Exceptionalism, Imperialism, and the Necessity of “Closed Systems”

by E.C. Gach

In early November, J.L. Wall addressed the recent Republican talking point over American exceptionalism by unpacking the following quote from President Obama:

“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

J.L. argued persuasively that while many conservatives balked at being included in a continuum of past nations, Greece and Britain are not shabby companions in the halls of history:

“Sure, Britain’s empire is gone and Greece’s economy and politics are a shambles.  But Obama, I suspect, was hinting at something entirely different, that requires giving the list of nations more than a cursory look.

“Greece is the nation that gave us Plato, Aristotle, and gave birth to what we know as Western culture.  (We won’t be getting into the messy questions of “what is Greece?”/”who is Greek?” here.)  Britain is not only the nation which was home to the political theorists and philosophers from whom the deified Founders drew inspiration, and is not only a nation which illustrated the transition from monarchy to democracy, but it also, at the height of its empire, saw itself as the heir to a mantle which had previously belonged to Greece and Rome.”

Indeed, the political philosophy handed down through the Greco-Roman tradition and distilled by 18th centrury British enlightenment (as well as everything in between) is clearly present in the founding of the United States of America and its continuing institutions.  Bits and pieces of our nation’s ideals, virtues, and principles can be traced throughout the entirety of the “Western” tradition, though they never so uniquely united before the U.S.  And just as the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, much of our legal and political heritage is directly borrowed from the British even as the nation fought bloodily against them.  Thus while we are different from and greater than the sum of these parts, the U.S. does not lie outside the historical timeline, and certainly not at the center of it.  I couldn’t agree more with J.L.’s dismissal of appeals to an American-centric progression of history.

And E.D. Kain focused in on this very point in a follow up post, writing:

“Placing American greatness within its proper historical context is necessary both in order to understand what makes America truly great, but also to understand our flaws as a nation and a people…I see the inability to grasp this as symptomatic of a larger trend of anti-historicism on the right, of which American exceptionalism bereft of historical context is only one small part.”

E.D. went on to argue:

“The trick with closed information systems is that they need to be constantly protected from outside contamination (inconvenient facts, hard questions, etc.). (In this sense, Sarah Palin can be seen as almost the embodiment or avatar of the closed information system, furiously impervious to reality.)”

And so the groundwork is laid.  Exceptionalism is a temporal quality.  Great nations come and go, with the future ones borrowing from the past ones, picking up the mantel of their predecessors, as J.L. notes, to continue a certain tradition.  Restoring, reshaping, and recasting it anew within and in response to a given context, located along an historical continuum.  Ours is a uniquely Western one, and an imperial one at that.  And this, I feel, is central to the symptom that J.L. detected and E.D. attempted to diagnose.

Greece and Britain are impressive company to keep, but also infamous.  At their height, both were remarkable in the Western tradition for their military prowess, cultural hegemony, and imperial enterprises.  And the main proposition I will put forth here, to build on the “closed systems” idea, is that to continue the mantle of Western values, and the imperial project that safeguards it, necessitates some sort of a closed belief system.  E.D. noted Sarah Palin.  I would add Plato.

Ascribing anything to Plato is dangerous.  But I’ll offer one reading him, simplistic and rushed, as an illustration of my broader point.  Plato grew up in an Athens that was fading.  Its most glorious days behind it, the city had been ind decline since some time before the Peloponnesian War.  In that war, divided and incompetent, the great imperial city fell to the much more organized Spartans.  What had been Athen’s undoing?  According to this Plato, the people had lost sight of Truth.  “The Sophists” had planted the idea in people’s heads that, in all things, Man was the measure.  Truth was subjective, if it existed at all.  The Agora devolved from a forum for serious dialectic, centered around resolute principles, to a whore house, where speeches were bought and sold as the Sophists prostituted their quick minds and mislead their listeners with double speak.

The Spartans on the other hand, were simple and concise.  They weren’t interested in how things might appear, but in how they were.  They had a closed system, if not a very thoughtful one.  Plato understood this.  He set his theory of forms in motion.  An idealism fixed and timeless.  Not becoming, but being.  A closed system from which the Western tradition he gave birth to would constantly struggle to break back out of.

