Foreign Policy just published an article decrying US exceptionalism in the light of the Baltimore Riots:
This concerns more than just Americans. After all, what does it mean for the rest of the world when its most powerful nation struggles mightily with racism in its midst? For one, it contextualizes the often-heralded notion of American “exceptionalism.” At its core, that idea is an incredibly arrogant notion. It hints of racism and a barely concealed contempt of others, especially the non-Western world. But it is a doctrine that is still ruthlessly enforced in the carnival that is American politics. When Obama tried for a dose of realism on this subject in 2009 — saying “I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”– heavy criticism eventually compelled him to backtrack. The consensus enforcers later got him to say “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”
At a time when the United States has become the de-facto policeman of the world and a self-appointed arbitrator of peace, Asians have watched with concern — especially with elections looming in 2016 — at how the Republican Party has even swung further to the right. The GOP has stopped even pretending to concern itself with the welfare of non-white Americans. Many of its most prominent members display a very shallow understanding of the world and thus a lack of appreciation of the complex histories of other nations, yet seem itching to intervene on the slightest pretext. Worse, they would have the United States do so based on their prejudices and ideological fixations — some of which are likely framed by their fear of those unlike themselves.
It has not gone unnoticed in Asia (or for that matter among black, Hispanic, or Asian Americans) that the current Republican Party has earned itself the moniker “White Man’s Party.” Not that Democrats are all that much better. Those on the left may be willing to pay lip service to minority rights, but many in the Democratic leadership are just as much a part of the ruling white establishment. For them, race serves as a convenient political whip to flog the Republicans with but little else. “I mean you’ve got the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and nice-looking guy,” are the words Vice President Joe Biden reportedly used in 2007 to describe the man who would later carry him to the White House. Former President Bill Clinton, is also reported to have dismissed Obama by saying, “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee” (or “carrying our bags,” depending on the source) while speaking to the late Democratic powerhouse Ted Kennedy.
Given how much time I spend blathering ineffectually on about how the West needs to modify its 20th century discourses if it wishes to remain competitive during the Rise of the Rest, you’d think I’d be bang alongside this.
Not a bit of it.
While much of the rest of the world is affronted by America’s particular brand of exceptionalism, it is not the implied racism that bothers them. Foreign leaders don’t feel vaguely insecure and victimised by the suspected racism of their US interlocutors, largely because – however bad race relations are in the US – they’re far, far worse in most other countries (certain parts of Europe excepted). If anything, Asian and African leaders tend to have a certain sympathy with other nations’ tides of racial prejudice, police violence and corruption, these being precisely the things that brought them to power in the first place. They accept nationalism and xenophobia as a natural part of the political process, and would not usually dream of being offended by them. For these reasons they traditionally tend to prefer discussions with Republicans (whose bigotry they understand) to Democrats (whose fuzzy liberal inclusiveness they find puzzling and slightly hypocritical).
The problem does not lie with the US assumption of superiority. As far as international relations are concerned, nationalism is a bit like masturbation: you can do as much of it as you like in your own home, but in public we all pretend that it never happens. The problem arises when an assumption of superiority comes with an assumed responsibility to solve others’ problems for them. The Washington Post is satirising this brilliantly online at the moment, with a piece called ‘How Western media would cover Baltimore if it happened elsewhere’:
International leaders expressed concern over the rising tide of racism and state violence in America, especially concerning the treatment of ethnic minorities in the country and the corruption in state security forces around the country when handling cases of police brutality. The latest crisis is taking place in Baltimore, Maryland, a once-bustling city on the country’s Eastern Seaboard, where an unarmed man named Freddie Gray died from a severed spine while in police custody.
Black Americans, a minority ethnic group, are killed by state security forces at a rate higher than the white majority population. Young, black American males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white American males.
The United Kingdom expressed concern over the troubling turn of events in America in the last several months. The country’s foreign ministry released a statement: “We call on the American regime to rein in the state security agents who have been brutalizing members of America’s ethnic minority groups. The equal application of the rule of law, as well as the respect for human rights of all citizens, black or white, is essential for a healthy democracy.” Britain has always maintained a keen interest in America, a former colony.
Palestine has offered continued assistance to American pro-democracy activists, sending anti-tear-gas kits to those protesting police brutality in various American cities. Egyptian pro-democracy groups have also said they will be sharing their past experience with U.S.-made counter-protest weapons.
A statement from the United Nations said, “We condemn the militarization and police brutality that we have seen in recent months in America, and we strongly urge American state security forces to launch a full investigation into the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. There is no excuse for excessive police violence.” The U.N. called on the United States to make a concerted effort to make databases of police violence public to improve transparency and cut down on corruption in the justice system.
International analysts predict the seeds of a so-called “American Spring,” fomented by technology. “It’s amazing what social media is doing for the cause of justice in America,” said a political rights analyst based in Geneva.
And this is far from being a purely American tendency: if anything, the nations of Europe are worse, they merely do less practical damage thanks to their comparative lack of resources.
So yes. While I have no intention of shutting up about how the West needs to show more humility on so many fronts in its dealings with the rest of the world, this is not – in fact – one of them.