Sunday, November 15, 2015

American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            America the Beautiful is a hymn of faith and patriotism that reveals where the love of God and country come together to define American values:
America, America,
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.
…God mend thine every flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
thy liberty in law.(page 396, United Methodist Hymnal)

            Americans believe that God has blessed their nation, and they look to God to mend its flaws with a confirmation of its self-control and liberty in law.  That is the foundation of American exceptionalism—the idea that America should share the blessings of liberty in law by making democracy, civil rights and the secular rule of law available to those beyond its borders.  But that idea has often been flawed by America’s lack of self-control in the use of its coercive powers, as evidenced by its military interventions in Vietnam and Iraq.

            America’s military power is essential to protect the freedom of Americans and their allies, but too often that power has been deployed to promote national interests that are more related to national pride than to freedom.  Today Islamist terrorism is a very real threat to freedom.  It is motivated by radical Islamist beliefs grounded in distorted interpretations of the Qur’an that deny fundamental human rights and promote Jihad (Islamic holy war).  Holy war is an ancient religious concept ordained by the ban of Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and exercised by Joshua at Jericho, and it was resumed by Christians in the Medieval Crusades and Inquisitions. 

            Radical Islamism is a religious and political threat to liberty in law, and it is competing for the heart of Islam, which is predicted to supersede Christianity as the world’s largest religion by 2070.  Radical Islamism is a fundamentalist form of Islam that promotes rigid authoritarian and theocratic standards of legitimacy that conflict with democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  Other religions have similar fundamentalist sects, but in Judaism and Christianity they are non-violent and a minority among more moderate majorities.  Radical Islamism is dangerous since it promotes violence and is intolerant of conflicting beliefs, and it is growing.

            The authoritarian and theocratic ethics of radical Islamism and the libertarian and democratic ethics of other religions in the Western world represent conflicting concepts of legitimacy, but that conflict does not have to be violent.  Fundamental differences in religious standards of legitimacy can be resolved by updating the ancient teachings of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad with advances in knowledge and reason and then finding common ground on political issues.  Muslim scholars have set an example by proposing the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike; and in today’s pluralistic world, that means loving those of all and no religions.

            When believers of competitive and exclusivist religions become neighbors, the freedoms of religion and speech are essential to peaceful coexistence.  There can be no love for neighbor if those freedoms are denied, and Islamist apostasy and blasphemy laws do just that.  If and when Muslims embrace liberty in law as a matter of faith as well as law, radical Islamism will be denied its legitimacy and relegated to minority status among Muslims, denying Islamist terrorism its life-blood.  Undermining the legitimacy of radical Islamism should be the objective of American exceptionalism, and that depends upon powers of persuasion, not of coercive military force, which has only enhanced the legitimacy of Islamist terrorism among young Muslims.

            America should have learned painful lessons in legitimacy from its misuse of military power in Vietnam and Iraq; but those lessons in legitimacy have been neglected by President Obama, who has ignored human rights and aided authoritarian regimes, and increased U.S. military involvement in Syria and Iraq after earlier vowing not to do so.  At the same time, Arab allies in the region have reduced their roles in fighting ISIS, and Turkey has become ambivalent, seeming to support ISIS as it opposes Kurds seeking independence, leaving the U.S. once again perceived by many Muslims as an infidel intervenor in the Middle East.

            American exceptionalism has long been a motivating force in U.S. foreign policy, and it can be a positive force so long as it relies on persuasion rather than coercion in promoting the ideals of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law—which are not just American values, but universal values.  But when American exceptionalism motivates the use of coercive military force to reshape the world in its own image, it does more harm than good—as in Vietnam and Iraq.  Today American exceptionalism has bad connotations around the world.  To regain respect it must emphasize the power of persuasion over coercive military power.

            The awesome power of America’s military has seduced its leaders to rely on its hard coercive power rather than using the soft power of persuasion to promote liberty in law.  It confirms Lord Acton’s razor that Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Donald Trump is a caricature of the arrogance of power.  Joel Chandler Harris debunked such arrogance in his tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, in which Brer Rabbit persuaded Brer Fox to extricate him from a tar baby and throw him into a familiar briar patch.  Islamic cultures have been a veritable tar baby for the U.S. military.  In such hostile cultural environments, wisdom dictates reliance on the powers of persuasion, but the arrogance of American power has favored the use of coercive force to achieve victory.  As in Vietnam and Iraq, the results are predictable.

Notes and References to Resources:           

Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy, December 29, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; The Power of Humility and the Arrogance of Power, March 22, 2015;  A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 24, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 21, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict, August 23, 2015; A Strategy to Defeat Radical Islam: Containment, not Confrontation, November 1, 2015; and Tough Love and the Duty to Protect Life and Liberty, November 8, 2015.

Seymour Martin Lipset has cited Alexis DeTocqueville, Max Weber and Samuel Huntington in support of the idea that American religions motivated the American success story that defined American exceptionalism.  See Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1996, pp 60-67. 

Andrew J. Bacevich has predicted the end of American exceptionalism and said “…the American people ought to give up the presumptuous notion that they are called upon to tutor Muslims in matters related to freedom and the proper relationship between politics and religion.”  But Bacevich misses the point that “freedom and the proper relationship between politics and religion” are the means to defeat Islamist terrorism.  See Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2008, pp 176, 177. 

Richard Cohen has described American exceptionalism as a misguided mix of patriotism, politics and religion that has caused Americans to sanctify their traditional values and ignore their flaws, contributing to the decline of America in relationship to other nations. See Richard Cohen, The Myth of American Exceptionalism, The Washington Post, May 9, 2011. 

For a discussion of American exceptionalism and military legitimacy, see Barnes, Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights at page 8 posted in Resources at

On how the U.S. military can be a force of persuasion rather than coercion, see Barnes, Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission, Special Warfare, Jan-March 2013, posted in Resources at and at .

On how current U.S. policies are supporting authoritarian regimes and denigrating human rights in the Middle East, see Jackson Diehl, at

On how Erdogan’s Turkey seems to be supporting ISIS while opposing the Kurds, see Roger Cohen, at

On how U.S. Arab allies are withdrawing their air support as the U.S. escalates its military operations against ISIS in the Middle East, see Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon, at

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