The above is too neat and tidy.  Perhaps none of it is even close to true.  But it at least seems believable to me.  And I think it highlights an important connection between imperialism and its need for closed systems.  How else to gain legitimacy?  How do you navigate a post-modern world in which truth, reality, legitimacy, are all constantly under siege from pragmatism, skepticism, and multiculturalism?  And of course, globalization has accelerated this encroachment in recent decades.

How do you station troops everywhere in the world, carry out covert missions, and ignore self-determinism and state sovereignty on the world stage without accounting for it?  And as much as it might  make you a Hobbsian bad-ass to admit it’s all just self-interest and walk away, such an admission is self-defeating.  You’d only be exchanging the epistemic lawlessness of post-modernism for the equally lawless state of nature.  It’s a real bind, the only way out of which, for me at least, seems to be a massive de-militarization and de-imperialization of our foreign policy.

And this is where I see conservatives and liberals, domestic policy and international politics, fundamentally opposed.  Conservatives realize the inability of marrying rudderless technocracy, that is, a pragmatic “whatever works” approach that lacks firm grounding in principles and values, with liberal imperialism.  I propose that our foreign policy requires a closed system.  Whether you like it or not, we are an imperial nation mired in every piece of business in every part of the world.  And as a result we are now threatened by various ideological groups who really do pose a massive (or less massive) danger.  Unfortunately I don’t know what liberals have to offer in the way of combating this threat, despite being extremely meticulous in describing its origins.  And the very American exceptionalism that legitimizes the country’s power to police these groups makes liberals’ stomachs turn.  What answer can they offer instead?  Perhaps a Euro-merican exceptionalism.  A re-dressing of the the U.S.’s “Western mantle” in more PC terms.  Thus liberals, as unable as conservatives to let go of American exceptionalism, become as equally bogged down by the closed-system from which it is derived in the sphere of domestic policy.  This is maybe one explanation for why the two parties seem so similar to many people.  Both are beholden to the same imperial machine fueled by the same mythological narrative.

I’m not sure what can be done about it.  And I’m curious if anyone even sees the problem as I do, or even that there is some problem more fundamental than any one particular issue (education, taxes, civil liberties).  For me, the following line from Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War has always been the most striking (Pericles speaking of Athens in Book II):

Again, your country has a right to your services in sustaining the glories of her position. These are a common source of pride to you all, and you cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honours. You should remember also that what you are fighting against is not merely slavery as an exchange for independence, but also loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise. Besides, to recede is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamoured of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe. And men of these retiring views, making converts of others, would quickly ruin a state; indeed the result would be the same if they could live independent by themselves; for the retiring and unambitious are never secure without vigorous protectors at their side; in fine, such qualities are useless to an imperial city, though they may help a dependency to an unmolested servitude.

In a comment on J.L.’s original post, Richard Thomas noted:

“The purpose of the intrusion is however to suggest a possible paradox as seen by an outsider in that those who talk loudest about exceptionalism in many cases also preach doctrines which, taken literally, will have a deleterious effect on the life of your country. I refer to such matters as the denial of global warming, the creationism, the degradation of your education system…”

To slightly rephrase that paradox, how does the U.S. retain the legitimacy of its imperial enterprises, bestowed by “closed system” narratives like American exceptionalism, without as a result, being unable to cope with the domestic problems that threaten the economic and social resources on which its imperial power and exceptionalism are based?

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80 thoughts on “Exceptionalism, Imperialism, and the Necessity of “Closed Systems”

  1. “To slightly rephrase that paradox, how does the U.S. retain the legitimacy of its imperial enterprises, bestowed by “closed system” narratives like American exceptionalism, without as a result, being unable to cope with the domestic problems that threaten the economic and social resources on which its imperial power and exceptionalism are based?

    How indeed.

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  2. “What answer can they offer instead? Perhaps a Euro-merican exceptionalism. A re-dressing of the the U.S.’s “Western mantle” in more PC terms.”

    “Take up the metrosexual post-colonial college-educated man’s burden”, you’re suggesting?

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  3. “To slightly rephrase that paradox, how does the U.S. retain the legitimacy of its imperial enterprises, bestowed by “closed system” narratives like American exceptionalism, without as a result, being unable to cope with the domestic problems that threaten the economic and social resources on which its imperial power and exceptionalism are based?”

