American imperialism: exceptionalism and universalism

Thomas Meaney
London Review of Books

American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers by Perry Anderson, Verso,

A Sense of Power: The Roots of America’s Global Role by John A. Thompson, Cornell,

A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s by Daniel J. Sargent, Oxford

Perry Anderson, in American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, his first sustained critique of US power, concentrates on two unstable compounds in the empire’s image of itself, both of which crystallised in the decisive postwar years, when it was still unclear how American utopianism would adjust to postwar realities. The first such ‘compound’ is made up of two elements, exceptionalism and universalism, which Anderson treats as analytically distinct impulses. Providential exceptionalism came first, originating in the Puritans’ attempt to build a ‘city upon a hill’ that would impress the England they had left behind. At least in theory, Anderson suggests, American exceptionalism could be modest. Here he is on firm ground. One of the most forceful denunciations of American expansionism was made eight years before the expression ‘manifest destiny’ first appeared in print, when the leading Unitarian preacher, William Ellery Channing, warned that America’s ‘sublime moral empire’ should ‘diffuse freedom by manifesting its fruits’, since ‘there is no Fate to justify rapacious nations, any more than to justify gamblers and robbers, in plunder.’

American universalism, in Anderson’s view, is more dangerous. It was effectively propagated by Woodrow Wilson, who saw the entire world as a receptacle for America’s values. ‘Lift your eyes to the horizons of business,’ Anderson quotes him telling American salesmen, ‘and with the inspiration of the thought that you are Americans and are meant to carry liberty and justice and the principles of humanity wherever you go, go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America.’ On the face of it, the message sounds like Channing’s call to spread American values through non-forcible means, but the circumstances had changed. In 1910 the country’s economic output was higher than that of Germany, France and Japan combined; by the middle of the First World War, it had surpassed that of the British Empire. The country’s excess material power opened fresh possibilities for what Anderson calls ‘messianic activism’.

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