Monthly Archives: October 2011

Is America still exceptional?

By Stewart Patrick:

(Stewart Patrick is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security.)

Over at Foreign Policy.com, prominent realist Stephen Walt has a thought-provoking article exposing “The Myth of American Exceptionalism.” His basic point: U.S. officials – and the American public – need to get over their conceit that the United States is a uniquely virtuous nation and an inevitable force for global good.Failure to do so blinds U.S. policymakers, encourages idealistic crusades that lead the country into quagmires and exposes the country to inevitable charges of hypocrisy as it confronts a complicated world. And while the notion of a benevolent American hegemony may be seductive to many Americans, one should not be surprised if others around the world regard the United States with a gimlet eye, given America’s checkered history of meddling in others’ affairs for narrow political, strategic, or pecuniary gain – to say nothing of its insistence on perpetual global military dominance.

The notion that the United States is unique among nations, of course, has been a touchstone of U.S. foreign policy from the republic’s founding. Historically, it has been invoked by both Democratic and Republican Presidents alike – from Woodrow Wilson, JFK and Bill Clinton to Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.

But recently it is Republicans who have claimed a monopoly on the concept, blasting the Obama administration – and President Obama himself – for failing to pursue a sufficiently “pro-American” foreign policy.

 

Read: Stewart Patrick’s blog, The Internationalist.

Indeed, GOP presidential candidates have had a field day with Obama’s tepid endorsement of the concept of American uniqueness. (During a 2009 European trip, the President conceded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”) Mitt Romney’s recent, sharp critique of the president’s penchant for apologizing for the United States suggests that the question of American uniqueness will become a recurrent theme of the 2012 Presidential campaign.  Given this prospect, Walt’s assault is a welcome rejoinder and offers some important truths.

The United States is hardly alone in seeing itself as exceptional – or having a unique global vocation. Consider France. Beyond its historical claims to a mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission), France maintains an enduring commitment to la Francophonie. Even despite France’s relatively diminished global status since 1940,the notion of being globally indispensable remains engrained in French political culture.(Indeed, one reason the post-war U.S.-French relationship has been such a prickly Cold Alliance stems from the two countries’ jockeying for similar universalisms.  The American Revolution and U.S. Bill of Rights compete with the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man).

“Among great powers,” Walt reminds us, “thinking you’re special is the norm, not the exception.” That’s certainly true for today’s putative challenger to American hegemony. Under a veneer of Communist Party ideology, today’s Chinese foreign policy is imbued with an enduring sense of national – indeed civilizational – self-importance. It dates back millennia, and depicts the country as standing apart. At times, “Chinese exceptionalism” depicts the country as literally the political center of the world.

Read: No Profile in Courage: Syria, BRICS, and the UNSC.

Walt seeks to demolish the pillars of American exceptionalism, showing that the United States is neither particularly benevolent nor divinely predestined. He documents historical excesses of America’s global role, from its scorched earth atrocities in the Philippines from 1898-1903 to its controversial conduct in the global war on terrorism. He suggests that “America’s past success is due as much to good luck” – including a fortunate geographical location – “as to any uniquely American virtues.”

Walt disputes the tendency of U.S. politicians and academics alike to attribute all positive global trends and outcomes – from the spread of democracy to postwar global prosperity – to U.S. global leadership. He points out that such analysis ignores the downside of U.S. primacy, like lack of progress on climate change. Finally, Walt dismisses the myth that God has somehow granted the United States a special providence, or “mandate of heaven,” to bring freedom, peace and justice to the world.

I’m is inclined to agree that American exceptionalism can be a perilous obstacle to sound foreign policy, but also recognize that it is part and parcel of American national identity. As such, it is likely to be with us for some time. Notwithstanding the litany of bad outcomes Walt describes, America’s liberal-exceptionalist political identity has at pivotal moments also encouraged the United States to define its national interests broadly­­ – and to create a framework of international cooperation within which all countries, not just the United States, might benefit. The most prominent and celebrated example is the flurry of U.S. institution-building after 1945 – an effort designed, in the words of historian Anton DePorte, to “Lockeanize a hitherto Hobbesian world.” It is hard to imagine any other globally dominant power during that era exercising such far-sighted leadership. What the United States needs to guard against, always, is invoking American exceptionalism to excuse quixotic and foolhardy behavior, to invalidate deserved criticism, or to justify policies that harm innocents.

Read: Taking conflict prevention seriously.

Walt’s critique is a bracing wake-up call – a reminder that the United States, for all its great strengths and its capacity to influence the world for good, remains a fundamentally self-interested actor. It is possible to accept much of Walt’s indictment and still believe that the behavior of the United States stacks up quite favorably with that of any great power in world history (an admittedly low bar). But his piece usefully reminds Americans, who are not used to thinking of themselves as ruled by ideology, that we are often prisoners of our political culture. The GOP’s current monopoly on the discourse of American exceptionalism is surely astute politics. Whether it clarifies or obscures the global challenges facing the country is quite another thing.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Stewart Patrick.

 
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Why people still use BlackBerrys (By John D. Sutter, CNN August 5, 2010)

(CNN) — It’s the smartphone everyone owns — and no one seems to like. Peek into any executive conference room in America, and you’re bound to see one — or a dozen — of these anachronistic smartphones: BlackBerrys, their keys clicking like rain on a tin roof. Those red lights flashing, training their owners to pick them up on a second’s notice: An e-mail! A BBM! Answer me!

