Hillary Clinton’s Unexceptional Exceptionalism

Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy speech at the American Legion’s national convention on August 31 was a clear bid to attract independent and Republican vot

Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy speech at the American Legion’s national convention on August 31 was a clear bid to attract independent and Republican voters by attacking Donald Trump for giving up on American exceptionalism. Ironically, though, by touting her steadfast belief in exceptionalism, Clinton takes a deeply unexceptional position.

‘Defending American exceptionalism should always be above politics’, Clinton said. With this speech, she confirmed – although this was never in doubt – that she is solidly in the middle of the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus that has prevailed since the end of the Cold War, and which has deep historical roots.

The Democratic candidate and her advisors believe that there is political mileage to be gained by painting her opponent as out of touch with perhaps the fundamental tenet of the foreign-policy mainstream – that America has a unique role and responsibility of leadership on the world stage.

Clinton doubled down by adding to the mix the other core belief of post-Cold War US foreign policy. In words harking back to her husband’s presidency in the 1990s, she said that ‘part of what makes America an exceptional nation, is that we are also an indispensable nation’.

The former Secretary of State also felt the need to address the criticism from part of the foreign-policy commentariat that she is too hawkish and interventionist. This may be a weakness on her left flank where some progressive voters have no appetite for military adventures. Thus she reassured her audience that “we must only send our troops into harm’s way as a last resort, not a first choice. That must be our bedrock principle”.

Clinton’s campaign team is probably right that advertising a bipartisan foreign policy based on exceptionalism and global activism can attract at least some Republicans who for decades have voted for leaders wanting to project strong US leadership around the world. Many of them may well be dismayed by Trump’s comments about cutting off American allies, ignoring some international issues and accommodating countries, like Russia, that challenge the United States’ global role.

Proclaiming a belief in American exceptionalism is boilerplate language for virtually anyone running for the presidency. But at the same time, from Clinton’s career there is every indication that she sincerely believes this and would act accordingly in the White House.

In this she would actually differ from President Barack Obama, who has tried to bring some new perspective on this issue, not least after having been criticized in his first year for saying that other countries also felt themselves to be exceptional.

The irony therefore is that it is Trump who has taken a more exceptional stance in saying that he wants to walk away from the US foreign-policy consensus, even if it is doubtful that he has thought through the positions he has staked out during the campaign and might well behave very differently if elected.

Another irony is that to some foreign audiences, including European ones, Clinton’s proclaiming of American exceptionalism could well be more off-putting than Trump’s apparent modesty when it comes to what the United States cannot or should not do on the world stage. But those outside the country who might take Trump’s exception from exceptionalism as refreshing should be careful what they wish for; many of them might not like the consequences if this one day leads to more self-centred and inward-looking America.