    It can’t. In order to survive, we’ll have to adopt a foreign policy of non-intervention. We need a reduction of political involvement and an increase in economic involvement. For America to survive the empirical curse, the concept of empire will have to be relegated to the vault of history, replaced by global free trade, cultural exchange and peace among nations. Yes, there will always be regional, internal conflicts, but hopefully we have advanced beyond World Wars among major powers. I hope when we move past Afghanistan and Iraq, that we adopt the non-intervention policy and use our military only when our nation has been attacked or threatened with imminent attack — or in the case of genocide in some country or region that goes beyond separate national concerns and becomes a humanitarian concern.

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        • Heck, my personal favorite time-travel scenario is to go kill Kaiser Wilhelm II. Forget Hitler. Kaiser Bill’s toy-soldiers and play-navy obsessions were responsible for the arms races that let WWI occur, and if that hadn’t happened then Hitler would have been a struggling artist and beer-hall punk.

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      • That’s quite a twist on history. It could be said our involvement and complicity in screwing Germany in the treaty, against Keynes advice for an econoic solution, led to WWII.

        WWI was all Europe’s doing. Everyone wanted an empire, which causes a big problem when there’s no agreement over who’s doing the ruling and who’s marching to the orders.

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      • “Wilson’s “nonintervention at any price” policy kept World War I going for about twice as long as it ought to have, and may well have contributed to it starting in the first place”

        That’s only in an alternate universe where the US had a very large expeditionary force (at a guess far larger than any sent outside CONUS before), the logistics to intervene in a large industrialized European land war, and eagerness to use it.

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        • Late reply–bored at work, doing some Google mining.

          While we didn’t have a huge ground-force army before raising the expeditionary force, the United States Navy was a respected and powerful force.

          World War One started (and continued) because both sides thought that they were equally matched. As long as Germany had only England to fight, they thought that they could win. If they’d expected that a war would be against both England and America, they would have told the Austrians to get lost.

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    • “use our military only when our nation has been attacked or threatened with imminent attack”

      I agree MFarmer, but it seems like the hard part is defining when things are at the level of threatening or imminent attack. Most policy hawks like to cite Munich and the damage ensuing from appeasing Hitler as an example of how even the most benign events can be potentially devastating.

      So for instance, looking at China’s military build up (as slow and small in comparison to the U.S. as it is) and the potential for Russian aggression where would you place them on the threat scale?

      Especially since we now know that NATO is taking steps to protect the Balkan states from possible aggression.

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      • In trying to get a Libertarian’s view on this, would do you regard threats as such if they are to our “interests” or only if they are to the “homeland”?

        And what would tip the scale? For instance, would the threat from a rogue Pakistan taken over by Islamic extremists constitute a threat? Or would it not be imminent enough, and if not when does something become imminent?

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          • In self defense. But, like I said, if an unusual situation occured in a region or nation where genocide was taking place and no neighboring nation was coming to the defense of innocent people, a very good case could be made for using the US military to stop the slaughter. But this decsion would be made in the context of a doctrine of non-intervention, so it wouldn’t be made lightly – there would have to be an overriding moral reason, with no other options. In a more sane world, there could be NGOs which could deal effectively with these regional issues, but that would be in a sane world.

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              • If it was possible to be certain that an attack was imminent. I believe in today’s world, we would know with certainty if a country was preparing to attack us. You seem to be trying to corner me into a situation where I would support, say, Iran becoming bombastic in rhetoric, but this would not be enough — they would have to be mobilizing and preparing for retaliation, things our intelligence could determine as definite warlike actions, and even then, there would be communications, Russia getting involved in talks, all that stuff. I just can’t envision a scenario where we’d be surprised attacked. 9/11 was a surprise terrorist attack, but as bad as it was for the individuals who died and their families and friends, it wasn’t a serious threat to our nation. I can’t envision a surprise attack from a nation that intended war.

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              • Sorry, didn’t mean to make it look like I was corning you into anything.

                I’m honestly curious how to draw the line myself. As someone who sees very little to ever be certain about in the world, and extremely non-interventionist myself, I agree with everything your saying.

