's what matters.  But there seem to be significant elements of the US public (including some of the intelligentsia) who feel that you ain't American if you ain't white, mono-lingual, God-fearing, and preferably Protestant.  Whether the legacy of the frontier explains why Americans have a different attitude towards guns and individualism and all sorts of other cultural matters than are typically found in the OECD I'll leave to the sociologists and people who actually care about those things.  But at minimum, I find it problematic to claim that the US is different from all other states (that is what exceptionalism is all about, right?) because it rejects identity politics and embraces all those who share its liberal values.  Sorry, but I've got to call bullshit on that.

Finally, while religious leaders and talk radio hosts have every right to promote the notion that the US has a destiny to do this, that, or the other thing, for the life of me, I can't see how that has any place in an undergraduate textbook in a discipline that is attempting to be objective and scientific.  I won't claim to know that it is not the US's destiny to bring freedom to the world...but I'll be damned if I'm going to stand in the front of the room, with the full weight and authority of my position behind me (which I sometimes deride, but let's not kid ourselves -- when the people with PhDs behave as if any idea deserves credence, impressionable youths take notice), and tell them that it does.

One might even go so far as to say that we have an obligation to point out to our students how frequently the US has behaved in an entirely unexceptional matter.  Has behaved as though, just like every other state out there, it is willing to compromise its principles when it believes doing so serves the national interest.  Or when specific politicians believe that it will advance their individual careers.  And that is indeed how I teach my classes.  But even if we don't go that far, we could at least try to be a little more neutral, no?

Now, I should also say that there are some very good textbooks out there already.  For example, there is this laudable text by James Lee Ray.  There are various reasons I chose not to use Ray's text, but a subtle endorsement of American exceptionalism isn't one of them.  I don't mean to suggest that I'm under the impression that there are no alternatives.  I'm just bemoaning the fact that there are so few of them.  And that so many students across the country are enrolled in courses in which the instructor has adopted a textbook that advocates American exceptionalism.  And, most of all, the fact that most of those textbooks probably do not even mean to endorse all the different connotations of that term.  Our students are so used to hearing it thrown around by people who use it in an almost mystical sense that I think we ought not even use the term at all if we're not willing to step back and discuss what exactly we mean, and what we don't mean, by it.


  1. I agree with a lot of this post, though I have not had occasion to survey the available AFP texts. If they are subtly endorsing American exceptionalism, that's not good.

    I would add one historical note: American exceptionalism can be seen as one variety of national exceptionalisms, notions of the distinctive missions of particular 'peoples' or 'civilizations'. A lot of this is bound up w/ the era of formal imperialism. Thus France (which btw also has a strong 'civic' element in its nationalist tradition) had its mission civilisatrice, the US had its 'manifest destiny' and then its (in McDougall's words) "sense of secular and religious mission" which fueled late 19th c. imperial expansion, and Victorian Britain had a similar sense of its spreading the benefits of its institutions to its (in Kipling's patronizing words, actually written w/r/t to the US in the Philippines but often applied to Britain) "new-caught sullen peoples, half devil and half child...."

    In short, American exceptionalism to be intelligible should be put in historical context. Which is one reason why even political scientists not esp. historically oriented shd try to teach USFP partly from a historical p.o.v. Not that I wd dare to tell you how to do your job or anything... :-)

  2. Good point about the link with imperialism, LFC.

    The first time I taught AFP, I included a historical section. Didn't work well. I think it needs to be done well to be worth doing, and that's hard to do without dedicating a lot of time to it. Sometimes I think there should be a 3 course sequence on AFP, so I don't have to try to cram everything in to one semester...