- American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: U.S. Foreign Policy, Human Rights, and World Order by David P. Forsythe & Patrice C. McMahon
Anyone familiar with the scholarship on international human rights and American foreign policy knows the work of David P. Forsythe, who has published an impressive body of literature on a wide range of humanitarian and human rights topics. Patrice C. McMahon, too, has assembled an impressive resumé more recently on foreign policy, human rights, and ethnic identification.
Although their new book will invite comparisons with the similarly-titled volume that Michael Ignatieff edited at the height of the George W. Bush presidency, they are entirely different works.1 Whereas Ignatieff’s book featured a dozen scholars on topics as varied as the First Amendment, capital punishment, popular sovereignty, and international law, Forsythe and McMahon offer a more streamlined study of American foreign policy.2 Since American Exceptionalism Reconsidered is a synthetic work rather than a presentation of new research, readers should not expect many primary-source revelations. At the same time, because it is relatively slim, highly readable, and jargon-free, it is appropriate for classroom use, and it offers enough fresh analysis to interest specialists. It is an enlightening read, though not without some shortcomings.
Forsythe and McMahon’s central claim is that, from a moral standpoint, the United States is not all that exceptional “in terms of its willingness to take universal human rights seriously—especially when inconvenient.”3 Using this narrow yardstick, they argue that “U.S. foreign policy on rights and world order does not reflect the persistent workings of moral greatness,”4 but is rather “inconsistent” and characterized by “tension and dualism.” 5 However, since liberal principles have some influence in the policymaking process and in public opinion, the authors suggest that American foreign policy is best described as “liberalized realism” (or “American globalism”)—a kind of liberal internationalism that is “adopted and implemented when convenient, depending on the context and American power.”6
Overall, this is a rather dark view of American foreign policy, though also a generally accurate one, at least based on the authors’ narrow parameters. Their perspective is shared by many liberals (who hope to see these things change) and realists (who maintain that this is [End Page 219] how the world really is).7 Forsythe and McMahon suggest that the key question is not whether liberal norms will dominate or replace realist, self-interested policies in the years to come, but rather the extent to which liberalism and humanitarianism can influence powerful nations’ foreign policies. Unsurprisingly, they conclude that national identity, state power, and national well-being will continue to matter most. “[O]n balance,” they write, “we are not terribly optimistic about this prospect for a more liberal world order.”8
The book’s structure is topical rather than chronological. The first chapter lays out scholarly perspectives and some historical examples, and it assesses how the concept of exceptionalism has been used by presidents from Reagan to Obama. The authors include polling data on support for interventions, American global leadership, and other foreign policy questions. The second and third chapters suggest that the US is not too exceptional in the areas of democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, and the responsibility to protect. The authors contrast George W. Bush’s well-known belief in the transformative abilities of America with his administration’s ties to undemocratic regimes in the Middle East, and they highlight the limited success of his far-reaching democracy projects. As for Barack Obama, democracy and human rights were distant priorities during his first term, and his pivot to Asia paralleled the downgrading of democracy promotion in the Middle East. To Forsythe and McMahon, Obama was mostly a business-as-usual president, though he did pursue a “dual-track” engagement strategy to encourage autocratic regimes to implement reforms.9
The fourth chapter examines detention and interrogation policies after 9/11, a time when the US did not resist the trend of increasingly brutal...