The spirit of Manifest DestinyCharles de Gaulle liked to say that a statesman should not be a demandeur;
always asking for favours, but rather be in a position to say no. He
knew what he was talking about, having had to do a lot of asking in
France’s desperate years
after the fall of 1940, and having got a good deal of mileage out of
saying no – or rather an emphatic non
– when the tables turned.

The fortieth anniversary of de Gaulle’s death fell on 9 November
2010, with his embattled
successor Nicolas Sarkozy leading
the commemorations – and perhaps seeking inspiration – at
Colombey-les-deux-Églises. But the old general came to mind this week
for another reason: the sight of two other contemporary heads of state
and government in a posture of virtual supplication towards their
overseas counterparts and sometime subordinates.

The first was Barack Obama, fresh from a drubbing in the United
States’s mid-term elections
on 2 November, whose trip to India (part of a ten-day tour of
Asian countries, the longest of his presidency) in the company of more
than 200 business leaders had the core purpose of seeking his hosts’
help in energising the American economy. The second was Britain’s prime
David Cameron, who took a sizeable squad of captains of
industry to Beijing in pursuit
of an increased share of China’s new riches.

In a world of shifting geopolitics where Asian economies are setting
the pace, the heirs of once-mighty lone superpowers and proud empires on
which the sun never set have little choice but to drum
for export share, foreign investment, and thus much-needed jobs. Such
high-profile foreign visits can also serve the purpose of projecting
an image of effective leadership at a time when (as currently in
Obama’s case, if less so in Cameron’s) a leader’s domestic agenda is
stymied and/or political opposition rising.

True, foreign interlocutors can be at least as recalcitrant as local
adversaries. But a visiting statesman can at least seem to be
achieving something, from the signing of treaties or contracts to (at
the very least) photo-ops in emblematic locations. The problem, all too
frequently, is that such appearances are hard to translate into domestic
political goals. And this is an even tougher sell for a 21-st century
American president
charged with leading a country caught between different versions of its
global role.

The work of history

The gap between what Barack Obama’s administration needs most from
India and China and what his hosts are able to deliver illustrates the
point. In New Delhi, this is the abandonment of a policy (“cold start”)
towards Pakistan whose very existence
the Indians do not admit and which the Americans do not dare to raise
for fear of appearing as an advocate for Pakistan. It prescribes
India’s readiness to keep large forces close to their border with
Pakistan, ready if needed for instant attack. Pakistan insists that this
threat prevents it from comprehensively focusing
on the defeat of jihadis in its tribal territories.

In Beijing, the longstanding American policy goal
of a revision of the value of the renminbi in order to improve
the market for US exports is similarly out of reach, as are broader
political prizes such as significant shifts over human
and democracy.

The results of the mid-term elections, in which control of the House
of Representatives passed to the Republicans and in which the populist Tea
Party movement
made important (if limited) gains, are not
responsible for the gap. But they do make Obama’s foreign-policy aims,
in Asia and elsewhere, even harder to achieve.

The new order in Congress, where the Republican infusion includes
many uncritical supporters of Israel, means that Obama’s search for a
peace agreement in the middle
on his terms is now (if it was not before) doomed. It greatly
diminishes the prospects for successful arms-control
negotiations with Russia, one area where the Obama administration could
claim some success. It makes more remote the likelihood of Iran’s government
offering real concessions over Tehran’s nuclear programme. And it makes
Washington’s (and particularly Hillary
) dream of making the United States the leader of an
Asia-Pacific bloc look even less realistic.

All these specific foreign-policy frustrations might in other
circumstances reflect the normal ups and downs of international
diplomacy. But the US’s current travails
in the global arena suggest something deeper: an underlying
intellectual failure of American political ideas to accommodate major
changes in the country’s real place in the world.

The state of history

The liberal journalist Michael
expresses the point well. “The theory”, Kinsley writes,
“that Americans are better than everybody else is endorsed by an
overwhelming majority of U.S. voters and approximately 100 percent of
all U.S. politicians, although there is less and less evidence to
support it. A recent Yahoo poll . . . found that 75 percent of Americans
believe that the United States is ‘the greatest country in the world’”.

Kinsley goes on to admit that he does not share this near-universal
belief in American exceptionalism. But the mid-term elections have drawn
an even sharper line
on this issue. Those who share Kinsley’s scepticism are indeed a
minority, and Republicans are aggressive in pushing
their conviction that the United States’s historic destiny is to
propagate its beliefs to the world.

Listen to congresswoman Nan
, newly elected in New York State with Tea Party support.
“Are we perfect?”, she asks,
using the latest public-relations trope. “No. But we are the greatest
nation ever to exist. I do believe in American exceptionalism with all
my heart, and that’s why I ran, because American exceptionalism comes
from free enterprise.”