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  4. You forgot to add, we are the only country world history to have fought a war to end slavery. We are also a country that has liberated hundreds of millions of enslaved peoples the world over not asking anything more from them than a place to bury our dead, noble, and brave soldiers. And since our birth, we have never collected a penny in taxes from a conquered country. Hey, we’re only 200+ years old. Do y0u have any doubt we would have our share of Platos, Ciceros, Ptolemys, if we were 3000 years old?

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    • The other countries didn’t fight a war to end slavery because they managed to do it earlier without igniting a war that consumed much of their citizens lives.

      I can’t see how thus makes us look better that we had to blow each other up to do it.

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  5. Hey H-man, there’s a lot to unpack in your comment–so I’ll start with the following:

    “You forgot to add, we are the only country world history to have fought a war to end slavery.”

    By “end slavery,” do you mean in the united states, end it the world over, or end it in some metaphysical sense.

    And how would you define “slavery” in that statement. And if you could, be more specific than one person owns another as their “property,” as another post at the League is demonstrating how complicated the concept of “property” alone is.

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  6. Will do EC–have to run now but will get back to you. And yes, I DO mean that we did fight a war in this country to end slavery. There are obviously a host of other reasons for why the the Civil War was fought but, at its core, I’d slavery was the most crucial reason.

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      • No. The South seceded to preserve slavery and the North fought the war to preserve the union. Why on earth anyone thinks this enhances the moral standing of the South is a mystery to me. Just because their opponents motives perhaps weren’t as praiseworthy as we’d like, doesn’t make their own any less vile.

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      • One does not have to believe that the North was covered in glory to believe that slavery was the most crucial reason for the Civil War. Let us be very clear: secession, especially from the perspective of those politicians who voted for it, was about the preservation of slavery, first and foremost. I commend to your attention the words, spoken on March 21, 1861, by the newly-elected Vice President of the CSA:

        “But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other – though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

        Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. “

        My emphasis. I can find other primary sources quite easily along these lines.

        Again, most in the North were not fighting to free the slaves, especially at the outset of the war – but certainly some were. The reason for the North’s invasion was quite transparently the secession, and perhaps the economic impact of permitting secession, but mostly not slavery. I go back and forth myself on whether secession alone warrants an act of war to put an end to it. What I do not go back and forth on is whether the North’s response to secession, particularly secession on such a wide scale, was entirely predictable. Nor do I go back and forth on why, exactly, the South seceded despite knowing the almost certain response. The South seceded because it believed slavery was worth fighting for and dying for and, ultimately, killing for. That the North may have responded aggressively for the less-than-worthy cause of preserving the makeup of a political entity and the economic benefits thereof does not change or excuse the fact that the South knew exactly what it was doing when it seceded, and exactly why it was doing it.

        It is little different from the circumstances surrounding our invasion of Iraq. Our casus belli was incredibly weak and indefensible, a fact that should be a mark of shame for us. But that doesn’t change the fact that Saddam knew full well what he was getting into with his intransigence, for which he was willing to risk hundreds of thousands of lives, including ultimately his own, to fight for. That intransigence was every bit as crucial a reason for the invasion as the indefensible casus belli.

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        • Mark:

          Funny how you turn this from a question of why did the North was fighting the war into a op-ed on how bad the South’s motives were in wanting to peacefully leave the union. If slavery was but one cause of the desire for succession, so what? It seems that you like others only want to focus on that one reason. Last time I checked, slavery was still legal in the US until the 13th amendment was ratified in 1865.

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          • That’s an interesting way of looking at things, certainly, but the 13th amendment only reflects the actions of the federal gov’t after the war. All of the states above the border states had made slavery illegal through their state constitutions by 1859, though. Certainly, one could argue that secession was about states’ rights, as long as one admits that one of those rights included the right to own another human (and I’m certain this point was already made elsewhere in this thread).

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            • If fighting slavery was all that important to the Federal gov’t then why did they wait until after the war was over to pass the 13th? Yes, many states had outlawed slavery but not all and those border states could have as easily kept up slavery after the war had it not been for the the 13th. However, the real point is that Lincoln refused to outlaw slavery while the war was going lest he lose the support of the border states or other parts of the population who would fight to presreve the Union but not to free the slaves.

