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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 12/13/08

Robert Kagan's Mythology of U.S. Exceptionalism

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Robert Kagan is a difficult subject to analyze. At times his writing seems to be very honest and directly critical of U.S. intentions as well as being clearly honest about the sometimes "dangerous nation" aspect of its history and foreign policy. Underlying it all however is his own patriotic blindness that ends up always supporting U.S. exceptionalism and uniqueness, always expressing the egocentric viewpoint that the U.S. is the indispensable nation. The U.S. is not indispensable.

Nor is it a bastion of "democratic capitalism" that is the only way forward from here, here being a point in renewed history--according to Kagan--in which there are either "democrats" or "autocrats." Kagan does not see in shades of gray--countries and politicians are either one or the other. His arguments, while seemingly coherent at certain points, tend to dissolve into self-contradiction, the main contradiction being the solid criticism that "what you do speaks so loud I can't hear what you say." For all that Kagan tries to present as the positives of the U.S., of the underlying good intentions of the U.S.--at the same time recognizing its sometimes hard handed methods of interfering in other countries--he really does not understand that perceptions built on those hard handed actions over-ride all the rhetoric and jingoism about the greatness and indispensability of the U.S. as the world's guide to a better world.

The huge contradictions between rhetoric and action should, in the critical analyst's mind, lead to the summation that it is what is done that truly represents the ideals of the country. And what is done by the U.S. has precious little to do with democracy and a whole lot to do with capitalism--precious little to do with true democracy from 'demos' (the people) and 'cracy' (power)--and much more to do with the power of the elites who control the people, whether they live in a relative free society or in a more authoritarian one.

My summary notes at the end of The Return of History indicate that Kagan's arguments are beguiling but essentially bi-polar and simplistic, providing a continuing rationale for an ongoing U.S. hegemonic role.[1]

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Initial reactions include critiques of the two main ideas of this elongated essay. The first obvious one being that capitalism is neither the main route to democracy nor the main route to freedom, and as has been currently witnessed by the global billions, is simply a set of opaque non-democratic structures that are used to garner wealth from the masses of workers and employees--and worse, the peasants and landless and labourers--and raise it to the upper echelons of the elite. In association with that, democracy remains undefined, as if it is universally obvious. While it would be nice if it were universally obvious, the manner in which the word is used by most U.S. administrations makes the word more of warning of U.S. negative intentions, rather than their supposed interest in the majority populace having an actual say in governance.

Democracy and capitalism within a superpower

Kagan starts his arguments with a recognition that the world is "normal again," that history did not end as postulated by Fukuyama--an idea that fully supported the jargon and rhetoric of U.S. exceptionalism, the "perfection of its institutions" and its indispensability. He is quite confident, and expresses it frequently through the work, that the U.S. remains the sole superpower, an argument based on....well, it's not defined. Again it is presumed to be understood.

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Does it matter that U.S. military technology is the most sophisticated (arguably--what do we really know about Chinese advances in technology?) when rag tag bands of militias can pin down the majority of active fighting forces in two desolate regions of the world (made desolate by ongoing imperial ambitions and occupation)? Does it matter that regardless of U.S. dominance in military and nuclear technology that other nations can just as readily inflict massive and catastrophic damage to the U.S. with their military and nuclear power? There will be no winners in another world war that is without limits. Does it matter that the U.S. economy is built on a debt structure that is at the moment imploding on itself, while those of the elite who brought us to this position are the ones trying futilely to get us out of the mess? Does it matter that demographically the U.S. has one of the worst records of the developed nations in what are normally considered indicators of national well-being such as infant mortality rate, life span, poverty rates, income gaps....? Does it matter that the rest of the world has to continue to live with an arrogant egocentric nation whose rhetoric is far outweighed by its brutal tactics to remain in control? If that defines a superpower, then yes, the U.S. is the sole superpower.

The underlying theme is stated quite clearly near the beginning,

"Since democratic capitalism was the most successful model for developing societies, all societies would eventually choose that path."

