BLOG POST | Waiting for a Renewed American Example

If American foreign policy—to say nothing of American civilization—is premised on the promotion of democracy abroad, Americans have long been at odds over how to get the job done. Two broad traditions cut across the ideological spectrum: in a 2005 paper, “Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” Jonathan Monten described how so-called vindicationists advocate the direct application of U.S. power abroad, whereas exemplarists call for the perfection of democracy at home and leadership by example. The history of American foreign policy can be read as a closely-matched tug of war between these tendencies, and our success as stewards of democracy hinges on a long-term equilibrium between the two.

Today, that equilibrium is in jeopardy. After a decade of vindicationist excess, Americans ought to restore balance by turning our energies inward to restore the domestic foundation of the American example. How can we satisfy our nationalist impulse to promote free-market liberalism when our markets are in chaos and our liberalism is uncertain? But because of a failure of leadership, this commonsense agenda has often been mistaken for isolationism, a retreat from the world. In fact, it is a necessary condition of our continued global engagement.

From the beginning, exemplarism was an inward-facing project with outward-facing consequences. “We shall be as a City upon a Hill,” said John Winthrop to his colonists. “The eyes of all people are upon us.” Then as now, the vitality and justice of the City had implications not just for its inhabitants but also for the great mass of humanity who stood to learn from its example. Though Washington’s farewell address later advised the young republic to avoid “the insidious wiles of foreign influence” and to refrain from permanent alliances with any other country, Americans knew and have known since Winthrop that American democracy has a global audience.

That said, example has not always been enough to safeguard democracy. Although the beginning of the 19th century necessitated the careful husbandry of the American experiment as it sought purchase on the continent and in history, the mid-20th century clearly demanded a shift in emphasis towards the armed defense of democratic values as the Soviet threat loomed large. Nor have exemplarism and vindication ever been fully distinct; even as the United States resisted Soviet encroachment all over the globe, the example of a comparatively free and prosperous America helped to sustain and motivate those trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

But over the past decade, our reputation as a “school of Hellas” has begun to crumble. China’s success as a non-democratic peer has ended our monopoly on global leadership. The financial crisis has raised pointed questions about the free-market model. Spillover from our sprawling, amorphous wars has done real damage to American civil liberties.[1] Now, if ever, is a time for a clear exemplarist message from American politicians and foreign policy figures.

Yet, somehow, American political discourse has lost the thread of exemplarism. Too often, advocates of a reprioritization of domestic issues are not internationally-minded at all but isolationists, heirs to a closely related but fundamentally different intellectual tradition. These figures have not articulated a compelling narrative about how our trenchant social, civil, and economic challenges merit response, not merely on their own merits, but also because they undermine America’s capacity to serve as the chief global representative of free-market liberal democracy.

Instead, the closest we have come to a high-profile attempt to address this idea was Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of the Brennan nomination, during which the Senator argued not that the national-security pathologies of the endless war on terror have tarnished America’s reputation as a champion of civil liberties, but instead that the feds will someday soon launch missile attacks against everyday Americans.[2] The speech was quickly tarnished by accusations of isolationism, a tendency that Paul shares with his father.[3]

The American foreign policy community would do well to articulate the exemplarist message first given voice by Winthrop. For now without an advocate, interested Americans can only turn to tomorrow’s leaders.

Andrew O’Shaughnessy is an alumnus of the University and Chicago and has worked for the Office of the Mayor in New York, NY as well as an education finance start-up. 

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