              Yes one of the things the South fought for was the right to keep slaves but so what? It wasn’t the only reason why the states seceded but some people try and point to it as the only one. There was also the federal gov’ts refusal to enforce federal laws dealing with slavery and some provisions of the US Constitution. Additional reasons were gov’t spending as well as duties and tariffs on foreign goods to protect northern industries at the expense of the south which imported more goods than the north.

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              • “If fighting slavery was all that important to the Federal gov’t then why did they wait until after the war was over to pass the 13th?”

                You pretty much answered your own question, but I’ll go ahead and throw in. Mostly due to political reality. Passage of the 13th amendment before 1860 would have guaranteed southern secession, and anytime before the end of the war might have encouraged the border states to secede. What we got instead were the Compromises of 1820 and 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and the Dred Scott Decision, all in an effort to appease southern slave owners while limiting the spread of slavery. Freeing slaves wasn’t an objective until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and this executive order only covered those states still in rebellion as of 1 January 1863, and significantly did not free slaves held in the border states. Only after the south had been defeated was there enough political will to pass the 13th and make slavery illegal everywhere, and exactly for the reason you stated above: “…those border states could have as easily kept up slavery after the war had it not been for the the 13th.”

                I don’t think our positions are as far apart as they initially appeared, but I can’t help but get the impression that you’re trying to put lipstick on a pig by lumping slavery in as just another reason for the south to secede.

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                • I know I answered my own as it was to prove/show that slavery wasn’t why the North went to war. Clearly slavery took a back seat to “preserving the Union” and was not the main cause of the North’s decision to force the South back into the Union at gunpoint.

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          • Slavery was illegal in all of the Northern states by the time of the civil war and in most cases had been for a good long while. Slavery was not “one reason” for South’s desire to leave the union. It was the reason. If you want to defend slavery as an institution then go for it, but don’t pretend that the the South was doing anything other than protecting its landowners “right” to own people.

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                • Too bad you can’t bother yourself to read past the second sentence. I don’t usually humor lazy folks but I make an exception for you. About halfway down in the first paragraph

                  “The main reason was that the North, even if united, could not control both branches of the Legislature during any portion of that time. Therefore such an organization must have resulted either in utter failure or in the total overthrow of the Government. The material prosperity of the North was greatly dependent on the Federal Government; that of the the South not at all. In the first years of the Republic the navigating, commercial, and manufacturing interests of the North began to seek profit and aggrandizement at the expense of the agricultural interests. Even the owners of fishing smacks sought and obtained bounties for pursuing their own business (which yet continue), and $500,000 is now paid them annually out of the Treasury. The navigating interests begged for protection against foreign shipbuilders and against competition in the coasting trade. Congress granted both requests, and by prohibitory acts gave an absolute monopoly of this business to each of their interests, which they enjoy without diminution to this day. Not content with these great and unjust advantages, they have sought to throw the legitimate burden of their business as much as possible upon the public; they have succeeded in throwing the cost of light-houses, buoys, and the maintenance of their seamen upon the Treasury, and the Government now pays above $2,000,000 annually for the support of these objects. Theses interests, in connection with the commercial and manufacturing classes, have also succeeded, by means of subventions to mail steamers and the reduction in postage, in relieving their business from the payment of about $7,000,000 annually, throwing it upon the public Treasury under the name of postal deficiency. The manufacturing interests entered into the same struggle early, and has clamored steadily for Government bounties and special favors. This interest was confined mainly to the Eastern and Middle non-slave-holding States. Wielding these great States it held great power and influence, and its demands were in full proportion to its power. The manufacturers and miners wisely based their demands upon special facts and reasons rather than upon general principles, and thereby mollified much of the opposition of the opposing interest. They pleaded in their favor the infancy of their business in this country, the scarcity of labor and capital, the hostile legislation of other countries toward them, the great necessity of their fabrics in the time of war, and the necessity of high duties to pay the debt incurred in our war for independence. These reasons prevailed, and they received for many years enormous bounties by the general acquiescence of the whole country.