 Problems immediately arise, as noted above, with "democratic capitalism," with its assumption as being a "successful model," and eventually for it being a "chosen" path. How much choice is there when democratic governments around the world have been overthrown with great regularity: the Cuban freedom fighters and the Philippino freedom fighters were sidelined by the U.S. military after the Spanish-American war[2]; the democratic government of Mossadegh was overthrown by joint manipulations of the CIA and British intelligence; the Italian and Greek popular movements towards social democracy were subverted; the Vietnam war would never have happened if the U.S. had allowed for a democratic vote sponsored by the UN on the joining of North and South Vietnam; most of the democratic governments of Central America faced subversion and interference from CIA and other U.S. sponsored operatives, from Nicaragua and Guatemala through Allende's overthrow and Pinochet's reign of disappearances in Chile. While democracy withers on the vine in most areas of U.S. intervention (or survives in spite of it after millions of people in opposition to the elites are murdered by death squads, government operatives, or direct U.S. military action), the U.S. pours massive amounts of manure into areas that it sees as "strategic interests."

The U.S. has supported some notable "autocrats" in its own endeavours to secure resources and markets for its corporate partners. Currently in the Middle East alone, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are bought off with massive aid programs and petrodollar purchases of military goods that are essentially useless. U.S. military forces remain in Iraq regardless of the democratic wishes of the majority of the people who never wanted them there in the first place, who never hosted terrorists and only had the misfortune of living on huge pools of oil. Autocrats under the U.S. influence are frequent, ranging from Syngman Rhee (Korea), Suharto (Indonesia), Pinochet (Chile), Reza Pahlevi (Iran), to the current crop in Afghanistan, Iraq and the other Middle East countries listed above.

At the centre of Middle East non-democracies is the state of Israel--while self-proclaiming its democratic nature, it holds millions of Palestinians subject to harsh and internationally illegal treatment in various bantustan style regions. Several other factors play an important role here. The first is the unequivocal support of the U.S. for Israeli policy, a U.S. foreign policy destined to continue under Barak Obama. Secondly, the U.S. supports Israel with more than $3 billion in aid money per annum, allowing it to succeed financially while maintaining an ever-tightening noose around the collective Palestinian neck. Finally, after the fully democratic elections in which Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian government, the election was denied by the U.S., Canada, and most European countries as invalid because Hamas was described as a terrorist organization. Government terror does not really bother the U.S. as they use it frequently themselves (think of carpet bombing, torture, extradition, cluster bombs, chemical weapons), while tending to ignore it when it occurs in countries where they either have no interest, or countries where a subservient government follows the accepted line.

So far, not much "choice" and not much democracy. As for capitalism, it does not require democracy to flourish--rather it tends to limit democracy to the elites capable of hanging onto power by using their wealth and power to pervert or subjugate a real democratic process. "Finance capitalism" has a requirement for cheap politically ineffectual labour, has a requirement that many people are poor to produce wealth that others gather to themselves--and most obviously currently--has a requirement that the masses indebt themselves to the corporate wealthy, who in turn seek succour from their buddies in government when times get rough. If the people truly had power, there would be a much more equitable distribution of wealth, much more in the way of services provided for the people, and more than likely, much more in the way of peaceful fair trade globalization initiatives which accounted for the environment, workers conditions, and care of the citizens of the producing countries.

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These arguments critique the basic underlying thesis of Kagan's writing. If correct they essentially nullify all of Kagan's supporting arguments but within his writings there are other perceptions and statements that are interesting to look at.


In his arguments on autocracy Kagan discusses the resurgence of "nationalism," an idea that never disappeared in the first place and was only wishfully denied existence within the false concept of the end of history that Kagan bought into.

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A long time student/critic/analyst of the American empire and all that entails, having initially focused on Palestine with many articles submitted to Palestine Chronicle. Since then, other global websites have distributed the reviews and (more...)

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