To owners of Android-based phones and the iPhone, particularly in the U.S., the BlackBerry is starting to look more than a little too old-school. These phones don’t really run apps. They don’t store much music. Their screens, in general, are much smaller than those of smartphone competitors, meaning it’s difficult or impossible to browse the Web comfortably or watch online video.

A new BlackBerry phone — the Torch — was unveiled on Tuesday by maker Research In Motion. Even hard-core BlackBerry users don’t seem that enthralled by it. Meanwhile, a survey released by the Nielsen Co. on Monday found the majority of U.S. BlackBerry owners — 58 percent — want to buy another kind of phone, usually an Android or iPhone, when they upgrade.

But here’s the kicker: Despite the fact that the BlackBerry isn’t hip, high-tech or cheaper than its main competitors, the phones are still the most popular (or at least the most common) in the U.S. market, and they’re growing internationally.

So why do so many people still tolerate these phones?

It turns out, according to a handful of interviews with BlackBerry users, there are three basic reasons: People are addicted to the click-clacking keyboard; they love the blinking red light on the top, which alerts users to new messages; and many just happen to have the phone because it’s required for work.

The click-clacking keyboard

Ask a BlackBerry user what they like about their phone, and they’re bound to mention the keyboard. Ask them why that keyboard is so great, and they’ll go into sensual detail about the click of the keys, how the buttons are raised just so and how the “shift” key — oh, the shift key! — is just as easy to use as those on a full-size computer keyboard. “The keyboard is definitely a hook for RIM, and it’s interesting to see that the marketplace, in general, has conceded it to RIM,” said Kevin Michaluk, founder of the BlackBerry fan website Crackberry.com. “Everyone sees the iPhone, and they think apps. And I think everyone sees a phone with a keyboard, and they think BlackBerry, whether it is or isn’t.”

This comes at a time when most smartphones — including the iPhone — are moving toward touch-screen-only interfaces, where users tap on glass to type instead of pecking away at tactile keys.

The details of how the BlackBerry keyboard feels are what make it addictive, said Nan Palmero, a writer for another fan site, BlackBerryCool.com.

“They really go to great lengths to raise plastic in certain ways on the keys,” he said of the tactile keyboard’s design. “They kind of describe it as guitar frets: Your hand naturally knows where to go and where to be.”

Palmero said he can type up to 40 words per minute on his phone. Michaluk said he can hit 65. Neither has to look at the keyboard.

Kevin Kovanich, a 23-year-old BlackBerry user in Chicago, Illinois, who responded to a CNN Tech question about the phones on Twitter, said he loves that he can still “rock the keyboard” even though his thumbs are “larger than average.”

“It is really nice how far the buttons stick up — and you can really feel that click,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re making any mistakes … no matter how big your fingers are.”

That red light

On top of every BlackBerry, there’s a little sliver of a red light, and it blinks at you when a new message or call comes in.

People get seriously addicted to that light, Michaluk said.

“You put a blinking red light on a device, and when that light blinks, you jump,” he said. “It’s Pavlovian training, right? For me, really, it’s my connection to my people. And second, it’s my connection to the world in terms of news and everything.”

He added: “It’s one of those things that always calls you back to your BlackBerry.”

Of course, other phones have ways of alerting people to new messages, too, but none has the same feel as that BlackBerry light, users said.

Because it’s businessy

The BlackBerry is the get-things-done phone.

It’s not designed to run flashy applications, for playing games or for uploading pictures to Facebook and Twitter. It started out a business-minded device, and RIM has continued to market it as a business-friendly device, although recent ads have pitched it as a leisure phone for young multitaskers as well.

Part of the allure is that the BlackBerry is known for being secure. It encrypts messages, which makes business owners more comfortable giving the phones to their employees, who may share sensitive documents and e-mails over the phones.

This issue came into focus this week as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia threatened to stop BlackBerry service for this very reason: because they wanted to get inside private messages on the phones and couldn’t.

Other smartphone operating systems,including iOS 4 from Apple, are trying to cater more to privacy-minded business clients, but overall they’ve been more focused on the consumer experience.

That image can work in BlackBerry’s favor, writes Callie Schweitzer on a blog called Neon Tommy. She says the phone has a “mullet effect” in that it’s “business in the front, party in the back.”

“See someone typing away furiously on a Blackberry? They’re probably sending a top-secret e-mail,” she writes. “See someone intently focused on an iPhone? They’re probably playing with the Bubblewrap or Lightsaber Unleashed apps. Regardless of what a Blackberry user is really doing, the phone itself just seems so much more straight-laced and serious than the iPhone.”

Businesspeople also say BlackBerrys are just good for productivity.

Partly it’s the keyboard. Partly is a range of shortcuts. But this no-frills phone has hooked many people in the bushiness world.

That includes Michaluk, who said he was given his first BlackBerry phone — he called it “old blue” — from an employer several years ago.

He’s been hooked since.

“That thing was just a tank; it was ugly; it had that low-res, almost monochrome display. And that thing — I just loved [it],” he said.

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