                  But when these reasons ceased they were no less clamorous for Government protection, but their clamors were less heeded– the country had put the principle of protection upon trial and condemned it. After having enjoyed protection to the extent of from 15 to 200 per cent. upon their entire business for above thirty years, the act of 1846 was passed. It avoided sudden change, but the principle was settled, and free trade, low duties, and economy in public expenditures was the verdict of the American people. The South and the Northwestern States sustained this policy. There was but small hope of its reversal; upon the direct issue, none at all. ”

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                  • I wondered if that little digression into conspiracy theory was what you were thinking of, since that short paragraph and half is the only thing in the whole document that isn’t quite specifically and definitely about slavery. That text has to be read in the context of the preceding sentences of the first paragraph and the paragraph that comes after it, since its clearly intended as part of a narrative and not to stand on its own. Those say:

                    “The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state. The question of slavery was the great difficulty in the way of the formation of the Constitution. While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slave-holding States of the original thirteen. The opposition to slavery was then, as now, general in those States and the Constitution was made with direct reference to that fact. But a distinct abolition party was not formed in the United States for more than half a century after the Government went into operation ….

                    [text quoted above]

                    All these classes saw this and felt it and cast about for new allies. The anti-slavery sentiment of the North offered the best chance for success. An anti-slavery party must necessarily look to the North alone for support, but a united North was now strong enough to control the Government in all of its departments, and a sectional party was therefore determined upon. Time and issues upon slavery were necessary to its completion and final triumph. The feeling of anti-slavery, which it was well known was very general among the people of the North, had been long dormant or passive; it needed only a question to arouse it into aggressive activity …”

                    So the quoted text is part of a narrative in which Northern commercial interests have seized upon slavery as an issue on which they can win elections in the North, and thereby gain control of the federal government to get what the they really want. It is not in fact being cited as a reason for secession in and of itself, but as part of an explanation for Republican opposition to slavery. We’re dealing once again with tendency of Confederate apologetics to ignore the South’s motives and instead try to explain away North’s opposition to slavery in order to blame the North for the war.

                    I’m quite happy to accept, for the sake of argument, that the North fought the war for whatever base motives you happen to wish to attribute to them. The South, however, fought it to protect the institution of slaver and not for any other reason.

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        • Oh, oh, oh, this is GOOD! Sorry, Mark- just found it- There’s a very odd order in how comments are posted here. Sometimes they veer off in different directions and later reappear where you would not expect them. I made the slavery reference, because far too often, everyone wants to sanctify the North’s intentions and absolve them of their very direct, complicit, and long role in sustaining slavery. It was the reluctance of France and other allies to at least not appear to back the use of force to enforce the BINDING UN Resolution 1441 that was the pretext to war and the main reason he thought force would never be used. He gambled and lost. The casus belli was not at all “weak”. At the time, it was almost unanimously agreed that his stockpiles anthrax and VX existed and more ominously, could not be accounted for–it was up to SH to prove, to the UN’s satisfaction, that these were to be destroyed which was to be done with UN supervision. He failed to comply and his failure was the reason for war. It wasn’t to finish “Daddy’s” war once and for all.

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        • “for us. But that doesn’t change the fact that Saddam knew full well what he was getting into with his intransigence, for which he was willing to risk hundreds of thousands of lives, including ultimately his own, to fight for. That intransigence was every bit as crucial a reason for the invasion as the indefensible casus belli.”

          Incorrect. Hans Blix (you know, the guy who was factually correct) stated that there was no obstruction of a practical nature.

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    • Yea, I mean, as H-man says, there may have been other reasons like the legitimacy of the Union and the Federal government as a binding institution, Northern industrial dependency on the raw materials of the agrarian South, but slavery was def the reason why a President who himself had said several times that Blacks could not be totally equal citizens went to war.

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        • No, he totally did. There’s a lot of great biographies come out recently on the man which point towards his complicated take on abolitionism.

          Plus I played Lincoln recently in a reenactment of the Lincol0n-Douglas debates. It was great watching people’s expressions as I uttered:

          “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough to me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the South.”

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    • Tom—HA! Better get your Kevlar vest on comrade–the libertarian(?) army will be coming you with all guns ablazin’. What I love about the libertarians–and I am somewhat of that persuasion myself on some issues–is, we can beat the hell out of each other and have great fun at the same time! No monolithical thinking, here.

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      • Well, of course, this (exceptional) Christian (Crusades) Empire (imperialists) will rule the earth forever!! Let’s all sing together, now! And God Bless terrorist-killing drones while we’re at it!

        Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
        with the cross of Jesus going on before.
        Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
        forward into battle see his banners go!

        Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
        with the cross of Jesus going on before.