Listen to congressman Mike
of Indiana, whom many foresee as a Republican candidate for
president in 2012. “We will work to re-establish American exceptionalism
rather than denying or apologising for it”, he says.

Listen to Grover Norquist, influential Republican guru. “Europeans,
and especially Brits”, he told openDemocracy at a time
of earlier debate
on America’s role in the world, in mid-2004, “tend to think of America
as Europe-West, as part of ‘Western Civilisation‘. We are not. America
is the successor to the European civilisation, not its extension. . . .
Europe is where and what many of our ancestors left. On purpose.”

Listen, indeed, to Barack Obama. He was asked in April 2009 whether
he believed in American exceptionalism. His lengthy reply began:
“I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect the Brits
believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek
exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country’s role and history in
the world…” That segment of the response at least was something of a
glib rhetorical evasion. Britons and Greeks may rightly be proud of
their national achievements. But such pride is not exceptionalist. It
does not contain the idea that Britain or Greece has a living desire to
persuade, or coerce, the world to adopt its system and its values.

That litany helps explain why this is a moment of great significance,
and danger, for the world. The United States is, indeed, the “lone
superpower”, in the sense that it has for decades spent more on
“defence” than all other nations put together. As a result, it has
literally irresistible military might. But this might, given the
prevailing political confusion, does not allow
it to attain its goals. The streets of Baghdad cannot be policed with
aircraft-carriers, nor airline security be guaranteed by nuclear

At the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, it
was tempting to think that American military power could be used to
fulfil a neo-Wilsonian dream of “manifest destiny”. The Iraq and
Afghanistan wars have shown that nuclear-missiles and aircraft-carriers
cannot achieve the exceptionalist goals of American politicians. The
non-American majority in the world now understands that such goals are
unattainable. But the Republican, “red” component of a bitterly polarised
American electorate still believes that American strength can and
should be used to reinforce missionary projects that disseminate an
American ideology.

The resulting chasm is both one of perception between (many)
Americans and (most) non-Americans, but also one between many Americans’
view of their country’s position in the world and the realities of the
matter. In a world of car-bombs
and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), of globalisation and wage
competition, of asymmetrical
campaigns and multipolar relationships, of transforming identities and
rising ambitions, Americans have as yet understood even less than their
fellow westerners the emerging
strength of the weak and the weakness of the strong.

That is – still, just – a medium-to-long-term danger. The immediate
problem is that President Obama seems to half-share, half-reject the missionary
project. His campaigning oratory and visionary promise in 2007-08 led
him to be seen as the architect of a new national purpose beyond the
degraded neo-conservatism
of the Project for a New American Century. That ensured the almost
universal welcome
of his election victory in November 2008. Two years on, there have been
achievements both domestic and foreign, and Obama is no George W Bush
(as the latter’s unashamed defence
of “waterboarding” alone confirms); but he is still talking
about victory in Afghanistan, he has not been able to close Guantànamo,
and the arc of the “long war” is again on a rising curve. 

The end times

The spectacle of Obama and his caravan of super-salesmen makes those
brilliant speeches of his, and the hopes and expectations they raised,
look very distant. Obama, it is now clear, is instinctively both
pacific-liberal and centrist-pragmatic. His brilliant
can still finesse, but cannot resolve, the practical
contradictions (not least in foreign policy) that these variable
instincts entail.

Americans can still refer to their president as “the leader of the
free world”, although he is elected by well under 4% of the world’s
population (thus even less of its free citizens). Yet the “red” half at
least of the American political spectrum believes that the United States
has a God-given destiny
to supersede not just Europe but every other centre of power: to chart
the course for the world, notwithstanding that ever fewer of its
inhabitants ask or want the United States to play the role of “great
helmsman”. American politics and foreign policy increasingly turn on the
issue of exceptionalism, and the exceptionalists are winning the argument
– at the very moment when the United States cannot sustain
any such exceptional role. This is a crisis for everyone.

Republicans, both the Tea Party kind and the traditional elites, find
it unbearable that the United States can neither do whatever it wants
nor secure the ready consent of others to its will. The Indians and the
Chinese, let alone the Indonesians and the Koreans, are no more likely
to contribute to American “burden-sharing” than the despised
Europeans. There is no hegemony in the multipolar
world, it might be said, without – or even with – representation.

John F Kennedy declared in his inaugural
on 20 January 1961 that Americans would pay any price to
ensure the survival of freedom. He was too good a politician to say they
would pay any taxes to that end. A half-century on, a time may
be coming when even Republicans, like others before them, will have to
choose between lower taxes and lower ambitions. Whichever they choose,
the age of exceptionalism is over.