        2.At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;
        on then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
        Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
        brothers, lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.

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  7. I think the key question here, and also in other threads about the US budget deficit, is how does the US step down from its current unipolar superpower status and leave the world a better place?

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    • Agreed. Fareed Zakaria positions this as the U.S. foreign policy’s top priority for the 21st century.

      If you regard the rise of other nations as inevitable: India, China, Brazil, etc. Uni-polarity, assuming it was/is the case, is demographically doomed in the long term, and the key will be to retain stability even as a seismic shift in power and influence occurs.

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      • Indeed. I think its important to understand that it shouldn’t be a bad thing for US citizens. Or it would only be a bad thing to the extent we’ve been exploiting other people’s poverty, which I don’t think we have been doing as much of as some people think. There’s no need for the US standard of living to fall.

        But the question of how we manage this is just overwhelmingly hard. How do you make sure the process of policing the potential bad guys continues while giving the rising powers their space at the table? How do you ensure there’s no gigantic economic disruption as wages, exchange rates, capital accounts and so on level out to equalize standards of living? How do you reduce the size of the US armed forces, which there’s no way we’ll be able to afford long term, without opening up a space for mischeif?

        I don’t see much serious thinking about this in either party, sadly.

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        • Simon K., I’d suggest there has been some considerable thought put into precisely the issues you raised, Ikenberry and Slaughter’s 2006 “Forging a world of liberty under law: US National Security in the 21st Century” (PPNS) pretty much lays out a possible grand strategy for the US (liberal internationalist leaning). And it also addresses E.C. Gach’s claim,

          Unfortunately I don’t know what liberals have to offer in the way of combating this threat, despite being extremely meticulous in describing its origins.

          This specific document sprang to mind because Slaughter is now Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. Also, a broad range of participants in drawing up the recommendations – in addition to Ikenberry and Slaughter, leading figures in the project included a former republican administration Sec. of State, George Shultz, and Clinton administration NSA, Tony Lake.

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    • how does the US step down from its current unipolar superpower status and leave the world a better place?

      The assumption underlying this question is that the US’s current unipolar superpower status itself contributes to the world being a better place. While that’s certainly the American consensus, it’s certainly a questionable assumption.

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      • Its really hard to envisage the most likely counterfactual, at least for me. I can imagine better half-centuries and worse. But I was thinking more in terms of whether the next half century will see an improvement or a decline from the current state of things.

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  8. I think a major problem with thinking in international relations is that we all assume the (very western) concept of nation states is (1.) universal and (2.) likely to remain the dominant paradigm. What does it benefit a well-organized and technologically-endowed faction of fanatics to control a failed state, standing-army-controlling government in Sanaa or Kabul? Take away aid to Africa and the power vacuums disappear; the continent might modernize to villages and city states.

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  9. I think your reading of Plato is pretty plausible. He’s a bit of a reactionary, isn’t he? He’s also obsessed with decline- probably because Athens is in its decline- after all, with the forms, pretty much everything we see around us is a degenerating copy of the reality.

    As for Thucydides, Pericles pretty much delivers a give one for the gipper speech for the ages there. There’s an earlier speech I love more from the Athenian envoys to the delegation before the fighting starts, in which they argue that Athens got into so much trouble by ruling with laws instead of force- the idea being that if you rule people by force, they feel you’re their superior, but if you rule them with laws, they think you’re an equal swindling them. I’d imagine the modern equivalent would be, “force is all they understand”.

    Also, I’m as big a fan of the British Enlightenment as anybody, not to mention the Scottish Enlightenment- but let’s assume that the founders might have read some Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire too.

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    • I surely hope they read their French Enlightenment! It was only for sake of brevity that I didn’t admit of a more nuanced genealogy of American’s political philosophy (and my own lack of knowledge surrounding it).

      And my reading of Plato is largely predicated on work by John Poloukos (“Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece”).

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  10. If only Obama understood what made the U.S. exceptional.

    I will note that Greece was most exceptional in art right before the collapse of Athens after the Pelloponesian war, and that it was most exceptional in philosophy during and after the war and collapse.

    Britain was most brilliant in literature during the Renaissance (pre-expansion), and most brilliant in philosophy in its own hinterlands (Scotland).

    America is/was most successful in its prosperity.

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